Action-packed Days in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue Region
Kayaking along the wooded shores of Lac des Quinze
By Bill Scheller
Photos by the author
“The shaman turned the Algonquin warriors into crows, so they could fly over their approaching Mohawk enemies and see how many there were.”
We were sitting around a fire lit with flint and steel. Two big canvas tepees, where we would sleep that night on fragrant pine boughs, towered in the shadows. The storyteller was André Mowatt, a guide with Abitibiwinni, an outdoor adventure service based in the small First Nations community of Pikogan, Quebec. In the last glint of twilight on the Harricana River, gathered close around the fire, we could vividly conjure the warrior-crows, the demonic man-eating Windigo, and all the characters and creatures in André’s store of Algonquin legend. The spirits, it was easy to imagine, had indeed prepared a lake of grease, and the bear, arriving and immersing first, got the greatest share. The beaver was second.
I arrived at this legend-rich fireside at the end of four remarkable days of backcountry adventure in a part of Quebec I had scarcely known at all, familiar as I’d been mainly with the areas along New England’s borders and the shores of the St. Lawrence River. I had joined a small group determined to sample as much as possible of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, where the boreal forest begins to take over from the farms and mixed hardwoods of southern Quebec.
An al fresco dinner after a day’s kayaking
The trip began with a small urban surprise, given that the views during the hour-and-a-half flight from Montreal encompassed a seemingly endless expanse of lakes and woodland. Rouyn-Noranda, a city of 41,000 located some 400 miles (650 km) northwest of the metropolis, grew up only within the past century, as a center for smelting copper from surrounding mines (gold mining now looms large in the region’s economy), but has achieved a cultural sophistication out of all proportion to its remote location. Over a flight of samples from a local microbrewery at a sidewalk café, and, later, dinner at a chic bistro, our hosts told us that the city hosts important festivals dedicated to international cinema and to emerging music. Perhaps just as telling, as a hallmark of civilization, is the presence of a sumptuous boulangerie , Le St-Honore, established by a baker from France itself. “He decided,” reported a local, “that we needed his perfect croissants.”
An after-dinner walk around Rouyn-Noranda’s Osisko Lake – one of 22,000 in Abitibi-Témiscamingue — was a gentle prelude to the four strenuous days ahead. Early the next morning, we headed to the outlying town of Remigny, and the narrow waist of Lac des Quinze, where our sea kayaks were waiting.
The low-profile craft were perfect for slicing into the light chop as the lake broadened. With us were two guides with more than a few paddling miles behind them: Diane Moreau had been part of a nine-person team that canoed the early 19th-century fur traders’ route from Montreal to Winnipeg, a three-month journey chronicled in the Québec television series “Expedition Nor-Ouest.” France Lemire works with the regional tourism bureau to travel and map canoe and kayak routes; after guiding our trip, she and Diane would be off on a two-week paddling expedition for just that purpose.
“The route we’re on now,” Diane told me as we made our way south toward a hairpin bend and into an arm of the big lake, “was part of the voyageurs’ route in this part of Quebec.” Those dauntless adventurers would have a long way to go to reach the trunk lines of the fur trade. We were paddling a mere 10 miles (15 km), with only a couple of short portages – but our well-worked arms and shoulders and the empty, heavily wooded shorelines were a good reminder of the rigorous and lonely lives of the traders who plied Canada’s river highways. Over our entire course on Lac des Quinze, the only people we saw were four fishermen in a rowboat. Not a single outboard disturbed the primeval quiet.
Along the trail from Angliers to Ville-Marie
At a portage where Lac des Quinze meets narrow Lac Lebret, we spent the night in a pair of rustic cabins maintained by Remigny-based Aventures Obikoba. The accommodations were basic – bunk beds, a woodstove, and a candle – but dinner, arranged privately by our guides and prepared by a local woman — could have passed muster in Montreal. We enjoyed trout stuffed with figs, honey, and green onions, wrapped in prosciutto and cooked over an open fire; lettuce dressed only with heavy cream; and a dessert of molten local blueberries with a fluffy cake topping.
