Quebec City’s Carnaval: 400 Years on the St. Lawrence River
Quebec City: Getting to Love Being Outside
By Max Hartshorne
The signs being waved by costumed teenagers during Quebec City’s Winter Carnaval Night parade said it all. “We get people outside for Carnaval!” I must agree, there is something fun about bundling up and taking on winter head-on.
On my first afternoon in this city, that this year celebrates 400 years of settlement on the St. Lawrence River, I took a walk in the blowing snow. I had come prepared; hey, I live in New England, and we know cold. Not this cold!
I later learned over four days that no, I don’t know cold. Because I haven’t spent nearly enough quality time enjoying winter the way they do up here. Next time I’m bringing electric socks and gloves without holes in the fingers!
Quebec City is pulling out all the stops in 2008; after all, how many North American cities can claim four centuries of uninterrupted settlement?
Our visit to this city of about 300,000 and capital of the province by the same name included the second weekend of a 17-day long winter carnaval.
This tradition began 57 years ago, when merchants were eager for something to prop up sagging sales, the result of the cold winter winds.
Today the carnaval is the highlight of the whole year, involving nearly one million Canadians and bringing hundreds of Americans to the festivities, many of which are held on the Plains of Abraham, the sprawling park that sits on a bluff over the river in the city center.
During the warm time of year, the plains are used for sporting events, jogging, and picnicking but they are transformed into a winter playground for the 17 days in February of Carnaval.
Quebec City is a classic winter destination. It’s a no holes barred blowing, snowing drifting cold place with people who know how to have fun in the cold and who celebrate their long history of living here for four centuries.
More than 500,000 visitors enjoy the spectacle of a public breakfast, rides in the snow a dog agility competition, soapbox derby races, amateur and professionally created snow sculptures, a giant specially built ice palace, and a nighttime parade.
The highlight is a grueling race across the ice-covered St. Lawrence by teams of canoe racers from around the world.
Another highlight of the second weekend of the Carnaval is the Carnival Parade. It’s now a night time event, and we joined thousands of bundled up Quebecois on a major boulevard waiting anxiously for the event to begin. Snow drifted down, slow at first, and at the parade’s end, the white stuff was coming down in a massive wall.
At the Carnaval, vendors sell the plastic horns often seen at college football games. The plaintive wail of these devices was unending, and lent a festive air along with the many
vendors who worked the crowded curbsides selling all sorts of souvenirs.
More than 17,000 hours of work went into these floats and costumes worn by the hundreds of mostly teenagers who march and shout out at the crowds, revving them up and getting them into the Carnval spirit.
When I watched these kids pumping their arms, calling out in French, and generally trying to get anyone they could to react, yell, wave back, it was infectious, I felt their excitement and besides, I was so cold it felt good to move about.
Theme of the Year
This year’s theme is he joie de vivre of Quebeckers, and the parade features two 16-foot tall marionettes with moving joints, sound trucks carrying towers of speakers blasting music and 1200 new costumes for the extras. And watching it all happen during a major snowstorm added to the fun!
The serious amount of snow that fell on Quebec City during the 2007-2008 season has exceeded records going back decades. When we visited it had just hit 300 centimeters, a level at which problems start to occur with not enough room to put all the snow. Tempers flare. There’s even a term for it: Snow Rage.
The Arrow Sash
To really feel a part of this uniquely Canadian experience, you gotta dress the part. That means donning the Arrow sash, or ceinture fleche. This is a five-foot long colorful sash that goes around the waist, and is worn by all carnival goers as a badge of pride.
During our visit this year, an additional goody was given away…the Calgary Tourism Board gave out 50,000 plastic ten-gallon hats, which looks spiffy even when worn atop the balaclavas and stocking caps.
What Else is Up Here?
One of the long traditions here inherited from the native people is dog sledding, and there are many companies who can arrange an afternoon of working a team along a snowy trail.
We joined an outfit called Expeditions Mi-Loup, on the island of Örleans, in the St. Lawrence River.
The island is known as a farming area, famous for its strawberries (fraises) and apples. Expeditions Mi-Loup, (the name means half wolf) took us out in teams with six dogs and two people on each sled.
First you hear a cacaphony of yipping, the tied up dogs are so eager to run they tug and yip and yowl nonstop. After setting up the harnesses and teaching us how to use the footbrake, we broke off down a trail, one person driving and the other riding the sled.
Once these dogs are gone, it’s a big problem getting them back so no matter what you never let them fly free and keep control of the brake. They are amazingly powerful creatures, and our team was led by an aggressive dog who kept biting and growling at his teammates as they ran ahead. It’s a winter experience you’ll never forget!
On this long mostly agricultural island, we enjoyed a lunch at a family auberge called Restaurant Les Ancetres. Set in a windswept valley with a view that stretches for miles of the river and the big bridge back to the mainland, this country restaurant was first rate, and it felt like we had stopped somewhere in the heart of France. The menu when we visited included tilapia, pasta carbonara, and maple syrup on ice cream, deliciously simple and very good.
This city has great things planned, way beyond the 2008 celebrations for the 400th anniversary.
Among these is a plan to gain more access for the public to the St. Lawrence river by building parks and bike paths where industrial buildings now stand. Like many cities in the US, the Quebecois are realizing the value of moving highways away from the riverfront and instead opening these areas up to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
These improvements, along with the spirit of the people here, will ensure a steady stream of visitors from the US and around the world to this wonderful part of Canada.