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Revival of the Ice Canoe

Into the Lost History and Wild Delights of a Quebecois Sport

ISSUE:  Spring 2018

Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell  

A half hour to race time, the snow still coming down, Jean Anderson had a decision to make: canoe number 79, or 181. Number 181 was new, state of the art, the best canoe Anderson had engineered. Whereas 79 was a warhorse, banged up by ice, dented, punctured, patched. What made Anderson’s decision difficult was the snow. So much was coming down that, from the frozen edge of Bassin Louise, you could barely make out the Saint Lawrence’s far shore. On the river’s gray surface, a puzzling pack of ice floes drifted south, headed upstream, the way they’d come.

Here, at Quebec City, approaching the gulf with which it shares a name, the Saint Lawrence River falls under the tidal influence of the North Atlantic. A half hour before race time, the tides were nearing full flood, turning the river back. If you were used to rivers that flow downstream, and downstream only, the upstream floes were a strange sight, as if the river were rewinding itself.

Bassin Louise is a marina on Quebec City’s waterfront. In the summer, pleasure boats come and go from the docks there, traveling downstream to the North Atlantic, or upstream via the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes. The upstream boats go where canoes used to—Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Duluth.

In winter, Bassin Louise freezes over, solidly enough near shore that you probably could do donuts on it in a monster truck if you wanted to. One weekend every winter, the docks wake up from their hibernation. Way out on the basin’s frozen center, a portable generator inflates a pneumatic finish line, turning it first into an angry rubber anaconda and then into a plump arch. A few hundred athletes clad in crampons, nylon, and neoprene, as if for some special operation, descend aluminum gangways. On the gangways, their crampons clatter. On the ice, they click. A stevedore’s crane lowers colorful canoes one by one onto the ice, as if depositing sashimi onto a plate.

The canoes aren’t ordinary canoes. They’re ice canoes, built and painted to race, according to specifications issued by the officials in charge of the competitive ice-canoe circuit: twenty-eight-feet long, at least four at the beam. Made of carbon fiber and Kevlar and epoxy, they are almost as long and about as wide as the 600-pound wooden maître-class beasts in which voyageurs and fur traders used to travel the Saint Lawrence, but much lighter, around 250 pounds. In place of thwarts, most ice canoes have seats that slide on rails like the seats of sculls. Each canoe carries five paddlers—canotiers, the paddlers of canoes are called in Quebec. Only the barreur, French for helmsman or coxswain, actually paddles with a paddle. The other four canotiers pull on oars modified from those used in Olympic rowing, which technically makes canotiers rowers, not paddlers. Ice-canoe oars have ice picks soldered to their blades—they resemble railroad stakes, big nails—because sometimes canotiers are rowing through water and sometimes they are rowing through pack ice. Most but not all ice canoes have paint jobs favoring colors—orange, red, yellow—that are easy to see amid the gray and white welter of water and floes and falling snow. Alongside racing numbers, their hulls advertise the names of sponsors: a pub, the Quebec City Police Department, banks, hotels, an automaker, a law firm, a cheesemonger.

A half hour before race time, the voices of the sportscasters alternated with pop songs, blasting through loudspeakers positioned along the balustrade, excited patter and excited chords bouncing off the riprap and the ice and the concrete walls of Bassin Louise. On the pier, a large crowd huddled and stamped their feet to stay warm while waiting for the race—the oldest and grandest on the competitive ice-canoe circuit—to begin. The cold was a draw more than a deterrent; Quebec is the birthplace of ice canoeing—or, as it’s called in French, canot à glace—and Quebec City’s annual ice-canoe race is the Kentucky Derby, the Grand Prix, or, as one of the sportscasters put it last February, “le Super Bowl” of canot à glace. On the frozen basin, carrying a clipboard, a race official walked among the turtled canoes dusted with snow, inspecting them. Out on the Saint Lawrence, a tremendous freighter, blue hull streaked with rust, was steaming south, blocks of ice tumbling before its prow.

Map by Jenn Boggs

Ice canoeing is to Quebecsomething like what surfing is to Hawaii, except that, unlike the surfboard—or the bark canoe, for that matter—the ice canoe has yet to attract many enthusiasts beyond its place of origin. Odds are, it never will. It evolved over the course of centuries in response to the peculiar conditions of the Lower Saint Lawrence. Upstream from Quebec City, before the arrival of steamboats, the river froze into a reliable ice road. People living near what is now Montreal traveled the river by snowshoe or dogsled, later by horse. But in Quebec City, most winter months, the brackish tides kept open a channel, down which, riding the ebb and the flood, drifted a shifting labyrinth of floes. If for some dire reason you needed to enter that labyrinth, and hoped to exit it, you had little choice but to take a canoe.