We rolled out of our bunks the next morning to find the cook fire going again, with French toast sputtering in a big iron pan. We needed the sustenance, for the activité du jour was a 28-mile (45 km) bicycle ride along a trail converted from an old railroad right-of-way, part of Québec’s extensive “Route Verte” of bikeways. Our route took us from Angliers, a town farther south on Lac des Quinze, and though a wonderfully diverse landscape that emphasized the pivotal location of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region on the map of Québec. “Abitibi,” in the Algonquin language, means “where the waters meet,” and, indeed, here is the divide between the James Bay and St. Lawrence River watersheds. Vegetation and land use change here too; now we were cycling south through a different environment than the deep spruce forests just a little way to the north, and passing dairy farms and fields of bright yellow canola interspersed with mixed-growth forest reminiscent of New England.
Hélene Lessard offers a taste of her Cru du Clocher cheddar
We stopped for a trailside lunch, and learned from our guides that the delicious cheese curds they had packed along were made at a small fromagerie in Lorrainville, just off our route. Could we take a short detour to visit the cheesemaker? Of course – she was just a cell call and a few miles away. We pedaled into Lorrainville and met Hélene Lessard, who with her husband Christian Barrette runs Le Fromage au Village. Hélene had samples of all her cheeses ready, and offered them with the enthusiasm of a woman who truly loves her work. Using milk from three local farms, the pair and their few employees craft a dozen varieties of cheese, the standout among which was Le Cru du Clocher, a raw-milk cheddar, aged two years, with a good sharp bite. (After flying back to Montreal, I made sure to scout some out at the Atwater Market.)
Our bike trip ended at Ville-Marie, on the shores of Lac Témiscamingue. Voted in 2012 by readers of Montreal’s La Presse newspaper as “the most beautiful village in Québec,” Ville-Marie is the starting point of the Route Verte, which incorporates less-traveled public highways as well as bicycle-only trails. Just outside of town is the sprawling La Bannik resort, our night’s destination after dropping off our bikes.
Our accommodations at La Bannik were quite a bit beyond bunk beds and a woodstove: luxurious cabins feature full kitchens, gas fireplaces, and private outdoor hot tubs. On the terrace of the resort’s lakeside restaurant, where we dined after a visit to Parks Canada’s adjacent Fort Témiscamingue National Historic Site and its re-creation of a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post, I enjoyed shrimp risotto with chorizo – further proof, if I still needed it, that 400 miles northwest of Montreal is not 400 miles from civilization.
Starting point of the Route Verte, Ville-Marie
Still, wilderness is always at hand in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. Our next day’s foray took us to Aiguebelle National Park (actually a Quebec park, “national” being the province’s preferred term), a 1,000-sq.-mi.-plus (nearly 2,700 km) forest fastness studded with clear blue lakes. A knowledgeable guide led us on a pair of hikes along the park’s two most geologically interesting lakes, long, narrow Lac Sault and Lac La Haie. “These are fault lakes,” she explained, “following a rift formation that splits volcanic rock 2.7 billion years old.” The lakes also figure in the region’s sharp watershed divide: Sault’s waters empty into the Ruisseau River on their way to James Bay, while La Haie connects with waterways leading down to the St. Lawrence.
On our hikes, we made use of two of the park’s most striking manmade phenomena. Descending toward Lac Sault, we clambered down a tightly coiled outdoor staircase, and we crossed Lac La Haie by way of a gently bouncing pedestrian suspension bridge. Boarding a nine-passenger, 26-foot “rabaska” canoe, we later paddled beneath the bridge and the sheer cliffs it connects, listening as fledgling peregrine falcons squawked on their rocky ledge, and watching one of the parent birds soar overhead.
Aiguebelle rangers like to boast that their park has “a lake for every cabin,” and, with 13 cabins (both rustic and fully equipped), that leaves a lot of lakes left over. Our “Vice-Roi” cabin, on Lac Matissard, was a cozy, wood-heated retreat where we ate and drank more than a few bottles of wine around a big kitchen table until midnight. Another hour and another bottle or two might have been in order – after all, the loons were still up, down at the lake – but we had another busy day ahead.
