Quebec City – It’s early February, and I’m in the vast Plains of Abraham in the heart of Quebec City. A stark snowscape is at my back, but the scene ahead has my full attention. Before me sprawls the wildly colourful, noisy and action-packed splendour of Quebec’s Winter Carnival.
The carnival has been a major date in the winter calendar since its birth in 1894. It was the brainchild of local business owners pondering ways to inject some juice into the stagnant economy during the long winter months. Having a party seemed like a great idea, and nowadays the city invites the world to attend a 17-day festival and celebration. A huge range of activities makes it a great destination, but dress warm!
Quebec City’s carnival takes a not-so-humble third place size-wise after the ones in Rio and New Orleans. But while you can expect to see skimpy costumes at those two blowouts, the Winter Carnival crowd leans more toward multi-hued parkas, snowpants, scarves, hats, mittens and warm boots. There’s little bare skin on show here, except perhaps in the carnival’s Village Arctic Spa hot tubs.
I head down past a mammoth snowplow into the carnival playground. An effigy of Bonhomme, the festival’s snowman mascot, is prominently displayed on my coat, my passport to fun and excitement.
First stop, the preliminaries for the canoe race. Teams of five canoeists display their strength and skills on solid ground, sliding their canoes around an icy, undulating track at breakneck speed. Some spectacular crashes and spills scatter the enthusiastic crowd. This is just the beginning of challenges for these teams.
Tomorrow I’ll be at the harbour to watch these same canoeists race to complete a double circuit over the treacherous shifting ice floes of the St. Lawrence River.
A fellow spectator tells me the race evolved from simple necessity. In the past, farmers needed to transport their freshly butchered meat across the St. Lawrence to the city market. In the bitter winter months, they had to make a hasty crossing in their small boats so the meat wouldn’t freeze during the journey.
During the actual race, these present-day athletes leap out of their canoes, pushing and scrambling to make their way through the ice floes until they meet a stretch of open water, then a frantic bout of paddling propels the team a little further.
The key is to stay in constant forward motion. By the end of the race, I’m not sure if these folks are incredibly brave or a little crazy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s tomorrow.
Today, I’m not surprised to find myself in front of a replica sugar shack, since about three-quarters of the world’s maple products come from the province of Quebec. A group of young visitors has gathered around a long wooden trough to enjoy a traditional treat called “tire d’érable.”
Hot maple syrup is ladled into the snow-packed trough, and as it hardens the kids wind the taffy around wooden sticks. I’m sure the sugar boost helps fuel their day of ice-fishing, skating, tobogganing, snow-rafting, sleigh rides, soapbox derby races and a giant game of table soccer.
After a few wild descents on the tubing slopes, I wander on and find myself amongst an incredible display of ice sculptures. They’re the result of an all-night sculpting extravaganza with participants from around the world.
The immense white forms depict mythical creatures, human figures, abstract shapes and sometimes the downright surreal, like the enormous turtle swimming amid delicate fronds of seaweed, all rendered with precision in snow and ice.
As the sun sets and the temperature drops, I head back to my hotel for a quick nap. The day is still young. This is carnival time, after all.