Canoes had a distinct advantage over heavier boats: In theory at least, beset paddlers could portage over the ice—climbing out onto the slippery, tippy, drifting platform of a floe, dragging their canoe to open water. These midstream portages often proved to be as perilous as you’d expect. The French colonists who settled Quebec in the sixteenth century picked up the practice from the Algonquin Indians who’d preceded them. You can find in colonial journals and memoirs accounts of canoes crushed by ice, of drownings, of castaways stranded on floes.

By the nineteenth century, wooden canoes had replaced bark canoes and ice canoeing had become a profession. Canotiers were the teamsters and taxi drivers of the Lower Saint Lawrence, connecting Quebec City with settlements on the river’s south bank, or on the islands downstream. There are old photographs and paintings of canotiers transporting bundles of mail or paying passengers—men in dark suits, women in fur coats—across jagged fields of ice. Students who lived in Levis, Quebec City’s outer borough, on the south bank, would commute by ice canoe. So would doctors and priests. 

The arrival of steamboats and bridges made ice canoes and canotiers, practically speaking, obsolete, but like other obsolete modes of transportation (horses, sailboats, kayaks, bark canoes), ice canoes found a second life as pastime and sport, and in Quebec, if nowhere else, that sport is increasingly popular and increasingly competitive.

Along with an obsolete mode of transportation, ice canoe races have preserved anachronistic knowledge—knowledge older than North America’s recorded history. Those of us who live south of the Canadian border tend to forget how much of our own early history was written in French. The territory Jefferson purchased from Napoleon was in fact a mere remnant of the realm the French had claimed more than a century before in the name of Louis XIV. At its inception, Louisiana had encompassed the entirety of the Mississippi Basin—stretching from the Rockies in the west to the Appalachians in the east. Mississippi does not mean “Father of Waters,” as you might have heard. It’s the phonetic spelling of what the Algonquian for “Big River” sounded like to some Frenchman’s ears. Miss is in fact the same Algonquian word as the Mich in Michigan, which is the phonetic spelling of what an Algonquian phrase, meaning “Big Water,” sounded like to some other Frenchman. 

Forget the wagon trains, Manifest Destiny, the frontier receding westward across the continent. Long before the arrival of Europeans and for a few centuries after, people traveled through the American interior by canoe, plying a vascular system of water routes that meandered and branched in all four of the cardinal directions, connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. 

From Quebec, a voyageur could paddle all the way to Lake Superior, or farther. Two decades before people in Salem started hunting witches, Frenchmen in canoes had already visited the wondrous and populous realm called Peoria. Most of those first documented expeditions into the region now known ingloriously as the American Midwest—or sentimentally as the Heartland, or dismissively as Flyover Country—had begun and ended on the Lower Saint Lawrence.

I’d driven to Quebec City in a banged-up warhorse of a station wagon, traveling icy highways that approximated the old water routes, skirting the Canadian coasts of Lakes Erie and Ontario, following the Saint Lawrence north. A trip that by canoe would have taken six weeks, by station wagon had taken twelve hours. But speed had come at a cost. Our mobility had blurred away a finer-scale geography—a subtler sense of place. However useless and anachronistic, the knowledge canotiers had preserved,
acquired and passed down by generations, seemed worth saving.

In an essay on rivers, poet Robert Hass wrote that “[t]hough the names are still magic—Amazon, Congo, Mississippi, Niger, Plate, Volga, Tiber, Seine, Ganges, Mekon, Rhine, Colorado, Marne, Orinoco, Rio Grande—the rivers themselves have almost disappeared from consciousness in the modern world. Insofar as they exist in our imagination, that existence is nostalgic.” To that disappearance, that nostalgia, canotiers had found—or so I’d hoped—one antidote. 

Jean Anderson’s team, Team Château Frontenac—named for its chief sponsor, the luxury hotel that is Quebec’s most famous landmark—was favored to win the day’s race, and the following week’s in Montreal, and all nine races on the 2017 circuit. They win the Quebec City race so often that every year, in anticipation, the staff of Château Frontenac arranges a post-race victory celebration—sometimes attended by hundreds—in the hotel’s banquet hall. Since forming his own team in 1985, Anderson had won the circuit twenty-six times, more than any other team captain in the sport’s history. “He’s like the Tiger Woods of ice canoeing,” a former teammate, Eric Fraser, told me, which may not sound as glamorous or as remunerative as being the Tiger Woods of golf, but in Quebec, Anderson is legendary.

