You Don’t Get to Say Mush (2000)

Quebec City in Winter

“I must tell you about our wonderful snowshoe experience,” the enthusiastic woman with the French Canadian accent tells me when I inquire about snowshoeing at Mont St. Anne near Quebec City. “You snowshow out for one hour and one half. There you stay in our igloo. It is heated and very comfortable. A wonderful experience. In the morning you wake up to a very nice breakfast with eggs and pancakes and maple syrup, then you snowshoe back for one hour and one half.”

We declined Sophie’s sales pitch to sleep in a heated igloo outside of Quebec City, opting instead to stay in our hotel room with the uncomfortable bed.

While Andrew downhill skied, I snowshoed (but never found the igloo) and visited the local waterfall. We both tried dogsledding, and, of course, did some power shopping.

You can pretty much tell that the hotel Fontenac was built as a palace. Crouched on the edge of the granite bluff that divides the city, it dominates the Quebec City skyline–very few buildings are as tall, and none seem taller. Colorful during the day, at night the illuminated tower summons visions of horse-drawn coaches and costumed footmen. No, wait, those are real–like other great cities, Quebec city has its hansom cabs for hire.

Although the temperature hovers around 10 degrees farenheit, Quebec City’s streets are busy with pedestrians in the evening. Shops, restaurants, and the lovely architecture and views of the town attract visitors and residents. The city is divided by the granite plate into upper and lower towns. Traversing between the two is accomplished via a funicular railway, or the “breakneck stairs,” or a few steep, cobbled streets. We tried all of them, of course.

The breakneck stairs lead from the hotel down to the oldest shopping street in North America. At each landing in the stairs shops and restaurants beckon. We fell prey to the glass shop and the restaurant Marie Celeste. Along the street, shops from quaint to expensive offer art, fur, Indian crafts, and clothing. There’s very little true tourist junk, although certainly tourists are the primary market for the higher-quality wares displayed here. Conveniently the base of the funicular is here as well, so purchase-laden tourists can ride back up to the hotel.

The St. Lawrence River curves around to embrace Quebec City. With several natural ports in this great, tidal flow, it’s no wonder early settlers chose this location. Even this far inland, the river is tidal. We watched the ice flow west one evening from the Fontenac’s bar, then saw it shifting to the east the next day from the prominade. Powerful tug boats and container ships forged through the floes, although the local red and green navigational buoys were set in rows on a snowy lot beside the river, pulled from the water to prevent ice damage. Quebec City is also the only fortified city in North America, it’s fort and battlegrounds turned into a vast park at the top of the bluff.

Bright red roofs are a common sight both in the city and in the countryside. The contrast in this snowy landscape really makes these buildings stand out in the crowd. There seems to be no snow shoveling ordinance in the city. While the streets are plowed, the sidewalks are sheathed in ice covered with packed snow, covered with slush. Walking is a challenge, but nobody seems to be daunted by it. When the slush is simply too much, people walk in the slightly clearer streets.

Unlike so much of north America, the oldest buildings in the city are two or three hundred years old. Drafty stone affairs with enormous framing timbers line the old streets, occasionally offset by unfortunately unattractive modern structures. Why an architect would choose poured concrete for a building standing next to a row of stone cottages is beyond our comprehension. Fortunately, this bad judgement seems to have been exercised mostly on the big public or commercial buildings. Within the residential districts, new buildings are more in harmony with their antique neighbors.

We missed Quebec City’s winter festival by a week. Since the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing yet, the many ice sculptures that are a part of the festivities still dotted the town. Many shops sponsored appropriate sculptures: a beaver in front of a fur shop, bunnies and carrots in front of Le Lapin restaurant, a ship outside the restaurant Marie Celeste, named after a famous vessel. Other civic sculptures included ice benches and a ice castle.

Alle-alle-alle!

Sophia is the woman who tried, over the telephone, to convince us to spend the night in an igloo. Although we’d declined the igloo stay, we had reserved a dogsled for the afternoon tour.

“You begin on our golf course. Our guide shows you how to drive the dogs. Then for one hour and one half you drive the sled along the trails. The guide goes with you. There are two people in each sled, and you have six dogs.

“Rodney speaks some English, but he is not so comfortable, so I will explain how you drive the dogs now before you leave, then he will help you on the trail. First, to make the dogs go, you shout ‘Alle-alle-alle!'”

