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Breaking the Ice: Enjoying Winter in Quebec City

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Article by Line Abrahamian originally published in the November 2018-April 2019 edition of the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.

Ice climbing

“There’s only one rule in ice climbing: don’t fall,” my instructor François Lemieux tells me with the straightforwardness of Captain Obvious.

That seems like a fair rule, but still, it’s notthe kind of thing you want to hear when you’re clinging to a frozen waterfall, 30 metres up.

We’re at Montmorency Falls Park in Quebec City, dominated by waterfalls that are 83 metres tall. That’s 30 metres higher than the Niagara Falls, Quebecers are quick to point out. And why shouldn’t they brag about them? They’re magnificent and one of the city’s must-sees. And Quebec has decided you must see them not only in summer but in winter, too, when the bone-chilling cold freezes the falls mid-cascade.

And do you know why? Because Quebec City not only survives its winter but celebrates it. Nay, it makes a sport of it. Literally. Frozen lake? Ice canoe. Twenty centimetres of snow? Nordic skiing. Frozen waterfalls? Ice climbing.

And here we are. I’m crawling up the slippery falls with footwear that has wicked-sharp spikes on it and two ice axes for hands—ice axes!—when I hear François casually call out, “Don’t fall.”

His words take a minute to float up the -22°C frigid February air and burrow into my orange helmet, underneath my knit toque and into my frozen ear, but once they do, I can’t unhear them.

After three clumsy swings, the ice finally grips my axe. I peel my body off and climb up, digging my feet into the frozen wall. Then I wrestle my left axe out, swing and lodge it into the ice above. Kick, kick, and I hoist my body up, not entirely ungracefully. I feel exhilarated. I stop and look around. There’s a blanket of white as far as the eye can see, punctured by inexplicably lush trees and a rumbling waterfall to my right that even the mighty Canadian winter seems powerless to freeze.

 And for a moment, I forget that I have vertigo. That I can no longer feel my toes and fingers. That I’m dangling precariously from a giant icicle. Even the deafening roar of the gushing waterfall is somehow muffled by the silence of the imposing beauty around me. And I soak it all in, this freezing moment frozen in time. This must be why Quebec loves its winter so much.

Quebec Winter Carnival

I’m at the crowded lobby of Hilton Quebec to meet Mitémo Chevalier, my guide for the Quebec Winter Carnival, or simply “Carnaval.” I’ve never met him, but he’s easy to spot: he’s decked out in a droopy red toque and a colourful sash around his waist, clutching a plastic red cane and strutting with a swagger that would shame a peacock. I imagine he’s what Bonhomme, Carnaval’s snowman ambassador, would look like if he were to melt and reveal a human form.

Mitémo and I walk a couple of blocks down to one of Carnaval’s sites. The world’s largest winter festival, Carnaval rolls out 200 activities across Quebec City, drawing 500,000 people annually. And it’s where all the Canadian stereotypes have been banished to.

Beer, maple syrup, lumberjacks, canoes: Quebec City has wrangled up all the Canadian clichés and built a sub-zero playground for them. And it’s cheeky as hell about it.

The world believes Canadians love swilling beer? Let’s knock down bowling log pins with beer kegs. We can’t live without maple syrup? Watch us clutch this syrup can at arm’s length for a ridiculously long time. We travel everywhere in canoes? Nonsense. Here, hold our maple syrup while we haul our canoes across jagged chunks of ice, then race through a river jammed with ice floes.

And if the world is convinced we’re all lumberjacks, then we’ll show them with the axe throwing challenge. This is my second axe in two days. If you ask me, Quebec City is far too generous with the axe sharing. I toss the axe at a small wooden board and miss it entirely. Again and again, plunging my illustrious lumberjack heritage deeper and deeper into shame.

Next stop: the mechanical moose. It looks deceptively slow, but after a few seconds of unnecessary shrieking and teetering from its faux-fur hide, I’m ejected from it just as awkwardly as I clambered onto it.

After curling and a chair race on skis, we duck into a wooden shack for a shot of hot “caribou.” Quebec City has been spiking its winters with this sweet concoction of red wine, maple syrup and hard liquor (typically whisky) for decades. It’s often served in red plastic canes topped with Bonhomme’s head. These moonlight as walking sticks for those who’ve consumed too much caribou.