He does have one long-standing rival—the Brothers Gilbert, Guy and Yves. Yves, the eldest member of Team Volvo, is known to his teammates as Le Vulcan, the Vulcan—not, mind you, because he outwardly resembles the awkward-eared positivists of Star Trek, but because his teammates have concluded, judging by his refusal to wear a hat in abhorrently cold weather, steam radiating off his head into the subzero air, that “he’s probably from another planet.” Anderson had learned the sport from the Brothers Gilbert before leaving to start his own team. Together the Gilberts and Anderson are widely credited with turning ice-canoe races from an old-timey celebration of Quebecois culture and history into a borderline-professional sporting event that you could almost imagine at the Olympics, if only there were more rivers on the planet like the Saint Lawrence. At the big Quebec City race in 2000, just eighteen teams competed. Last February, that number had risen to fifty-eight.

Balding and bespectacled, Anderson has a physique more suggestive of a scarecrow than an Olympian, but he trains hard year-round, in summer months trading a canoe for a ten-speed. Quebecois accents vary from county to county. Anderson’s is so strong that to my unaccustomed ears he might as well have been speaking Portuguese. We communicated—in a mixture of French and English—mostly through Anderson’s longtime teammate, Michel Lessard. Anderson and Lessard, both engineers, run a factory that makes equipment for technical schools. Students around the world learn to repair wind turbines and air conditioners on equipment the factory makes. At one end of the factory floor, in a space the size of an airplane hangar, under mysterious hooks running along mysterious conveyances, Anderson and Lessard have set up what they call “the laboratory,” where they conduct ice-canoe R & D.Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell

Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell

Since the early 1980s, when fiberglass boatmaking became affordable, canotiers have been experimenting with the canoe, molding—first out of fiberglass, later out of carbon fiber—novel hull shapes more hydrodynamic than the traditional ones permitted by bark or wood. Their inventors tend to name these designs after sea creatures found in the waters off Quebec. The varieties of ice canoe now include the Beluga, the Sardine, the Narwhal, the Orca. Anderson has invented the two canoes—the Capelin, named for a species of fish, and the Dolphin—that have in recent years become the sport’s standard. 

Their younger teammates refer to Lessard and Anderson as “the old men”—les vieux. They take no offense. They are old enough, in their late fifties, though you wouldn’t know it, watching them hauling away on the oars. When they retire, they plan to paddle across the Arctic with a team of men and dogs. “We want to make a special canoe,” Lessard told me. “You can turn the canoe over, make it a house. You’ll be able to go across ice in it, with dogs. Ice, water; ice, water.” Competing on the ice-canoe circuit is their way of training for this Arctic passage. One of the younger members of their team has an Olympic gold medal in speed skating, another is a firefighter who works in subarctic mines. One works as a physical trainer for the Canadian military. What les vieux bring to the team is experience, expertise, and above all an obsessive technological perfectionism, which explained why, a half hour before race time, they were still deciding which canoe to race.

All the other ice canoes on the frozen basin were easily distinguished by their logos and paint jobs, but canoes 79 and 181 were an identical glossy shade of construction-cone orange. If not for their racing numbers, you would have had a hard time telling them apart. Team Château Frontenac was the only team that had brought two canoes to the starting line instead of one. Back at their laboratory, Anderson and Lessard had applied a different wax treatment to each—a different mixture of waxes, spread out in different thicknesses in different places. Their wax recipes are top secret. To understand their secrecy, and the importance of wax, you have to understand that an ice canoe, even more than most canoes, is an amphibious vehicle—half sled, half boat. Along the keel there runs a polished strip that on ice acts as an enormous skate, on snow as an enormous ski. 

In any canoe race on any river or stream, paddlers have to gauge the currents. In an ice-canoe race they also have to gauge the ice. On the Saint Lawrence, the pack ice shifts and reshuffles itself from minute to minute. You’ll see a channel of open water and aim for it, performing geometry in your head, calculating your speed, compensating for the current, and then, as you draw near, the wind will gust, the ice pack will change course, the channel will close up, and you’ll find yourself faced with no choice but to make a transition—the deceptively bland term for a complicated feat of waterborne gymnastics that is perhaps the hardest element for rookies to master.

