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Winter thrills

Stone-cold crazy

People have been battling the frozen St. Lawrence River by boat for centuries. In the 1600s, it was a matter of survival. Now, ice canoeing is a serious sport in Quebec – and finally amateurs can give it a bone-chilling go

Ice canoeing requires the use of oars, not paddles. About 3.5 metres long, the oars feature sharp picks for pushing off ice floes.

Ice canoeing requires the use of oars, not paddles. About 3.5 metres long, the oars feature sharp picks for pushing off ice floes.

Canot à Glace

I’m on an ice floe, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The shriek of sheet ice folding in on each other is deafening and the cement wall on the riverbank passes me like a train. Except it’s not moving – I am. Me and the fibreglass ice canoe that bore me here. I truly can’t imagine how I’m going to get back to land. I’m spent, bruised and battered. I’ve got nothing left.

Here lies the problem, though: If I’m going to get to shore in one piece, it will be under my own steam. We’re all in the same boat (if you’ll pardon the pun), the five of us who share this canoe. And so, at the leader’s signal, I ignore the thunderous pain in my butt cheek, lower my knee into the specially built cradle in the canoe and push off with the opposite leg. Over the jagged panes and peaks of shifting ice, we push.

When we hit open water, we’re supposed to roll gently into the canoe to avoid falling into the frigid, slate-grey river. I, however, heave myself into the boat in desperation. Self-preservation – which admittedly should have kicked in sooner – now directs my every move.

Such is the absolutely, positively insane sport of ice canoeing.

It’s a sport that has a long history in Quebec City, where canoes were once the only means to carry mail, news, supplies and ailing patients between the islands in the St. Lawrence and the mainland. But canoeing the river in winter has never been an activity for the faint hearted. Between 1750 and 1856, some 28 people drowned crossing it (a fact that the organizers of my expedition failed to share).

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and ice canoeing has become an international competitive sport that culminates in Quebec City with the annual Ice Canoe Races at Quebec Winter Carnival. Participants train all year long three days a week, rowing in the summer and hitting the ice in the winter in the custom-made boats that ring in at about $16,000 each. “It’s a sport that is very popular and very visible in Quebec,” says Russell Thompson, an eight-year veteran. “There’s a lot of pride in it because it’s not done anywhere else.”

Capitalizing on the interest, Quebec-based Canot à Glace Québec began offering an ice canoeing experience to the public last year. For $200 you get the gear you need and two guides to keep you from killing yourself. (Excursions last as long as there’s ice on the river – usually some time between mid-March and the beginning of April.) On the day we ventured out, it was a balmy -16 C. It was so cold that the St. Lawrence was steaming like an ice-breathing dragon – a rare and quite beautiful phenomenon that locals call “sea smoke.”

Canot à Glace Québec offers ice canoeing to the public.

Canot à Glace Québec offers ice canoeing to the public.

Tourism Quebec

We suited up in a warm, light-filled clubhouse overlooking the river, donning kneepads and neoprene boots fitted with ice crampons for traction to protect us from a soaking. The wetsuit-material boots proved handy when my husband floundered into water to his knees. We added life jackets, although, given the temperature of the water, we joked that they’d merely help rescuers locate our bodies if we fell in. Then we received a brief lesson: Whatever you do, don’t let go of the boat. Try to maintain the rhythm of the barreur (or coxswain) when pushing over the ice, as well as rowing through water.

It all sounded rational and sane. And then we pushed off along the ice crust. Initially, it was relatively smooth and we moved well. But as we ventured further from shore, the ice heaved and yawned in shades of blue, its edges sharp as panes of glass. My tuque kept slipping down over my eyes as I tried to keep an eye on what was coming, and several times I ended up sprawled out in the canoe (where, I confess, I would have been happy to stay).

The sheer aerobic effort of propelling the plus-sized canoe left me panting with exertion and the air condensed under the neck warmer I’d pulled up over my nose and cheeks. When the time came to row, I found myself graced with a stunning lack of ability. The long oars bore no resemblance to paddles, measuring about 3.5 metres long, with a sharp pick on the underside for pushing off the ice. Unaccustomed to rowing, and with the rounded shoulders and underdeveloped arms of a writer, I seemed unable to manipulate them in the water. Really, I felt as if I were in some glacial version of hell.

Feeling like a complete failure after my own ice canoeing experience, I was curious to watch the pros at work during the much-anticipated ice canoeing races held two days later.

A crowd gathered along the St. Lawrence shoreline. The starting gun went off, and the competitors tumbled, stumbled and bumbled onto the ice in a mad scramble to gain a lead. One man was catapulted forward into the boat by an unexpected dip in the ice. Another was soaked to the knees as the ice bobbed away beneath his foot, tipping him into the freezing cold water.

It was clear that, even when the teams are supremely well-trained (several former or current Olympians compete, too), this isn’t an exact science.

Nonetheless, Thompson claims there’s a great deal of strategy involved in finding a route through the ice. “You have variables in the race,” he says. “There’s the current and the wind and the amount of water you can access.” Last year, he says, his teammates (one of whom was head man on our boat) made the decision to seek out water when possible, deeming that the fastest way to get ahead. The tactic didn’t work. Thompson says: “We came nearly last.”

While there haven’t been any deaths during the races, and “to my knowledge no one has even lost a limb to frostbite,” Thompson reports, several people have lost fingers, largely because they’ve been mashed between two ice canoes.

So what keeps him coming back? It’s the thrill, he says.

“It’s a crazy sport – like riding a bronco. … Our goal is to try to get ice canoeing into the Olympics.”

For details, visit canotaglacequebec.com.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Quebec. It did not review or approve the story.

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