Mitémo is full of these folksy pearls, and I eagerly catch them as they fall from his caribou-red-stained lips. Like the one about 19th-century French-Canadian logger Jos Montferrand, whose colourful legend tints Carnaval. The 6 foot 4 logger travelled across the Ottawa Valley, leaving spectacular tales of his strength in his wake. Like how he once lifted a plough with one hand, or how he left his boot print in the ceiling of many Quebec taverns after performing his signature backflip.

As I listen to Mitémo with traditional fiddle music rollicking in the background, it dawns on me that Carnaval isn’t just a festival. Like its caribou, Quebec City has concocted an intoxicating cocktail of pride, mixing history with humour in a frosty glass. And calling it Carnaval.

“Winter’s just as much a part of our DNA as our past and culture,” says Mitémo, “so why wouldn’t we celebrate it?”

Hôtel de Glace

Today I’m driving to possibly the most ingenious thing Quebec City has done with its winter: Hôtel de Glace.

This ice hotel isn’t doing much to dispel the myth that Canadians live in igloos. But it’s not trying to. If the world wants to believe that, then Quebec City will build the mother of all igloos. An architectural marvel carved out of 35,000 tonnes of snow, 500 tonnes of ice and a whole lot of whimsy.

I’m not going to lie, I’m nervous about spending the night here. Despite my Canadian pedigree, I chill easily. And it turns out, you can’t just go about your stay willy-nilly. There are rules. There are guides. There’s an instructional video.

For five minutes, I watch a film in which a young lady at the ice hotel shows me what to bring, what to wear, all the different positions in which to arrange my boots (there are five) and how to sleep in a sleeping bag in a way that makes me feel like I’ve been camping wrong all my life.

By the time the video ends, I have questions. Lots of them. Like where’s the TV in the room? And the door? And the bathroom? A lovely guide who speaks French distorted by an Australian accent answers them all. There’s no TV. No door (just a curtain). No bathroom (there are chemical toilets outside).


It’s finally time to enter the ice hotel. I walk through its wing-shaped doors and into a big top. An ice trapeze artist is frozen mid-swing from the high ceiling. A wizard in a pointed hat and cape peeks from behind a billowing snowy curtain. A guffawing clown in a joker hat threatens to leap out of the snowy wall. Every year, the ice hotel is built anew, with a playful design. This year’s theme is the circus.

I feel like Alice, fallen down the rabbit hole into a wonderland inhabited by over-the-top characters that would shame the Mad Hatter.

I head to the ice bar. The constant crunch of snow under trampling boots makes me feel like I’m in a Rice Krispies bowl. I order the Ski-Doo Accident cocktail. It comes with a twig— evidence of the tree you hit in the accident. I linger by the fireplace, which I fear might melt the whole place to the ground with a single stray spark. I whoosh down the ice slide. When I can no longer chase away sleep, I head to my room.

It’s pitch-dark. I fumble for the light switch on my bed. The room is bare but for a mattress on a block of ice—an ice bed!—and a single ice nightstand. Yet it doesn’t feel empty. The deafening silence fills up the cavernous room like an oversized piece of furniture.

I dismantle my sleeping bag, which comes with an inordinate number of strings, and place my boots in Position No. 3 from the video. I wriggle in, grope at random strings and zip up. My face and head feel dangerously exposed. I burrow in deeper, but the cold insinuates its way in. This is going to be a long night.

Suddenly, I remember the video telling me to keep my body warm before bed. The hot tubs!

I exit into the cold and run, barefoot on snow, to a hot tub and plunge in. My body immediately thaws. A flurry of white swirls around the hotel, as if we’re in a shaken snow globe. Billowing clouds of steam shroud the night air in a dreamlike haze, and when they vanish, I see everything in a new light.

This ice hotel won’t be here next month. Nor will the frozen waterfalls or Carnaval. None of these would even exist without winter. Winter is a season of fleeting once-in- a-lifetime moments. Quebec City has known this all along, and all it can do is celebrate it. Right here and now. And if I can get past the can’t-feel-my-face cold, ice axes and beds mounted on ice, surely I can, too.

So I sink deeper into the hot tub. Not because I’m dreading sleep. But because I don’t want to miss a thing.

Thank you to Quebec City Tourism for hosting us in February 2018. Air Transat offers direct flights to and from Quebec City. 

Cover illustration credit: Katy Lemay

The comments and contributions expressed are assumed only by the author. The recommendations, intentions or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Transat AT Inc. or its affiliates. See terms of use of the Air Transat website.

The comments and contributions expressed are assumed only by the author. The recommendations, intentions or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Transat AT Inc. or its affiliates. See terms of use of the Air Transat website.

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