When the canoe’s prow grinds onto a floe, the canotiers unsnap their long oars from the oarlocks, stow them—taking care not to skewer each other with the ice picks soldered to the oar blades—then leap from their seats onto the gunwales, balancing there for a second on their knees before, with a little spin, dropping one shin into a padded brace bolted to the inner wall of the tumble home. They throw the other leg overboard and commence to scoot. That’s the term for it, even in Canadian French—scooting, or sometimes scootering. To scoot, you kick at the ice, propelling the canoe as if launching a bobsled, except that unlike bobsledders, canotiers rarely scoot with two feet, rarely place their full weight on the ice, which can give way without warning. Even still, it is not uncommon for canotiers to take a hypothermic dip. Sometimes the canotiers to starboard are scooting on ice while those to port are kicking through water or slush. When floes collide, they saw at each other. Fragments pile up. After repeated collisions, the fragments build into jagged breastworks, little Himalayan ranges of ice, over which the canotiers have to wrangle their boats. Reaching open water, they perform another transition, spin back into their sliding seats, and take up their oars.

Scooting explains why canotiers sheathe their legs in shinguards and neoprene, and why they wear crampons or cleats. The members of Team Château Frontenac have scars on their legs where they took a teammate’s cleat to the thigh. On scrappier teams, canotiers will screw sawed-off bolts into the soles of rugby shoes. With their characteristic perfectionism, the canotiers on Anderson’s team wear, over neoprene booties, expensive artisanal crampons made to order by a manufacturer of medical prosthetics. 

“A race like this, you win on scooting,” Lessard told me. “It’s very rare that you win it with paddling. Because with paddling there’s no great difference between two teams. You are very strong, or not strong. It’s about the same speed: twelve kilometers an hour compared to eleven.” On the ice, a team skilled at transitions and scooting can maintain some forward momentum even while surmounting obstacles. At their fastest, Anderson’s team can average a scooting speed of six, seven, maybe eight kilometers an hour. Teams that have strength but poor technique flounder on the ice. 

You have to know how to read the ice, Lessard told me, and you have to know, before race time, how to wax your canoe. The wax job can decide a race. The treatment Anderson and Lessard had applied to canoe 181 was optimal for dry and icy conditions. Canoe 79 had been waxed for snow, which under humid conditions adheres like glue. They’d planned to race 181, the newer of the two, but now they were reconsidering. They’d taken 181 out on the river and hadn’t liked the feel of it. Too much snow. It was supposed to let up but showed no sign of doing so. 

Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell

Before the race, snow still falling, the team assembled in the back of Lessard’s minivan to power up on jelly sandwiches and strategize. There followed a flurry of French, from which I snatched phrases. I kept hearing the word tabernac, which literally means tabernacle, but Quebecois slang has poetically transformed the vocabulary of the Catholic Church into expressive blasphemies. Tabernac, somehow, has acquired the percussive potency of an F-bomb. 

Lessard would be the barreur today, which meant he would be sitting astern in the coxswain’s seat, navigating the course, calling out commands to his teammates, who would all be seated facing him, backs turned to whatever surprises lay ahead, pulling on their oars in synchrony, listening to Lessard, who, when he saw ice to the left, would shout out, “Babord-ba!” or if to the right, “Tribord-ti!” Babord and tribord are French for “port” and “starboard.” Because the ice can be deafening, and because babord and tribord end in the same syllable, the barreur appends an extra syllable to each, ba and ti, making them easier to distinguish. If there were ice straight ahead Lessard would shout, “Up en avant!” and then “Scoot, scoot, scoot.” Today, Anderson would assume the role of ice captain—a confusing term, since the barreur is mostly in charge, except mid-scoot. The ice captain sits up front in the bow. When scooting, afforded the best view of the terrain ahead, he takes command. Anderson, who is tall (six feet and change), often plays this role because when a canoe is surmounting a ridge of ice, the prow will shoot up into the air, and, standing on a floe, the Ice Captain has to reach up and wrestle the canoe back down.

“You’ll need total vigilance,” Lessard told the team now, in his minivan. “But you also must be relaxed. No crying out. No games. Keep your sangfroid! No emotions!” By the time they emerged from the minivan into the heavy snow, Anderson and Lessard had settled on canoe 79. An hour later, it was 181 they brought to the starting line. 

Five minutes to race time, the sportscasters called for a moment of silence. The loudspeakers quieted, as did the crowd. A week before, at a local mosque, a terrorist had gunned down six worshippers. Over Bassin Louise there settled a stillness. On the pier, pressed against the cold railing among many strangers, you could hear the rustle of Goretex and nylon. You could almost hear the snow. All that seemed to move was the ice, headed upstream. 

And then, with a blast, the silence ended and the race began.

Whether spectators or competitors, what else do we seek from sport, other than to slow time down and give it a more discernible shape—marked, say, by a starting line and a finish line, divided into laps, reducing history to moments because moments are easier to understand and abide? A race intensifies time, and by intensifying it, a race banishes for its brief duration, or attempts to, both the future and the past.

