Saquenay, Lac-Saint-Jean region, Quebec
The wolves’ plaintive cries split the pre-dawn silence and my lizard brain screamed, “run”! My logical brain knew sturdy chain-link fences separated me from the wolves but my primitive brain was pulling rank. En-route to the outhouse, I froze and my breath quickened, each inhalation sucking in crisp woodland air. The cacophonous canine chorus rolled through my body as every nerve went on full alert. I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep but I was discovering Quebec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region turned sound sleepers into insomniacs. Some travel to recharge. I was wondering – was it was possible to get a normal night’s sleep here?
My first night I hung in a fiberglass bubble suspended in the forest and overlooking the cool deep waters of Saguenay fjord. At Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux, two spheres – one camouflaged to blend in, the other looking like a giant disco ball – offer the ultimate tree houses for sleepy travellers. The suspended walkway linking earth to the shiny sphere bounced as I gingerly inched my way into a compact living-cum-sleeping area. Suspended in the forest like a passenger in a silver soap bubble, the whistle of forest breezes and chattering of squirrels soothed my soul. When darkness fell I snuggled in for a night as a forest creature. Unfortunately, I make a lousy forest creature. My city roots showed as I woke frequently to examine each new sound.
The next day it was on to Village Historique De Val-Jalbert, Canada’s largest ghost town. Founded in 1902 to support a pulp mill, residents enjoyed modern amenities seldom found outside large cities like Boston. Unfortunately the mill could not remain competitive and closed in 1927. Val-Jalbert slept undisturbed until being reborn as a tourist attraction. Now people wander the streets taking streetcar rides from the ‘mayor’ and riding the funicular to overlook Ouiatchouan River waterfalls. After dark, the gates close and a handful of travellers bunk in restored homes. I wandered the empty streets; darkened houses and building ruins provided the perfect backdrop for ghost hunting. Val-Jalbert residents doomed to a lesser lifestyle left reluctantly when the mill closed and I wondered if any returned in spirit form. Tired, I climbed the stairs to my room and waited for ghostly appearances. I dozed off awaking just in time to pick up the only ghost I saw – a keychain in the general store.
Continuing my sleepless ways, I headed to Zoo Sauvage De Saint-Felicien. Here the truly dangerous creatures – Homo sapiens – are behind fences and animals roam free. Our bus crept past grizzly bears and elk herds, cameras clicking as we enjoyed our roving viewing blind. We stretched our legs at a recreated settler’s farm tucking into a lunch of gourganes (broad bean) soup and roast pork. A black bear ambled by the door stopping lunchtime conversation as surely as if the Queen had popped her head out of the kitchen.
Bellies full, our guide drove us to a secure part of the forest for our overnight stay as part of zoo’s program, The Walking Adventure in the Land of the Caribou. On one side of an electric fence bears, muskox and bison, on the other slow-running humans, two caribou and several moose. We piled off of the bus and wandered through towering aspen and waist-high ferns to camp. Looking like a boreal version of an African safari, prospector-style tents circled a large campfire, glasses and plates piled neatly inside a screened dining shelter. French and English flowed as travelers shared stories of their boreal adventure.
Heading into the shadows outside of camp I strode to the outhouse, startled as a lanky caribou drifted into view, his eyes meeting mine briefly before his ghostly figure blended back into the darkness. Wondering why trips to the outhouse yield some of my best wildlife encounters, I headed to my tent and another night where the novelty made it difficult to sleep. I crawled into a sleeping bag atop fir boughs, softer than an air mattress and releasing fresh pine smells whenever I moved. Tired from the hike and breathing fresh air seemed the perfect recipe for a sound sleep. And then I wondered if the zoo had a backup generator if the fence lost power during the night.
Shortly after sunrise, I crawled bleary-eyed from the tent to find everything on the correct side of the fence and our group headed to the town of Giradville and Aventuraid – the home of Gilles Granal and three wolf packs. Arriving at facility’s entrance, Granal greeted us with news we might be invited into an enclosure of grey wolves – imprinted on humans – and engage in some interspecies communication.
Through a translator he explained, “We are only going in with the wolves because they want the stimulation, not because we want to see wolves. And we will only go in if the wolves are in the right mood.” Fortunately luck was on our side, the wolves wanted company and we entered cautiously, camera straps tucked under our clothes and anything that might get chewed left behind. We lined up against the fence like suspects in a police lineup and the wolves showed as much curiosity as cops frisking us. A large white wolf put its front paws on my shoulders, sniffed my hair, and licked my face with an enthusiasm I couldn’t reciprocate. I soon discovered wolf communication involved licking and sniffing in places non-wolves don’t consider polite.
Sitting among the wolves I felt like Joy Adamson with her lion in Born Free. The wolves’ frantic greetings gave way to pleas for belly rubs before apathy crept in and they wandered away in search of new smells. Not wanting to overstay our welcome we headed to our cabins a few meters from the wolf enclosures. “You’ll be able to see the wolves from your window when you awake,” Gilles said, gesturing to trees barely visible in approaching darkness. I smiled at the implication I would have a full night’s sleep and headed to bed. I knew the adventure in Saguenay–Saint-Lac-Jean didn’t stop when the sun went down. I would have to wait until I got home to catch up on my sleep.
Carol Patterson inspires everyday explorers with words and video. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.carolpatterson.ca