Canada: Come in from the wild

Off-radar and crammed with opportunities for adventure, Quebec's Outaouais and Abitibi-Témiscamingue regions are a world away from Montreal. Even taking a short road trip feels like crossing a new frontier

By Pól Ó Conghaile
photographs by Pól O Conghaile
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:43 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 16:10 BST
Waterfall on the Coulonge River, Chutes Coulonge

Waterfall on the Coulonge River, Chutes Coulonge

Photograph by Pól O Conghaile

"Start braking when you get to that overhanging tree," Élizabeth Khoury says. I've done zip-lining before, but not like this. Not over a wild, whipped-up river canyon that can't wait to chew me up and spit me out in pieces. I'm clipped into a 400-metre line looping over whitewater that loggers once used to drive giant lumps of timber down to Ottawa.

My focus turns laser. I gulp and go for it, letting out a whoop as the pulley sucks a rasping 'ssssss' sound out of the wire. I pick up speed. I rush over rapids. I get to the overhanging tree. I brake. I come to a clumsy stop on the platform. And I nearly puke with the adrenalin.

It's early evening at Chutes Coulonge heritage and adventure park, and a thunderstorm has stirred up an earthy smell and set pine needles floating through the air. It's several months since the spring snowmelt, but a nearby waterfall still roars like a football stadium.

Wilderness like this is why I'm in Quebec — a 644,000sq mile province that's almost seven times the size of the UK. I can't hope to see it all in a single trip, but I have a mission: to bypass the provincial powerhouse of Montreal and get stuck into the great outdoors, grabbing a flavour of French-speaking Canada in the process. I settle on a 750-mile road trip through Outaouais and Abitibi-Témiscamingue, southwestern regions easily accessible from Ottawa Airport. Chutes Coulonge, a former logging camp near Mansfield-et-Pontefract, is one of the first stops in my satnav.

Not long ago, this pocket of Outaouais was plugged right into Canada's commercial forestry industry. Timber driven on the Coulonge River helped to build cities like Boston and New York. Walking through the park, Élizabeth and her team show me husks of its industrial heritage — an old tugboat here, a log slide there, displays of gap-toothed saws in a cabin where a grainy video explains how lumberjacks came to be 'the factory workers of the forest'. The river's last log drive ended in 1982.

The banter flits between French and English as we pass a pointer boat (the 'workhorse' of the Canada river system) and a list of provisions ranging from food, tools and stoves to '10 Eaton catalogues'. "You know what they were for?" asks one guide, his beard and T-shirt still bearing bits of the forest from an earlier canyoning adventure. "Nope," I say, waiting for the punch line. "Loo roll," he laughs.

Driving through Mansfield-et-Pontefract and nearby Fort Coulonge today, I find 19th-century structures like the handsome Spruceholme Inn and the Marchand Covered Bridge — Quebec's longest, with its 499ft wooden sides painted raspberry red — tucked away like Easter eggs in a sleepy landscape. I sense the community has struggled, but this is Élizabeth's first season at the helm of Chutes Coulonge, and her enthusiasm is infectious. "Even locals don't know that we have this gem here," she tells me over pizza in a roadside diner later that evening. "I have big ideas to bring people in."

Back to the source

She's not the only one. Continuing my drive, the roads are largely empty as I follow the Ottawa River — a boundary between Quebec and English-speaking Ontario — north towards Abitibi-Témiscamingue. My first stop in this region is Opémican National Park, where a host of new hiking trails, campsites and outdoor activities are opening in stages over the coming year. It's another fresh venture in an off-radar world (the nearest town, Laniel, has a population of just 89), and my car is one of just a handful parked on the inviting shoreline of Lake Kipawa.

"As you can see, there's not a lot of traffic here," says Anne-Marie Belzile, of Tourisme Abitibi-Témiscamingue. She's arranged for us to take a boat tour of the lake, and we soon find ourselves gliding over gentle waters broken only by the wash of our engine and surreal, lemony drifts of pine pollen. Before long, we spot a pair of bald eagles perched in the branches above a rocky islet, with bright yellow beaks and heads white as golf balls.