This is how an ice-canoe race begins: madly, with a cumbersome yet agile dash, a burst of scooting, the teams pushing their canoes across the land-fast ice to the river’s edge, trying to build momentum. When canotiers are scooting, their canoes look a bit like beetles with five legs. Heard from the pier, the noise of canoes on ice was reminiscent of the sound a skate’s blade makes on ice, or a skateboard’s axle on a curb. Heard from within the canoe, the noise is thunderous. The team that reaches the river first has the advantage of picking their course, but there are advantages to following behind: You can let the team ahead plow your path.

Team Volvo took the early lead, reaching the water’s edge several seconds ahead of Team Château Frontenac, which was vying for third place. Jean Anderson had chosen to hug the southern wall of Bassin Louise. Team Volvo—in a royal- blue canoe, the automaker’s name written in white block letters along its sides—had shot straight down the middle. Today, the team did not include the Vulcan, though it would the following week in Montreal. Instead, the pilot seat was occupied by Yves and Guy Gilbert’s nephew, Benoit Gilbert. Volvo’s blue canoe nosed from the basin into the water. The canotiers transitioned just in time, leaping in, and rowed a few strokes. A dozen yards out, they entered the ice pack and transitioned again. Scooting, they aimed for the southeastern shore while the drifting ice carried them southwest.

The tides are what make Quebec City’s race, in most years, among the least predictable of the seven races on the ice-canoe circuit. The push and pull between river and tide, between brackish water and fresh, creates fluid dynamics more chaotic than you’ll find elsewhere on the Saint Lawrence, or on most rivers. The river bends at Quebec. Confronted by an incoming tide, the downstream current—succumbing to the Coriolis force—favors the far, southern shore. The incoming tide favors the northern shore near Quebec City. The two together—current and tide—set the river’s surface spinning. 

The ice midstream, Eric Fraser told me, resembles “turntables.” Michel Lessard described an ice-canoe race as “two dimensional,” by which he meant that unlike other races, there is no track or lane to follow. The course is a shape-shifting terrain. The possibilities before you are ever-changing. You have to triangulate to make it through the turntables.

Say you’re midstream. Say you’re Lessard. In the helmsman’s seat. Of canoe 181. Languishing in third place. Wondering if perhaps you and Jean Anderson have chosen the wrong canoe but also trying to banish that thought along with all other distractions. You are trying to read the ice ahead, trying to pick your course through it. At the same time, because the turntables are spinning, you have to keep glancing behind you, toward the way you came, to the north shore, where from the river’s edge Quebec City ascends to the red-brick towers of Château Frontenac. On the north shore you’ve picked two points. Maybe point one is Château Frontenac, high atop the bluff. Maybe point two is the long column of giant concrete silos at the grain terminal beside the docks of Bassin Louise. While keeping your eye on your two points, you also keep your eye on the target across the river. And on the intervening ice. And on the blue canoe of Team Volvo.

Quebec City was built at a defensible bottleneck. The city’s name is a French transliteration of kébec, Algonquian for “where the river narrows.” When the river reverses, the bottleneck clogs with floes. There’s a lake a hundred miles upstream, about halfway to Montreal, a swelling in the river, Lake Saint Pierre, that marks the terminus of the influence of the tides. In the spring, when the lake’s ice breaks up, floes drifting past Quebec City sometimes carry traces of the lives lived upstream: the tracks of snowmobiles, folding chairs, a fishing hut. These traces will travel along the city’s waterfront, heading north. They’ll return on the incoming tide, heading south, then return once more when the tide goes out. Finally, they will disappear from view, bound for the sea, where the ice will eventually melt, casting its cargo adrift or letting it sink.

Next week’s race upstream in Montreal would be comparatively tame. Ship traffic long ago obliterated Montreal’s ice road. The river is as narrow there as it is at Quebec City, but at Montreal, the river behaves the way rivers usually behave, flowing in one direction, carrying the ice downstream. Here at Quebec, you have to study the tidal charts, and plan your race accordingly, minimizing the time you spend on what canotiers call le tapis roulant, French for “treadmill.” Literally: “the rolling rug.” Caught on the treadmill, rowing against a current, a weak team will stall. The more time on the treadmill, the longer your race; the less time, the shorter. Back in the minivan, Lessard and Anderson had told their teammates to save some strength for the final leg of every lap. They’d need to power through the tide. 

Ten minutes after the elite men launched, the elite women followed, scooting across the ice, plowing ruts that fanned out from the starting line. Finally, ten minutes later, came the hoi polloi, the thirty-eight teams of the sport division, some plowing new ruts, most availing themselves of the ruts already plowed. At the prow of the team sponsored by the Quebec Police Department, a red siren silently spun. 

