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Lanaudiere and Mauricie: authentic Quebec at its best

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When I was a girl, I was intrigued by the idea of the "courier des bois" - French Canadian canoeists, woodsmen, trappers and traders of the late 17th and early 18th centuries-who paddled the rivers from New France westward across the continent.

Today, in the regions of Lanaudiere and Mauricie, an hour's drive northwest of Montreal and the St. Lawrence River, you can experience the physical landscape, culture and historical reality that nurtured these adventurers of old.

"Authentique" is the French word used to describe these adjacent and lesser-known regions originally dominated by Algonquin and Iroquois; settled by seigneurs (or landlords) on behalf of the King of France, as well as Jesuit missionaries; industrialized by English and French entrepreneurs; and long-time home to large French habitant families.

Lanaudiere and Mauricie-extending from the Laurentian Mountains in the west to Trois Rivieres in the east, and the mill town of Terrebonne in the south to the forest hub of La Tuque in the north, and bisected by the powerful St. Maurice River-is authentic Quebec at its best.

Our little group of adventurers began our visit through what turned out to be a landscape of rivers, falls, hydroelectric dams and lakes-all in full spate-at Terrebonne and Ile des Moulin, a restored mill on a tributary of the St. Lawrence.

According to our guide, in the 1720, local seigneur, Louis Lepage, "saw the river and the great flow if it, and the forest with a lot of pine and lots of oak, and built the first sawmill here." Later fur trader Simon McTavish, of the Northwest Company, bought the mill, and "the river became the road the voyageurs took to the west."

"It's here, in the early 1700s, that it began," the guide added, referring to the early industries of rural Quebec.

From Terrebonne we motored north along country roads suggestive of a simpler era, through towns with names like Saint Esprit, Sainte-Julienne, Rawdon (a longtime immigrant settlement) and St. Alphonse de Rodriquez.

Somewhere along a stretch of Cambrian-like rock, we visited the Bonsai Gros Bec, where owner Robert Smith (though entirely francophone) was nursing some rare and stunted (if appealing) tundra trees back to some kind of bonsai life.

At a small bison farm we learned how a family produces an all-natural product for mostly regional consumption. Then, for something completely different, we slipped into the ultra-modern Trappist monastery, Abbaye Val Notre Dame, nestled into La Montagne Coupee ("cut mountain"), and chatted with a young monk.

That night we stayed at a nearby inn or auberge called La Montagne Coupee and dined sumptuously (the way with Quebec auberges, it seems) while looking out over a series of rolling hills that reach towards the horizon like an ever-fading watercolour.

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