Around her, the enthusiastic dogs erupt with barks and howls.

“To make them go slower, you shout ‘dooooze, doooze dooze.’ To stop, you shout ‘whoa!’ and stand on the break.” She demonstrates the break, an enormous cleat between the runners that the driver can stomp on.

“If you want to get off the sled, put out the anchor,” she shows us a grappling hook on a short rope. “It is good when you are moving to keep one sled-length betwen sleds. When you stop, it should be about one meter. It is very bad driving to let your dogs overtake the next sled. When you stop, always pet the dogs. They love attention.”

That’s it. No left or right commands. No reins. And you don’t get to say “Mush.”

Andrew climbs onto the sled, already disappointed that he won’t be bundled up in furs and sipping a martini. Sophia had suggested, when he expressed this wish, that he could have coffee in a styrofoam cup, but he declined.

I stand on the runners. Rodney comes along and takes up the anchor, hanging it on a hook on the sled. The dogs are restive, but they wait until the sled ahead, driven by another tourist couple, starts off. I stand on the break until they’re well ahead of us, then step off and shout: “Allee-allee-allee!”

Our dogs take off, lead dog Plume guiding us along the trail. We keep catching up with the sled in front of us. Finally, the wife gets off and rides on Rodney’s sled, but this doesn’t seem to help her husband’s sled go faster–the problem as I see it is that the husband is riding the break all the time. Poor dogs. Meanwhile Plume and our team are raring to go. It’s a struggle to keep them from overriding the sled ahead, which does happen once or twice when we stop for a rest.

Andrew and I trade off a couple times so we both have a chance to drive. When we allow the other sleds enough of a lead that our dogs can really run, we lose sight of them in the woods. Once at a fork in the trail Plume leads us down the wrong path. We figure this out almost immediately, and fortunately so does Rodney. We stop, and Rodney comes back on foot and gets the dogs to turn onto the right trail. More than once the dogs start up before I’m ready, proving that my voice commands are secondary to their training and instinct. The unfortunate result, however, is me lying flat out in the snow and Andrew being carried away on the sled until the dogs catch up with the next sled and stop.

Toward the end, when the dogs are tiring, we have to climb some steep hills. Andrew gets out to walk, and I either push with one leg between the runners or leave them completely to climb, holding onto the sled for dear life. I’m afraid to do that too much–what if I can’t keep up, or can’t get my feet back on the runners or on the break?

As we pull into the dogs’ home ground they know their way between the rows of “dog houses” (big plastic, open-ended barrels). They plop down in the snow, tired and ready for dinner. We give each one a rub and a thank-you as we go.

Le Pont de la Chute

Quebec City has no urban sprawl to speak of. Five minutes outside of town and you’re in the country. Ten minutes outside of town is Le Chute–a 100-foot waterfall. In winter, the spray from the falls forms an icy “sugarloaf” at the base of the cliff. Quebec, which embraces all snow- and ice-related activities, turns this phenomenon into a winter park.

An inn at the top of the cliff is connected to a visitors’ center at the bottom near the highway by a gondola. From the visitors’ center a trail across a snow-covered meadow leads to the base of the falls and the sugarloaf. At the top, wood and steel promenades lead from the inn to the falls, with observation decks and a footbridge right across the falling water.

When I visit on Sunday morning, a steady stream of families trudges across the snow field to the sugarloaf dragging sleds and innertubes. Of more interest are the groups of brightly clad people at the base and arrayed across an ice face to the left of the falls. Yes, they really are climbing the ice!

From the promenade the view down this ice fall is not for the vertiginous. I stop to watch climbers slowly ascend, eventually reaching a ledge of snow just under the walkway.

The footbridge over the falls is relatively new, but the piers it is founded on, from the original bridge, are quite old. Still, it’s a substantial structure, covered, of course, in snow. From the middle of the span there’s a view of the snow meadow below and the gondala, the highway, the river, and the far shore of the Isle de Orleans (an island in the river).

The thunder of the falls is heavily muted by the ice and snow. But the slabs of ice at the top and projecting over the edge make the scene visually more impressive than it would be in the summertime. At the bottom the water crashes into a great hole surrounded by the mist-built ice. On the sugarloaf people run and slide, not getting too close to the waterfall-side. Surely sliding into the hole would be fatal. None of the information about the falls that’s readily available mentions such an accident ever occurring, however.

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