It took the elite men around forty-five minutes to complete a single lap, and for much of that time, they were upstream, out of view. The spectators were left to wonder and wait, shivering on the pier. French colonists, ignorant of the Gulf Stream and its effect on Europe’s weather, were baffled by Canada’s frigid climate. Quebec City, after all, occupies the same approximate latitude as Bordeaux. In 1684, a French military officer, the Baron of Lahontan, arrived in the colony identified on maps as New France. Winter there was so cold, Lahontan wrote in a letter home, that “one ought to have his Blood compos’d of Brandy, his Body of Brass, and his Eyes of Glass.”

Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell

Team Château Frontenac returned to the basin alone, completing the first lap three minutes ahead of Team Volvo. The rest of the elite men were languishing out of view. Frontenac’s lead seemed to fulfill the prophecies of oddsmakers. No way could anyone close a lead like that. But then the unexpected happened. Château Frontenac and Team Volvo completed their second lap just as canoes in the sport division were completing their first. Turning onto the final leg, Lessard, piloting canoe 181, found himself confronted with a choice: paddle up a watery channel crowded with canoes, or circumvent the crowd by scootering over ice sticky with snow. He chose the ice. 

In the pilot seat of Volvo’s blue canoe, Benoit Gilbert chose the crowd—the riskier choice, since unskilled teams in the sport division can behave haphazardly. Hemmed in against the waterfront’s wall, there’d be little room to maneuver. Sure enough, a collision occurred, violent enough to snap one of Team Volvo’s four oars. This handicap should have knocked them out, but as it so happened, Gilbert had brought with him a kayak paddle that he’d recently been experimenting with on open water. His teammates passed it to the canotier up front, and they kept going, two oars to starboard, one oar to port, a canoe paddle in back, a kayak paddle at the bow. Rowing and paddling, dodging and weaving through the flotilla of canoes, even with a broken oar, Volvo made better time than Frontenac did on the sticky ice. 

Frontenac held the lead all the way back to the target to the left of the finish line, but barely. Beginning the third and final lap, scooting across the frozen surface of Bassin Louise, the two teams hit the water and then the ice pack only seconds apart, executing their transitions almost in unison. All the way across the river, they paced each other, reaching the far shore at precisely the same moment, crossing oars as they fought to touch the target, and by the time the blue canoe and the orange one disappeared from view, upstream, around the bend, the race was a dead heat. 

During my time in Quebec, I did manage to learn firsthand what it’s like out there, in the labyrinth of floes, freezing your ass off while attempting to perform waterborne gymnastics. There’s an outfitter that for a couple hundred bucks will set you up with an ice canoe and a seasoned canotier or two to serve as guides. 

After a brief onshore tutorial, we went charging down the riverbank through deep snow, pushing a sky-blue carbon-fiber Dolphin before us. I am not by nature agile. Nor am I particularly athletic. I do paddle, but only in spring and summer, and only recreationally, and mostly on the exurban lakes and streams of southeast Michigan, rather docile bodies of water whereon sunbathers like to float in inner tubes outfitted sidecar-style with coolers of beer. 

By the time we reached the edge of the landfast ice and prepared to take the plunge, I was already winded, but our barreur, an environmental cartographer named Marie-Janick Robitaille, proved to be a pitiless commander—a joyful one, but pitiless. 

Photograph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell

The tide was just beginning to come in. We rowed against it, heading north by northeast, downstream. Near our launch site, an icebreaker lay at anchor, and I kept glancing at its huge red hull, hoping to see it shrink into the distance, which it did, but far more slowly than I’d have liked. “To the right!” Robitaille shouted in English, and I lifted my oar blade to clear a passing floe. In those instances when you didn’t clear your blade in time, the ice could pin the oar handle against your chest. To escape you had to yank it from the oarlock, liberate the blade, then slam the oar back into place. To a skilled canotier, this rarely happened. To me, it happened about ten times. 

“Ready up front!” Robitaille shouted, and up front, the canotiers prepared to execute a transition. I kept rowing, sustaining the canoe’s momentum as it beached upon a floe. “Ready in back!” Robitaille shouted. I wasn’t, but I faked it. It is difficult to balance on the gunwale of a canoe while wearing shinguards and attempting to synchronize your acrobatics with those of another paddler who is likewise balancing on a gunwale. Scooting on ice was hard, scooting through water or slush harder still. Around my foot and shin there formed a glassy shell of ice. It felt as if someone had lashed a dumbbell to my ankle. 

