Québec's wood runners
Canoeing in the Park de la Jacques-Cartier, named after the French explorer who arrived in 1535. (Mark Read)
The wooden canoe skims over the smooth waters. As the paddle dips, it creates a tiny whirlpool in the boat’s rippling wake. Around the sandy edge of the shore, the placid faces of moose peer out of the trees. Two lumber out and splash into the river, unconcerned by the presence of humans in a canoe. The icy water is refreshing in the heat, and provides a reprieve from mosquitoes. Behind the trees, the sides of the valley shear up towards a blue sky. The slopes are densely wooded with cedars. This is the Mont des Loups, Wolves’ Mountain, in the heart of Parc de la Jacques-Cartier. here, in the wildernesses of Québec, wolves still run wild in the forests.
The first people in this area of valleys and peaks were Innu, a nomadic indigenous nation, known to the europeans as the Montagnais. In 1535, a French explorer, Jacques Cartier, arrived in St Lawrence Bay. He found diamonds and gold on the cliffs that are now Québec City. Thrilled, he headed back to Paris with his haul, and presented it with a flourish. He was laughed out of court. Despite his name, Cartier was no jeweller: he had found worthless quartz crystals and fool's gold.
In the years that followed, more Frenchmen arrived. While their English contemporaries sought to conquer, the French did not then try to take the native peoples' lands. They wanted to trade.
At the time, hats made of felted beaver fur were much desired by fashionable European gentlemen. So much so, that there were few beavers left in Europe. Canada provided a new hunting ground.
Back in the 16th Century, the point where the St Lawrence River tightens became a base for a rogue collection of hard-bitten survivalists, who spent months venturing deep into the heart of Innu territory to the trading posts at Lac St-Jean. These were the coureurs des bois, or wood runners. They were traders, and were prepared to swap weapons for furs. One rifle, stood on its end, could be exchanged for a stack of beaver pelts the same height. The coureurs des bois faced deadly rapids, canyons, blizzards, bears, wolves, and marauding Iroquois. They must have really wanted those hats.
A route carved out by a river through a valley was the main highway between Québec City and the north for the coureurs des bois. The first part of this route is now preserved as the Parc de la Jacques-Cartier, a national park of outstanding beauty. Thoughtful planning has ensured that the plentiful recreational activities here - including hiking, canoeing and fishing - have made minimal impact on the environment, and much of it still looks exactly as it did when the first europeans arrived. The canoe routes are those used by the coureurs des bois, and by the Innu and huron people with whom they traded. historic trails lead through the dense forest. Following the river up the west side of the valley is one called the Jesuit Trail, named for the French missionaries who soon began to arrive alongside the coureurs des bois.
"To the Jesuits, Amerindian society was really shocking," says Marie Coulombe, one of the park's guides. A Huron brave would present the lady of his choice with a marten pelt. If she consented, he would be allowed to move into her family's longhouse. She was permitted a two-week test drive. "Then, if she didn't like him, she just said, 'Goodbye!' and he had to leave," Marie exclaims. "Maybe she would be pregnant, but this wasn't a stigma among the Hurons. She would try another man instead. If she decided to keep him, he would be considered the baby's father. This was normal, and everybody was relaxed about it." Except for the Jesuits, who marched up this trail from Québec City to burden the locals with conservative European values.
The most popular route along the valley today is an ascent of the Mont des Loups, bounding up wooden steps and over little rivulets through a forest dappled with sunlight. Squeaking chipmunks, straight out of Snow White, gambol across the path. The mountain's wolves stay hidden, preferring to keep away from humans.