"Can you hear its young?" Ambroise Lycke, one of the park staff accompanying us, asks, pointing to a large nest. From its thatch, we see a chick's wing poking out. Just then, a hungry gull swoops by for a look. Alert to the danger, one of the eagles takes to the air and dive-bombs the intruder. It repeats the warning several times, warding off the gull, before returning to its watch over the waters.

Anne-Marie tells me Kipawa is one of around 22,000 lakes in Abitibi-Témiscamingue — a region with a population of just 145,000. "We like to say there's a lake for every family," she smiles. Continuing our explorations, we pass a pair of loons and watch dragonflies darting about like mini drones. Black bears, moose and even lynx may be hiding among the pines — they're elusive, but you can get a closer look at some of them at Refuge Pageau, a wild animal rehabilitation centre near the town of Amos. Briefly, we pull in at a jetty where the only sound is water slurping against wood. Hidden in the trees is a cottage owned by writer Margaret Atwood.

“At another tent, artist Karl Chevrier explains how canoes were made from birch bark, ribbed with shaved cedar, sewn with spruce roots and sealed with gum, ash and bear fat”

Ambroise grew up in Montreal, but his family have made Abitibi-Témiscamingue their home. I ask him why he likes working in the wilderness. "Going back to the source, is that how you say it?" Ambroise replies, before going on to describe his childhood memories of time spent camping and fishing out in the open with his grandfather. "It's about the peacefulness," he adds.

As I drive on, the miles melt away and the landscape seems to grow bigger before my eyes. Passing endless forests beneath widescreen skies, I'm no longer noticing signs I stopped to photograph earlier in the journey, warning to watch for moose or logging trucks.

Quebec starts to feel like a country within a country. Like many visitors, I came with a vague sense of its Frenchness but I hadn't expected it to be so immersive, or idiosyncratic. The false-front architecture of towns like Ville Marie or Val d'Or feels like the Wild West, until I spot a boulangerie. Québécois French sounds like the European version, until I tune into certain vowel sounds and archaic expressions that hark back to a colonial fork in the road ('dépanneur' signals a corner store, for instance, while in France it means 'mechanic'). And, of course, there's the eternal tug between French and English heritage (the 1995 Quebec independence referendum was defeated by just 50.6% to 49.4%). "We live this duality, but we live it together," Elizabeth Theriault of Les Brasseurs du Temps microbrewery in Gatineau, tells me. "And it's our history."

I'm looking for a sense of this when I pull into Fort Témiscamingue, a National Historic Site at a strategic pinch in the Ottawa River where the French and English once fought to control the fur trade. I learn about the voyageurs who paddled and portaged their way through the wilderness, wearing ceintures fléchées (traditional, French Canadian arrowed sashes). "Mosquitoes, black flies… They just kept going," says the site guide. "Everything I tell you about the fur trade — the adventures, the danger, the deaths — was all about…" She pauses for effect. "The top hat. It was all about fashion and status."

Fur traders weren't the first here, of course — a fact I was reminded of back at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau; First Nations people had occupied this territory for at least 6,000 years — a fact that's hammered home by the first word I see at Fort Témiscamingue: minopijowak, an Algonquin term for 'welcome'.

Hitting the trail

Outside the mining town of Val d'Or — almost 300 miles north of Gatineau and the turning point on my road trip — I join a small, enthusiastic crowd gathered around two toothpaste-white tepees near the shores of Lake Lamoine. It's National Aboriginal Day, and the Anicinabek people have invited all-comers to Kinawit — a cultural centre whose name means 'us' — to celebrate their heritage. As well as taking part in traditional dances, we snack on cuts of beaver and moose cooked in a kitchen tent that soon grows sweltering hot in the glow of a fire pit.

"We're trying to reconnect with the old traditions," says Tom Bulowski, an employee of the organisation that runs Kinawit, as we take a short walk along a forest trail with his sister, Barbara. Along the way, we stop to examine gum from a pine tree ("a natural Band-Aid," says Tom) and pop our heads into a tipi. With its floor covered in pine leaves, it smells of Christmas.

