Like a Chinese lantern, the sun burns mutely through a dense haze that hangs over the Port of Quebec, the muslin mist an interaction entre frigid air and the warmer, semi-liquid St. Lawrence River. We glide past ocean-going ships tied at concrete piers, the resonances of oars alternately dipping into water and shattering window-pane ice echoing back from their curving hulls. The sounds are part of an unfamiliar aural landscape, one that also includes ice grinding on metal, fiberglass and concrete — not to mention the frequent exhortations of our helmsman to forsake the safety of the boat for a foothold in the surrounding maelstrom.
It isn't enough in this endeavour to simply avoid the several-ton ice chunks ripping past us propelled by wind, a four-knot current, and a five-metre tide — if it saves time, we row over them, metal spikes affixed to our oar blades gaining slim purchase to heave against. But when the floes are too high or too large to go around without falling off pace, we haul across, a treacherous passage made more so by numbing cold.
As is often the case December through March in Quebec City, it's around -20C. At this temperature, water instantly and continually freezes over — for minutes, hours, days — before inevitably fracturing due to current or wind, the resultant debris like thick, opaque, razor-sharp glass, thrown up in berms along the shore or conjoined in phantom ice rafts that cycle back and forth on tidal eddies. After a shouted command to ship the oars, it's onto just such a surface that our bowsman now jumps and begins to drag, the rest of our five-person crew pushing hard, one leg in, one leg out, searching for a lead of open water into which to re-launch. Underfoot and all around ice crashes, shatters, splinters. In some places it has crumbled into a dense, deceptive slush to float on brown, numinous water, indistinguishable from other more solid footing; a wrong step here can result in slicing yourself open, breaking an ankle, or falling through to have ice close above you, never to be seen again. There's no time to be plagued by such thoughts, however, as we concentrate on maneuvering over the high point of jumbled ice, then hop back in the boat as it plunges down the far side into gelid water, manning the oars again as if nothing happened.
This is ice canoeing, a quintessentially Quebecois sport that isn't for the faint of heart, cold-averse or safety-conscious. In fact, no less a luminary Canuck adventurer than Rick Mercer declared it pure madness. "Look at what we're doing!" he exclaimed mid-river with incredulity in a 2013 broadcast.
As the only way to cross the always moving St. Lawrence in winter — where there's too much ice for ferries, but not enough to form a bridge — ice canoeing goes back to the early days of New France. By the 1860s some 200 canoeists were providing winter transport for passengers and goods between Quebec City, Île d'Orléans, and the south-shore community of Lévis. And this is where history gets hazy. An unverifiable legend holds that an argument between two main family-owned water-taxi companies over who could cross the river fastest led to the birth of the sport: into their cups in a Lévis pub one evening, the two groups decided to settle their dispute by taking to the boats, and Quebeckers have more or less been doing it ever since. The initial official race took place during the first Quebec Winter Carnival in 1894. Though the carnival disappeared for a bit, when it rebooted in 1954, ice-canoe races were a marquee event that soon became the carnival's cornerstone — Le Grand Défi des Glaces. Races were also held during Fête des Neiges de Montréal from 1988 – 1992, and variously at Toronto, Windsor, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières, Chicoutimi and Isle-aux-Coudres. Athletes compete in three classes: elite men, elite women (since 1987), and sport, featuring mixed-gender crews. The Association des Coureurs en Canot à Glace du Québec formed in 1984 to organize and standardize what now comprise six accredited races. Though Quebec City remains the centre of activity, teams from elsewhere in the province compete each year — likewise a Calgary crew that has appeared for more than 40 years.
The canoes, originally wooden, are now reinforced fiberglass over metal. Minimum weight is 110 kg in sport and elite men classes, and 102 kg for elite women. Boats must fall between 6.0 – 8.59 m in length, contain 100 litres of flotation material, and be able to remain afloat with 700 litres of water onboard. For safety, canoes must also be brightly coloured. For the most part teams build, customize and maintain their own boats. Practicing in front of other teams is a no-no, and strategy is kept private. The course is typically a triangle, but the location and routing changes depending on ice conditions.
You can watch from shore with a hot cup of boozy coffee and six layers of clothing and still become hypothermic, yet competitors wear only a couple layers in a highly aerobic activity where you cannot, under any circumstances, stop moving. Within minutes of setting out we were all sweating profusely, highlighting the reasons that serious ice-canoeists train year-round.
What else is needed for successful ice canoeing beside a huge set of balls or ovaries? Aside from a tiny life jacket that looks useful for little more than body recovery, key equipment includes boots with bolts screwed to the bottom, or a similar crampon that can be pulled over neoprene boots. And duct tape, plenty of duct tape, used to secure everything from crampons to hockey-like shinpads; you wouldn't want to lose anything out on the ice.
Ice canoeing had been on my bucket list since first hearing of it as a kid, a silly dream since no one but the insane or pros actually did it. But being able to drop in for real was one of the raddest experiences ever — ethereal, beautiful, scary, wet, freezing, physical, the dynamic ice ever-moving around you and, of course, the sounds, the sounds, the sounds...
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.