Snow happens

Date 08/03/2017

Written byTaylor Ireland


The Quebec City winter is not for everyone. Let’s admit that. Each year the city is likely to be bombarded with paralyzing snowstorms, cruel cold snaps, and nasty concoctions of rain, ice pellets and freezing drizzle. It takes hardy souls to put a brave face on it, shrug and say, « that’s Quebec. » Revered chansonnier Gilles Vigneault got it right when he penned the timeless Quebec anthem: Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver – my country is not a country, it’s winter. In other words, weather rules.

The challenge of snowstorms and the like aside, nothing beats the breath-taking beauty of the old city with a coat of fresh snow. It’s the kind of charming scene that has inspired artists for centuries, summoning to mind the admirable strength of settlers and natives adapting to a harsh but magnificent land. It’s also the kind of exceptional attraction that draws thousands of visitors to the city each winter. USA Today recently named it one of the top winter travel bargains.

It’s said the best way to « beat » winter is to bundle up and embrace it; and Quebec City does that with amazing style and exuberance. Perhaps most famous of all the city’s events, no matter the season, is the annual Carnaval, which takes place at the end of January. From ice-canoe and dog-sled races, to ice and snow sculptures, to big parades presided over by the jolly snowman, Bonhomme Carnaval, the two-week winter celebration has plenty of fun outdoor and indoor activities for the whole family.

The last week of Carnaval coincides with another huge winter event,  the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament, that draws dozens of teams from all continents of the world to play at the NHL-quality Videotron Centre. It’s a great chance to see spirited play and maybe some future big league stars.

If you want to lace up the blades yourself, there are lots of cool options in the city. The newly revamped skating rink in Place d’Youville, located just outside the gates of the old city, is quite magical on a winter’s night. The large skating oval on the Plains of Abraham offers well-maintained artificial ice, as well as a cozy chalet where you can rent skates or enjoy a hot beverage or soup.

The oval on the Plains also serves as one of the competition sites during the huge Pentathlon des Neiges (Snow Pentathlon) event at the end of February. Competition is at all levels, from elite international athletes, to seniors and primary school students. The Pentathlon (running, biking, skating, snowshoes, Nordic skiing) has become one of the biggest winter multi-sport competitions in the world, drawing more than 5,700 participants last year.

If you just want to play a little outdoor hockey in the great Canadian tradition, grab your stick and skates and head out to any one of dozens of outdoor rinks maintained by the city. It’s all free.

Switching from skates to skis, it’s hard to imagine a place in North America that compares to Quebec City for the number, variety and quality of places to slap on the boards and go for a run. There are several world class downhill ski centres within a short drive of the city, including Mont Ste. Anne, Le Massif de Charlevoix, and Stoneham. Literally dozens of cross-country or snowshoe trails abound in the region, to suit all levels of enthusiasts.

If you prefer a more mechanized adventure in the snow, the Quebec City region is undeniably a snow-machine paradise. There are no less than 1,500 km of groomed and supervised trails in the area, as well as at least nine snowmobile clubs which organize expeditions with food and lodging. Access to organized trails requires a permit purchased at snowmobile dealerships, as well as hotels, restaurants and gas stations located near the trail network. For more information visit the bilingual website of the Fédération des clubs de motoneigistes du Québec.

This winter, suffice it to say, has so far been beyond the wildest dreams for ski buffs. The snowfall the city has received has been early and abundant. As of this writing, more than 170 cm of snow (more than five and a half feet) has accumulated. The average snowfall for an entire winter in Quebec City is 305 cm. Mind you, we have a way to go to top the modern era record set in 2008 – 558 cm, or more than 18 feet of snow. That was quite the generous gift of snow for the city’s 400th anniversary that year.

Of course, the flip side of receiving mountains of snow in a city famous for its scenic narrow streets is how to get rid of it. Rapid accumulations of several feet of snow can quickly clog up a city and make walking and driving difficult. It comes as no surprise, really, that a city that is so expert at getting enjoyment out of snow, is so utterly efficient in dealing with the less pleasant aspects of it. Newcomers to the city marvel at how city workers tackle the challenge of déneigement with a steely determination not unlike that of military operations.

It is truly something to behold if you stay up late to see the monster snowblowers, blazing lights cutting through the darkness, steadily plying street after street, filling a caravan of trucks with loads of snow, which then cart it off to enormous dump sites around the city that sometimes take well into spring to melt (with minimum environmental impact.) It’s rare that city streets have not been cleared of snow two or three days after a big dump, barring the occurrence of the occasional epic storm.

This is really only the « tip of the iceberg » when it comes to describing the wonder of winter in a city made famous by the snowy season.