Québec's wood runners
"Now, we will eat," the chief exclaims. He unveils fresh salmon he has smoked, Huron-style, on a wood frame; tender buffalo steak marinated in forest berry juice; and bannique, a rich traditional corn bread. Sated, we retire for a night sleeping as the coureurs des bois slept, on a bed of fragrant spruce branches inside a teepee.
The Parc de la Jacques-Cartier is only the beginning of the vast Laurentides Wildlife Reserve, 3,015 square miles of lakes, hills, forests and rivers stretching all the way from the outskirts of Québec City to Saguenay in the northeast. Like the coureurs de bois, the Innu and Huron-Wendat, what brings people here today is the Canadian wildlife. Most modern visitors plan only to admire it in its natural setting, not turn it into hats.
At a service station north of the Parc de la Jacques-Cartier, biologist Rolland Lemieux is preparing for an expedition. Bespectacled and middle-aged, Rolland looks completely ordinary. He is far from that. For the past 34 years, he has been the best trapper in the area. If you want to catch a lynx, a bear or even a wolf, Rolland is your man. Though he still runs licensed hunting trips in conjunction with the Canadian national parks agency, he traps animals mostly for ecological research and monitoring projects. During his career, he has trapped at least 2,000 bears alive, and returned them unharmed to the wild.
The coureurs des bois soon diversified from the beaver trade into other furs, seeking bears, foxes, wolves and raccoons. Rolland can trap anything - wolves are the biggest challenge, and he took 23 of those alive last winter - but today he is looking for bears. he drives out to a popular spot where bears congregate. he has brought a bait box with him, from which he pulls out, rather unexpectedly, a slab of cake. Bears, it seems, can't resist cake. Any particular type of cake? "Bears will eat anything," Rolland says. "Though, they're not crazy about chocolate."
He arranges the cake on the feeding post, and retreats to a hide. Sure enough, seconds later, a bear pads eagerly out of the trees and gets its paws stuck in. The bear is enormous. It moves fast, but in perfect silence. A few metres away, a porcupine nosing around some shrubs hasn't even noticed.
"It's a male," whispers Rolland. "About four years old."
The area's bears like to use the pineboard sides of the hide as a scratching post when humans are not around. Deep gouges show how fearsome those paws can be - even if the bear in the clearing is currently using his to tear into a Victoria sponge. Having demolished the cake, the bear turns and slips back into the thick foliage.
Rolland is often asked to trap bears that menace campsites and then release them back into the woods at a safe distance. he tells a story about one such bear. He shot it with a tranquilliser dart and loaded into the back of his truck to drive out to the wilderness. Halfway down the highway, it began waking up, and thrashing about. Fortunately, there is a partition between the driver's seat and the back of Rolland's truck - but it is only made of thin Plexiglass. A fully conscious bear would smash it in one swipe. "The other drivers on the road were pointing and screaming," he chuckles.
How did you get it out of the truck?
"I opened the door quickly, and jumped out of the way."
For all his nonchalant style, Rolland never lets his guard down. "Even the two-thousandth time you deal with a bear, you have to treat it like it's the first time," his assistant, Philippe, says. "It's dangerous to relax; Rolland never does. That's why he's still here."