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AAA World Article

Quebec, Au Naturel

Communing with nature comes easily in this land of forests, mountains, water and wildlife.

By Ted Alan Stedman

AAA World Article

Hikers pause at a scenic overlook along the Statue Trail in Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay.
All photos by Ted Alan Stedman

The doleful cries began right before daybreak, echoing from the dark boreal forest just outside my cabin door.

“Aw, aw, awoooooooooo... . ”

As the first wisps of sunlight filtered through the dense trees, the cries became louder, more sustained. Gazing out from my cabin, I saw a half-dozen ghostly figures slowly materialize from the shadows, announcing their presence in a howling chorus that quickened my pulse.

“Awooooooooo... . ”

Having a front-row seat to howling Arctic wolves while nestled in a snug treetop cabin is something of an exclusive at Parc Mahikan, a wolf sanctuary on the edge of Québec’s massive northern woods in Girardville. The park is Québec’s foremost wildlife observation center devoted to wolves, where visitors can learn about the 40-some Arctic and gray wolves running partially free within the park’s 200-acre forested enclosure.

Arctic Wolves
Arctic wolves socializing at the Parc Mahikan wolf sanctuary in Girardville

“The aim of our center is to demystify wolves,” says Gilles Granal, a French expat who founded Parc Mahikan in 1995 after adopting a gray wolf from a local zoo. “I hope that people learn more about the wolf and its place in nature. Knowledge makes it possible to avoid fear and ignorance, which often lead to the wolves’ bad reputation.”

Visitors to Parc Mahikan can choose any of several interactions. Watching wolves from observation stations and along fenced perimeters is a daytripper’s favorite. For more intimate experiences, visitors can book a night in one of the on-site yurts or an elevated cabin perched among trees. And it gets better: the park is one of the few places in North America where supervised visitors have the chance to interact face-to-face with wolves—if the wolves are in the mood.

Tent cabins are available for overnight guests at the Parc Mahikan wolf sanctuary.

Early on, Granal discovered that wolves were curious about humans, and he decided that introducing wolves to visitors willing to comply with safety rules was beneficial to both. The rules are rigid: Enter a special enclosure with Granal, and follow his commands to a T. If the wolves allow, you can gently touch them while being the recipient of licks, mock bites and play pawing. Admittedly, I was intimidated at the possibility of having a 150-pound wolf jump up to sniff my face. But the decision wasn’t mine to make. Granal had already decided that because of a drenching rain and several excited wolves with a score to settle between themselves, a close encounter would have to wait for a return visit.

Take it Outside
Parc Mahikan proved to be a wild and wonderful introduction to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region in Canada’s province of Québec. Bordered by craggy granite mountains and the southern reaches of Québec’s vast northern forests, the region is blessedly rural and largely undeveloped; a full 80 percent of the landscape is covered by woods and permeated by 15 whitewater rivers. The region is also the unchallenged wild blueberry capital of Canada: where else would you find a 160-mile network of trails and country roads deemed the Blueberry Trail?

Ouiatchouan Falls
Visitors admire Ouiatchouan Falls, a centerpiece in the village of Val-Jalbert,  along the southern shore of Lac Saint-Jean.

But Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean’s namesake outdoor assets are what lure most visitors. On the relaxing spectrum is Lac-Saint-Jean, a placid 24-mile-wide freshwater jewel as blue as the surrounding blueberry fields and centerpiece to the region’s folksy French villages and small agricultural farms. And depending on whom you talk to, all of this plays second fiddle to the region’s other marquee attraction: the Saguenay River and its majestic Saguenay Fjord—my next stop.

Park National
Trails in Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay head through pristine forests to panoramic overlooks.

A scenic, serene three-hour drive east from Parc Mahikan landed me on the precipice of the mighty Saguenay Fjord. If you didn’t know it, you might mistake this massive fjord for a misplaced piece of Norway. This immense geologic showstopper carved by ancient glaciers is a deep 65-mile-long waterway up to 2.5 miles wide, with vertical granite cliffs towering over 1,000 feet. Its impressive stats make Saguenay Fjord the only fjord in North America that is both navigable and inhabited.

Zodiac sightseeing tours are readily available in Saguenay Fjord.

The best way to encounter this Elysian landscape requires a romp in Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay, arguably Québec’s premier national park. Situated along the eastern reaches of the Saguenay River, these same granite shorelines saw the first Europeans who arrived in the area, including explorer Jacques Cartier, who planted a flag for France and laid claim to land that would become Canada.

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“If there’s one trail you must hike [in the national park], it’s the Statue Trail,” recommended Andreanna Blouin, visitor coordinator with the park. “You’ll see a stunning landscape of mountains, forests, plunging cliffs and the fjord. At the end, the statue greets you and all who venture into the magnificent fjord.”