“Let’s go play in the ice!” Robitaille said. Attempting to transition, I leapt to the gunwales prematurely. The canoe rocked hard to starboard under my weight, almost chucking one of my teammates overboard. A bucketful or two of slush sloshed into the hull. I tumbled to port, righting the canoe but also landing hard on my seat, derailing it.

We kept going a little while longer, but the flood tide was accelerating, and we found ourselves caught on the treadmill, going nowhere. Before turning back and heading for shore, Robitaille gave us a short break. 

We rested our oars, let the tide carry us, and as my heart began to decelerate, I was overcome by euphoria. I saw that it was magnificent out there, spinning around on the circling currents.

On the pier beside Bassin Louise, the snow had finally stopped. The tide and river had attained an eerie equilibrium. This happens a few times every day. The ice goes still, the floes lying atop their own reflections. It is, in these moments, as if the river is holding its breath.

The frenzied ice canoes, grinding into and out of the frozen basin, broke the spell—so many of them, it was hard to tell which were coming and which were going.

Out on the river, canoe number 181 and the blue canoe of Team Volvo had both turned onto the last leg of the third lap, the race’s final stretch. Team Frontenac had opened up a small lead. Again Lessard and Gilbert faced the choice: crowded channel or detour through the ice. Again Lessard chose the ice, and this time Gilbert followed, but not directly in Lessard’s path, and the course Gilbert charted was the better one. Scooting, Team Volvo gained, pulling up portside to canoe 181, and then, fighting for the best lane, with a great clattering of oars, the two canoes collided. Out of the collision Volvo pulled ahead. 

Meanwhile, neither Lessard nor Gilbert nor any of their teammates had noticed canoe 492, sponsored by La Capitale Groupe Financier. They hadn’t noticed canoe 492 because no one on Team Volvo or Team Château Frontenac considered Team La Capitale a threat. In the first race of the season, at Port Neuf, they’d placed seventh out of ten. In the second, at Rimouski, they hadn’t bothered to compete. Now, while Volvo and Château Frontenac were battling it out, La Capitale’s barreur navigated up the crowded channel skillfully, or perhaps luckily, avoiding collisions. His team slipped into Bassin Louise in first place. “Mon dieu!” the sportscaster shouted. “Not Château Frontenac! Not Volvo! It’s the big surprise of the day! Canoe number 492! La Capitale! Wow!”

This is how an ice-canoe race ends: with a final charge across the frozen basin to the finish line. Canoe 492 scooted beneath the pneumatic arch unchallenged. The ruts in the ice were so deep now, they’d become like canals, which made passing difficult. In front of canoe 181, blocking the way, Volvo seemed to have a lock on second place, but, entering the basin, they made an unforced error. Instead of scooting toward the pneumatic finish line, they scooted in the direction of the target to the left of it. “We were a bit excited about all that was happening—the missing oar, Frontenac just beside us, finishing the race,” Gilbert later told me. “We lost focus for a moment.”

Jean Anderson saw his opening, and his team accelerated into a kind of one-legged sprint. Team Volvo had noticed their error and were trying to correct it, steering to the right, aiming for the finish line, but now it was a matter of geometry. The angle of Anderson’s path was smaller than the angle available to Team Volvo, and canoe 181 passed under the arch first, in second place, Volvo’s blue canoe following moments after.

In Michel Lessard’s minivan, we rode through the narrow, slushy streets of Canada’s oldest city, ascending the bluff in silence. Lessard was convinced they’d raced the wrong canoe. Number 79 would have performed better in the snow, he told me. In 2016, when they’d won the Super Bowl of canot à glace, a press conference had accompanied the celebration in the banquet hall of Château Frontenac. There were no members of the press in attendance this year, only me. At the hotel’s entrance, Lessard handed his minivan’s keys to the valet and climbed the marble steps. He’d taken off his crampons but was otherwise still outfitted for a sprint on the river.

Château Frontenac was never an actual château. Some of the buildings on the nearby streets date from the 1600s. The hotel itself was built in 1892. It is a Gilded Age ostentation, dressed up with conical towers to resemble a medieval castle. In the hotel’s banquet hall, waiters in black aprons and white shirts had put out a buffet of dishes under silver lids. Amid an array of fruits and cheeses, an enormous ice sculpture, depicting a boatload of canotiers, had begun to melt. 