Back at the festival, Carlos Kistabish talks me through the elements of his traditional regalia. "Every piece comes from us," he says, showing me a necklace made by his son, and the feathers of an eagle, celebrated for its exalted position between creators and humans. At another tent, artist Karl Chevrier explains how canoes were made from birch bark, ribbed with shaved cedar, sewn with spruce roots and sealed with gum, ash and bear fat. "It's all natural," he explains. "It costs nothing; only your time, and once you're done you have something that nobody else has."

A young man with big blue headphones bounds onto the stage nearby. Until now, performers have showcased either country music or traditional dance, but this is something entirely different. Grabbing the mic with one hand and punching the air with the other, he introduces himself: "My name is Jonas Decoursay and I'm here to talk about the truth," he says, launching into a rap: "I'm Algonquin, reserved in hell, Roll one up as I tell my tale, The story of a warrior, That society sees as a low-life, Aboriginal individual…"

Shortly afterwards, a dance takes shape, one that encourages us to take each other's hands, and lead one another in formation around the tipis. Awkwardly, I jump in. And momentarily, at least, I feel connected.

I'm reminded of the moment I took that zip-line with Élizabeth Khoury, or the boat trip with Anne-Marie Belzile. These were clearly different experiences, with different people. But all were new, doggedly optimistic, and powered in large part by locals who know this corner of Quebec is a far-out frontier in tourism, but who are driving on regardless.

The thought occurs to me that their land is ancient, but it's also young. Towns like Val d'Or and Rouyn-Noranda didn't exist when skyscrapers were sprouting in Montreal, and you're never far, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue or Outaouais, from stories of people starting from scratch — prospecting for gold or running adventure parks, creating hiking trails or, starting music festivals.

"People here started from nothing," historian Paul Trepanier tells me over lunch at La Bannik, a camping and cottage park near Fort Témiscamingue. He means the 20th-century gold and copper booms, but he sees parallels between their pioneer spirit and the can-do attitude of today. "There's a little bit of anarchy in that kind of development. But, at the same time, everything is possible."

As my road trip comes to a close, I feel like I've gone down a cultural rabbit hole. On my way to the airport, I stop off at the postcard-pretty village of Wakefield, where I find a spa hotel set in a former flour mill, a path along a disused railway line, and a cute confiserie, selling honeycomb and fudge. I have a fleeting sense of what it means to come in from the wild; to exit this great outdoors that cuts you loose from everything.

"You could be out on the river for 20 days and not come across anybody," local guide Guillaume Rivest had told me in Rouyn-Noranda. We were drinking beer in a grungy pub, the sun creeping behind the buildings, copper-smelting chimneys puffing over the lake nearby. With his buff build, blond hair, lumberjack shirt and wispy beard, it was hard to resist comparing him to a modern-day voyageur — minus the ceinture fléchée.

"We're always distracted in life," Guillaume had said. "We're scared to be bored. But here, you can just strap a canoe to the top of your car, drive five kilometres and paddle to the Hudson Bay, if you like. It's like you're part of something bigger. You know your ancestors did this. You know they looked at the same sky."

Getting there & around

Air Canada flies daily from Heathrow to Montreal. Average flight time: 7h 25 min.

British citizens must buy an Electronic Travel Authorization (C$7/£4.10) for visits to Canada. More information:

Although served by trains and buses, travel by hire car is advisable, given Quebec's size. Winter tyres are mandatory from 15 December-15 March. 

When to go

Late spring and early summer are arguably the most pleasant times to visit (around 20C). Autumn sees vibrant foliage, before snow and ice descend for a long winter (lows of -15C).

Where to stay

The British, Gatineau. 

Spruceholme Inn, Fort Coulonge. 

La Bannik, Duhamel-Ouest. 

More info

How to do it

Expedia offers two-week fly-drive packages from £814 per person in May, including nonstop flights and car hire, but not accommodation. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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