It had something of a Victorian madness about it, a grand folly if you like, yet one that didn't take place in a tropical corner of the empire but in a rural outpost of Québec in the 1960s. Here, a former forest ranger turned municipal policeman, Monsieur Ghislain Gagnon, built a zoo. So enthusiastic was this nature lover about his grand rêve that he managed to convince six Québec big-wigs that creating a zoo in an abandoned fox farm, in the sparsely inhabited environs of Lac Saint Jean, some five hours from the province's major cities, was a viable idea.
And so, from across the globe, he collected great animals; tigers, elephants and lions, and brought them to this frozen forest. Today, the exotic creatures still come, but now in the shape of foreign tourists. The zoo has, in the name of conservation and public interest, parted with its collection of alien species and become a non-profit organisation devoted to northern North-American wildlife.
The fox farm now stretches across 12,000 acres incorporating a Nature Trails Park where animals are left to roam free, albeit within controlled habitats. There is tundra, prairie and boreal forest, each home to endemic species such as the majestic North American elk, the black bear, grey wolf and elusive moose – many of them originally rescue animals.
"It's rare to see moose in captivity," says my guide Amélie Trottier Picard. "They just don't do well in a cage. Even if you feed them and keep them safe they die within weeks. That was really the motivation behind the Nature Trails Park – to allow them to live 'free'."
Amélie manages to keep our group of French and English adventurers informed in two languages while looking out for these one-ton cervidae and ensuring that we – adults and kids – find our way to the camp for the night. This is no usual outing to the zoo. The Land of the Caribou Adventure, a new initiative for the Zoo Sauvage, offers treks through the Nature Trails Park where you track moose and caribou, spot black bear and bison, and camp out overnight in old-fashioned prospectors' tents. Think of it as Night at the Museum – The Field Trip.
We wade, waist-high, through fern for just 10 minutes, noting native medicinal plants and tree trunks with bear claw marks, before we spot a moose, or rather three of them: a cow and two calves. We stumble across them suddenly, finding ourselves 10ft away from the family with only a clearing of grass between us.
"It's very rare to get so close," whispers Amélie. "I've been watching this group for a while now. Each day the calves get more confident, straying further from their mother. But we don't want to get over confident," she says, pointedly, trying to rein in the awestruck kids who'd stroke the creatures given half a chance. They look endearingly like caricatures of old nags, with oversized nostrils, giant donkey-like ears and spindly legs.
But moose, solitary animals, notoriously grumpy, are not to be messed with. Our journey to the zoo from Québec City, through the misty Jacques Cartier National Park, had been flanked by a succession of roadside signs noting the perils of hitting these beasts. Bottom line: your vehicle comes off far worse than the moose.
Within the confines of the zoo, wild as it seems with vast jack pines and paper birch trees towering above us, the regular clatter of the little train taking visitors through the park reminds us that we are within a well-managed wilderness. Arrival at camp confirms this. It's spectacularly civilised, albeit an antique civilisation. Each traditional 19th-century-style canvas prospector's tent has a wood-burning stove (ornamental during my visit in the steamy Québec summer), beautiful wooden frames and doors. There's a campfire, an old-fashioned water pump and an eco-friendly long-drop loo.
But it's not time to bed down yet. Just as well, because some of us are going to need time to adjust to the idea of a pile of pine needles in place of a mattress. We're off for a sunset paddle around the lake in traditional dug-out-style canoes. Here we spot black bear, elk so huge you might mistake them for moose, and we follow a V of Canadian geese while attempting to maintain the canoe's fragile equilibrium and not lose the paddles as we take pictures.
Back at camp another family has joined us: a family of caribou. The young fluffy white calves nose around the camp's perimeters, making playful skittering dashes that have the kids in stitches. After that: silence. As the sun evaporates below the treeline, the forest becomes startlingly still. Compared with the chatter and hum of a rainforest, it seems almost benign.
Persistent mosquitoes remind us life is all about us, but the campfire largely sees them off and produces a superb wild trout for dinner followed by local Lac Saint Jean blueberry pie (some of the best you'll find in Canada). Pretty soon we're all nodding towards bed, armed with kerosene lamps and torches. Sleep is sound, snug in the dense -sleeping bags provided and we wake next morning with the smell of pine on our pillows and the sound of the Frederick bird making his morning calls. Otherwise known as the white-throated sparrow, this bird's song has a cadence that sounds like "oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" or, in Lac Saint Jean, a traditionally separatist, French-speaking area, "où es-tu, Frédéric, Frédéric, Frédéric".