None of her claims about the beauty of the 4.7-mile trail were exaggerations—though she did leave out the part about the steep staircases built to reach the statue of Notre-Dame-du-Saguenay. With fall’s colorful tapestry aglow, the ash, maple and birch forest was lit up with shades of crimson and gold—a fitting prelude if you’re about to visit a statuesque deity. The final half-mile is a workout, like
20 minutes on a StairMaster. But the scene that greets you at the trail’s end is stunning: a 30-foot-tall white statue of the Virgin Mary poised on an overhanging granite slope hundreds of feet above the dark-blue waters, with a mirror image of the granite cliffs on the fjord’s opposite side.

Notre-Dame du Saguenay statue is a popular landmark that overlooks Saguenay Fjord.

A statue here?, you’re left wondering. The story goes that, in 1878, a merchant was traveling on the frozen Fjord-du-Saguenay when the ice broke, plunging him, his horses and sleigh into freezing waters. He prayed to the Virgin Mary that his life be spared, and if so, he would create a monument in her honor. With his fate forestalled, he carved a wooden statue of St. Mary the Virgin, which fell into the fjord as it was being transported by boat. Undeterred, he cut the floating statue into three sections that were arduously hoisted and reassembled on the Cape Trinity promontory, where the monument still stands today. As if on cue, a brilliant rainbow appeared while I was pondering the view. The experience was rapturous, if only for a moment—until the steep hike back.

A Natural Finish
After another day’s hiking escapades in the fjord’s national park and exploring the impossibly quaint riverside hamlet of L’Anse-Saint-Jean, I drove back toward Lac-Saint-Jean for my next appointment with nature. A few short miles from the lake is Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien, or Wild Zoo of Saint Felicien. Despite being founded in 1960, this isn’t your father’s zoo. Founder Ghislain Gagnon wondered if there was a better way to keep animals other than in cages, which resulted in the zoo making a landmark decision to create natural habitat areas where cliffs, rivers, ravines and placements of boulders defined expansive outdoor enclosures that separated various animals. Today, the sprawling 1,200-acre nature complex is considered a model for zoos and reflects modern sensibilities regarding animal welfare. Zoo Sauvage functions not only as a refuge dedicated to wildlife conservation of the boreal climate but has also broadened its mission with the creation of the Centre for Conservation of Boreal Biodiversity. Its 1,000 animals represent 80 species of Nordic origin, making Zoo Sauvage one of the world’s foremost centers for the research and conservation of the Earth’s boreal zone.

A northern elk bugles at Zoo Sauvage du Saint-Felicien.

You can hike its trails, peruse various wildlife exhibits, mount a motorized safari and canoe a lake. And you can also indulge in a fascination of moose, caribou, and polar, black and grizzly bears through carefully guided tours by vehicle and on foot. Day visitors can stroll around the main visitor’s center and observe polar bears and other mega fauna in spacious natural exhibits. Or, if it’s closer encounters and a more intimate overnight experience you’re looking for, you can sign up for a walking adventure and enjoy cooked meals over an open campfire before bedding down among reindeer and caribou in the Land of the Caribou camp.

Sleeping with caribou and reindeer? Please count me in.

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The safari circuit took me and other visitors through thick woods and along a coursing river, and although I knew we were still inside the zoo, it seemed hard to imagine. It appeared to be a purely natural environment. Moose and their calves wandered among wetlands, slurping up greenery like an all-you-can-eat salad bar. While canoeing on a lake, our group of three saw large northern elk rooting in the grass, and in the distance, we saw white-tailed deer browsing among sedges. With the boating portion of our safari under our belts, defined by a steep ravine and other natural barriers, we saw a gargantuan grizzly bear surveying its domain. Farther along in a separate habitat area, we saw a mama black bear with three chubby cubs making periodic stops to investigate rotting tree stumps for insects. Burley musk ox and their calves roamed throughout.

grizzly surveys the landscape at Zoo Sauvage du Saint-Felicien.

Our home for the night, the caribou tent camp lived up to its name. With an experienced wildlife guide who pulled double duty as chef and caretaker, we explored our boreal digs by foot, seeing several nonchalant caribou and reindeer ruminating our presence. The intimacy of viewing these regal creatures from yards away—indigenous animals living in conditions akin to the wild—was exhilarating. Call me sentimental, but knowing these furry four-leggeds will live full lives without the threat of predators (and yes, hunters) counts.

When darkness came, we huddled around a hearty campfire while our guide put on his chef’s hat and dished up rib-sticking roasted chicken, fried potatoes and a veggie medley that garnered a round of applause from our famished clan. The boreal forest became an inkwell under a moonless night. Quietness pervaded. Then came the crackle of footsteps on small twigs, and a single caribou sauntered past, giving us a muted snort as if we’d arrived unannounced.

“Our mission is making people love nature in order to preserve it,” said our guide. “Nature is in the fabric and culture of all of Québec.”

I couldn’t agree more.



This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.

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