Models of Hudson’s Bay Company canoes at Fort Temiscamingue National Historic Site, Ville-Marie
The Harricana River begins at Lac Blouin, near the Abitibi-Témiscamingue city of Val d’Or, and flows over a 330-mile (532 km) course to James Bay. But it also flows through history, especially the history of the Algonquin people. “In our language, it means ‘the main road’,” says Benoit Croteau, who runs the Abitibiwinni outfitting and guide service and directs social and economic development services for the Algonquin community of Pikogan. “Until about 1950,” he adds, “it was our main road.”
Pikogan (“our house” in Algonquin) straddles the Harricana, and serves as the locale for the two tepees that Benoit has set up on the riverbank. The traditional shelters are available for Abitibiwinni’s canoeing clientele, which Benoit guides along the old “main street.” Our trip, on this last day in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, would take us along a roughly 10-mile (16 km) stretch of the river, smooth water except for a single run of rapids, between Pikogan and St. Maurice.
The placid, pre-rapids ride took us along wooded shorelines, with the occasional glimpse of a farm. At one point, a chorus of high-pitched yelps and howls met us as we rounded a bend. “Wolves,” a couple of us said, remembering that the big canids are common in this region. But the sounds turned out to be from the wolves’ tamer relatives, as Benoit remembered that we were passing the property of a man who kept packs of sled dogs.
Spiral staircase, Aiguebelle National Park
None of us, in our three two-person canoes, were old hands at rapids, but Benoit, in his single-seat whitewater Maserati of a canoe, was a different story. He was somewhat concerned about low water in the relatively shallow series of fast riffles we were about to encounter about three quarters of the way through the trip, and hopped out on shore, just before the water gained velocity, to check things out. “It looks OK,” he said when he returned. Clustered in a little cove, we treaded water with our paddles as we listened. “Just remember – you want to either go faster than the water, or slower – never at the same speed. And don’t forget, the strongest stroke in a canoe is the backward paddle.”
And if worse came to worst? “If you go in, just lie on your back with your feet in the air and go with the flow. It’s only water.”
We all went with the flow, in our canoes and not in the water. Soon, after passing beneath a handsome red covered bridge, we reached our take-out spot and caught our ride back to Pikogan.
At Pikogan, we joined Benoit’s colleague André Mowatt for a tour of the village and its museum and cultural center, where we learned of the profound effects of the fur trade, the missionaries, and the Canadian government upon the traditional Algonquin way of life. One of his people’s greatest tragedies, according to André, was the forced boarding schooling of young Native Canadians that lasted into the 1960s. At the schools, the children were forbidden to use their own language. “By the time we went home, we couldn’t even communicate with our parents,” he told us.
But André kept his native tongue. The first time I heard Algonquin spoken was when he answered his cell phone.
Suspension footbridge across Lac LaHaie, Aiguebelle National Park
That was on the way to dinner, at the Pikogan community center. The menu? Moose stew, prepared by an elderly townswoman whose grandson had shot the main ingredient. It was served with traditional bannock bread, not baked, as it usually is, but deep-fried into pillowy puffs ideal for sopping up moose gravy. It reminded me of nothing so much as zeppoli, the Italian staple of church fairs.
And so to the fireside, and the tepees. As night fell along the Harricana, and André spoke of the old times and the old legends, the Windigo stalked the woods again, and the warriors were transformed into crows.
IF YOU GO:
Air Canada flies from Montreal to Rouyn-Noranda:
Tourism information for the region:
Aventures Obikoba (canoe, kayak, and cabin reservations on Lac des Quinze):
Aiguebelle National Park:
La Bannik resort:
Benoit Croteau leads a canoe trip down the Harricana River
Abitibiwinni (Harricana River guided canoeing):
Tepees on the banks of the Harricana River, Pikogan