All of the round banquet tables were empty but one around which the members of Team Château Frontenac had gathered to commiserate. However dispiriting, their defeat was temporary. The following week in Montreal, I’d watch them win easily, passing under the arch three and a half minutes ahead of Volvo. They’d place second in the last three races of the season—Sorel-Tracy, Isle-aux-Coudres, and Grand Défi—and in these last two races, it would be Team Volvo that would best them; but having placed in every race, with three wins for the season to Volvo’s two, Château Frontenac would be crowned the 2017 champions of the ice-canoe circuit once again.

In the banquet hall, I took a seat beside Eric Fraser. He’d had to give up ice canoeing two years before on account of a new job designing snowshoes for a sporting-goods company. The job required him to make frequent trips to factories in China. He missed racing and still sometimes went out with the team on training runs for the fun of it. On a big screen here in the banquet hall, he and other spectators had watched a live feed of the race. 

When I’d asked other canotiers what had drawn them to the sport, many spoke nostalgically about the connection to local history, some about needing to be outdoors during Quebec’s depressively long winter. Most spoke about their love of the Saint Lawrence. When I put the question to Fraser, who speaks fluent English, he told me about the nocturnal training runs. Since the training schedule in ice canoeing is determined by the tides, and since winter days are short, the members of Anderson’s team often have no choice but to go out on the river before sunrise or after dark. “It’s superb. It’s poetic. It’s majestic,” Fraser said. “We’ll stop the boat. Five grown men. Not talking. Just looking.” He searched for the words to explain it. “Because the movement is so fluid, you don’t feel movement. You feel the environment is moving for you.”

The day after the big race, I drive north. I want to follow the Saint Lawrence to its mouth. Way up at Godbout, where the river ends and the Gulf begins, there’s a car ferry that crosses to the far shore. I’ve booked a ticket. In winter, the ferry departs just once a day, at 5 p.m. sharp, and I’m running late. North of Quebec City, the highway veers away from the river and up into the mountains of the Canadian Shield. My phone dies. The charger won’t work. I stop at a gas station to squeegee my windshield and purchase a map, then speed on. The road plunges out of the mountains to the edge of the Saguenay River where it empties into the Saint Lawrence. There’s no bridge. You have to cross on an open-decked ferry. On the Saguenay’s north bank, the highway resumes. There’s a village there, Tadoussac. I pull off to see it. Tadoussac is among the oldest settlements in North America. Half a millennium ago, it was here that colonists from France often first set foot on North American soil. Prior to the arrival of the French, the Innu had a hunting camp and trading post here. On September 1, 1535, on his second voyage, explorer Jacques Cartier landed at Tadoussac and found “four boats” (canoes) in which “Canadians” (a band of local Innu) were “fishing for sea-wolves” (hunting seals). North of Tadoussac, the highway keeps roller-coastering along, following the mountainous shore of the Saint Lawrence, sheer granite cliffs dropping off to the river below. 

We don’t think of the Great Lakes as a river, but that’s what they are: immense, deep interruptions in a slow-moving stream 2,300 miles long—as long, approximately, as the Mississippi—and the last 743 miles of that stream we call the Saint Lawrence. Water in western Lake Superior will eventually, after 300 years, make its way here. At the river’s end, I’m not sure what I hope to find. Maybe I’m wishing that highways could rewind. That driving were time travel. 

Canoes, Sieur de Lahontan noted in 1683, are the “voitures” of North America. In his era, voitures were horse-drawn carriages. In ours, voitures are cars. It’s true: In the seventeenth century, canoes were, in the interior of the continent, North America’s preferred utility vehicle. “In these slender contrivances,” Lahontan wrote, “the Canadians perform all their Voyages.” People didn’t climb into them seeking a wilderness experience, or an athletic challenge, or an endorphin rush, an intensification of time. They climbed into them for the same reason that, this morning, in a hurry, I’d climbed behind the wheel of my station wagon: to get where they needed to go with what they needed to carry as safely and as swiftly as possible. Maybe centuries from now—it occurs to me, as I speed north to Godbout—people will race station wagons on some ruined remnant of interstate.

I make it to Godbout by a quarter to five, just in time. The sun is already setting. The cars queued up for the ferry are numerous. It takes a while for us to board. By the time we embark, night has fallen. There’s no moon. With my face pressed to a window, I look out over the bow into the darkness. In the ferry’s running lights, ghostly floes appear and vanish. We are crossing the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. I give up trying to see out into the darkness. I listen instead to the noisy music of the steel hull, which plays alternately rumbling and silent variations on the water and ice as we travel along the imaginary line between the river and the sea.  




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Greg's picture
Greg · 6 years ago

Great read! One comment - I think that "soldered" (the ice picks soldered to the oars) is maybe not the right word? Welded seems to be more accurate as a solder joint (used in electronics) could not possibly hold up in this intene sport.


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