We learn a few more nature titbits before setting out for a trek, followed by our resident family of caribou. Amélie shows us the basics of telemetry – radio-tracking animals via a signal emitted from their collars or tags – and after less than 10 minutes creeping through the forest we find our moose family again.
This time the cow looks less impressed by our presence so we swiftly hotfoot it to the truck for a final VIP tour around the park before the trainloads arrive. The pièce de résistance is a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo, from the polar bears' night quarters to the vet's clinic, complete with a curiosity cabinet displaying formaldehyde jars and a fur ball so big my daughter mistakes it for a football.
It's all great fun and, while not exactly the real Great Outdoors, the Zoo Sauvage does do a good job of conserving and promoting Québec's unique wildlife. Boreal forests, one of the largest woodland ecosystems on the planet, are seriously under threat from unsustainable logging practices.
That night, from the terrace of an auberge near the shores of the Lac Saint Jean, we watch a cavalcade of logging trucks head north. The day's newspapers report a "monumental" move as the world's largest paper- tissue company announces an environmental policy, expected to help to protect Québec's boreal forest from unsustainable logging. Here's hoping. Otherwise, in a generation's time, when my daughter brings her children to the zoo, the endemic species on show might not have quite such an impact.
WILDLIFE BEYOND THE WHALES
Québec, Canada's largest province, has 28 nature reserves, all exceptionally rich in flora and fauna.
The Parc National de la Gaspésie (sepaq.com/pq/gas/en/) is a rare place where caribou, moose and white-tailed deer co-exist. The park has 25 mountain summits rising to more than 3,000ft, including the Chic-Chocs, the highest accessible mountains in eastern Canada. The 18-room Chic Choc lodge (sepaq.com/chc/en/) has a hot tub, sauna and rustic elegant furnishings and is set in excellent terrain for treks. The impressive density of moose (4.8 animals per square kilometre) makes an encounter likely.
Set in the middle of the Gulf of the St Lawrence River, the Anticosti National Park (sepaq.com/pq/ pan/en/) is the kingdom of the white-tailed deer. There are 160,000 of these Bambi lookalikes grazing around soaring sea cliffs, waterfalls, canyons and rivers. Vauréal Falls, in the centre of the island, is more than 300ft high and a truly spectacular sight, with or without those deer.
Hundreds of thousands of snow geese land on the St Lawrence River banks annually. Montmagny, just east of Québec City, is considered Québec's snow goose capital and holds a Festival de l'Oie Blanche (9-18 October 2009) to celebrate the 600,000 geese that pass through. This usually coincides with the final show of spectacular fall colours.
Grin and bear it
The Réserve Faunique des Laurentides (sepaq.com/rf/lau/en/) is a vast expanse of wilderness between the populated Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region and Québec City. Its forests, lakes, rivers and valleys are home to black bear, pictured right. Bear-spotting trips and regulated hunting is available.
New kid in the park
The new Lac-Témiscouata National Park, officially declared earlier this summer, will be one of Québec's largest and looks set to be a prime ecotourism destination. It has a massive concentration of archaeological sites and an extremely long and deep lake, after which the park and region takes its name. A popular spot for sports fishing.
And those whales ...
Québec is one of the few places where you can see such a wide variety of large sea mammals (13 species, including the blue whale). From May to October there are many places along the St Lawrence and the giant fjords of the Saguenay River where you can take whale-watching cruises or, as the rivers here are so deep, even spot whales from dry land.
How to get there
Canadian Affair (020-7616 9999; canadian affair.com) operates year-round non-stop flights to Montreal from London Gatwick. Fares start at £119 one way, including taxes and surcharges. Car hire, hotels and tours can be arranged. The Land of the Caribou Adventure at the Zoo Sauvage (zoosauvage.org) costs C$255 (£141) per adult and C$220 (£122) per child (age six to 13 years) including all food, activities and camping equipment.
Government of Québec (bonjourquebec.co.uk).
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