The crunching of ice. Fog levitating over the St. Lawrence River. A brisk blowing of arctic air swirling around. The splashing of paddle on water. Massive icebergs swiftly pass by. Ice canoeing isn't for the faint of heart but that's what makes travel experiences truly memorable.
You really won't find ice canoeing anywhere else in the world and being the case, it is truly a distinctly unique Canadian activity. When I first heard about it, I thought, who was crazy enough to wake up one morning and take a safely stored canoe for the winter and take 4 of your best friends to forge a crossing over an iceberg-laden river. Are you nuts??
Looking back at history and you realize that there's a little bit more to it than impulsive adrenaline seekers wanting to do something completely insane. In the 17th century, ferrying goods in the winter across the semi-frozen St. Lawrence river was only possible with the guts and glory of the paddlers and their canoes. Canoeing lost favor to the steamboat but the locals kept the tradition alive and that's how the sport was born.
Suiting up at Canot à Glace Québec
So of course, there I was at the ice canoeing center in Quebec City getting ready to do the craziest thing imaginable.
From the river front offices of Ice Canoeing Quebec (Canot à Glace Québec) we were introduced to our guides, Yves and Louise, professional racers of at least 15 years. Their love for the sport was contagious as they gave a very thorough introduction to the sport and what we'd be doing out on the river.
We started suiting up with the provided neoprene socks, gladiator style knee and shin pads, and special crampons with literally screws sticking out of them. If there was any indication that things were going to get hardcore, it was the screws. Anytime screws are required for traction, you know you're in for something other worldly.
Once outside, I realized that the word “canoeing” in this context is a bit of a misnomer because it's more of a rowing motion than a traditional canoe. Yves and Louise gave us a quick training session on the two positions we'd need out in the water. The first is the rowing position where we were to use our legs to push off of the pedals and slide our seat backwards as we flick the paddle towards us with both hands. The second position is the trot. What makes ice canoeing so different is the fact that sometimes you just can't paddle around icebergs and you need to muscle the canoe straight on (if the surface is flat). With one leg hanging out of the canoe and the other in kneeling position in custom built brace mounts, you use the traction of the crampons to thrust the canoe across before jumping back into the canoe to continue paddling.
An experience to remember
You really have to watch the video to get a sense for what it was like to ice canoe but even then it doesn't truly convey how tough it was on the water.
With our two guides, Kyle and Ron of My Family Travels, we pushed our 28-foot long canoe out onto the frozen shore. All I can remember thinking was “I hope this ice is fully frozen”. Once at the meeting point of ice and free flowing water, one by one we got into our canoe and off we went into the St. Lawrence. Yves was our helmsmen followed by me in the front, Kyle, Ron and then Louise. My job as the first rower was to set the rowing pace.
Once in the water, our canoe was pulled into a strong current and swift wind pushing at our back downwards towards Old Quebec City. I could hear shouts of “IN!…OUT!” as Louise tried to sync or rowing together. It worked for awhile but we quickly fell out of line. Despite all of our efforts rowing, digging our paddle's ice picks into ice floes, and several opportunities to trot on islands of ice, all the elements were working against us that day.
I actually thought we were doing pretty well at the beginning, rowing with all my might, but I soon realized that we were in fact losing ground. The big ego buster was the fact that the ice canoeing center was to our left the entire time. Just imagine being on a giant treadmill of icy water while in a canoe and paddling like mad.
We quickly lost ground but eventually we were able to get close to the icy shore where we started. However, with us not knowing how to use our paddles while sandwiched with ice on both sides, we missed our opportunity to dock and were flushed straight back out. At this point there was certainly a feeling of “oh shit!” because we just burned a ton of energy to get to that point. I so wanted to take a break but I knew we couldn't stop rowing because any slacking only meant being carried down stream even further. Mustering everything we had left our team rowed our hearts out. Arms burning and grunting out every last ounce of strength I had left in me, we managed to get back to shore on our second attempt to everyone's collective relief.
The surprising thing was that we were never in any real danger. The canoe was as steady as a rock. The thought of tipping never crossed my mind. The one thing I was curious about was what would've happened if we couldn't make it back. Louise told us that if we couldn't get back to our starting point they had a Plan B in mind so we would've just kept going downstream to find an easier exit point.
Despite the massive challenge that day, the teamwork, adrenaline, and exhilaration was indescribable. Rowing like your life depended on it made me feel more alive than ever before. Despite not rowing significant mileage, powering against that nasty current was a big accomplishment in my books. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to do this again in my lifetime but I am SO glad I was able to.
Need to know before you go
- Address – 615 Blvd Champlain, Québec
- Phone – 418-670-6645
- E-mail – [email protected]
- Price – $200 per person + tax (50% deposit required upon booking)
- Includes – 1 hour on the river, guides (2 per canoe), gear, and training, GoPro footage from the helmsman's helmet
- With -20C or colder temperatures, you need to dress with the appropriate winter gear including a good jacket, neck gaiter (i.e. winter buff), super warm winter gloves/mitts, toque (beanie for my American friends), and snow pants. Boots and socks aren't much of a worry since you'll be given neoprene socks and crampons that will serve as your foot gear.
- I would recommend bringing either sunglasses or ski goggles to protect your eyes.
- The needle definitely swings towards the “you need to be in good shape” to do this.
- That being said, bloggers Kyle and Ron in their 50s and 60s performed admirably.