Wild things: In northern Quebec, a little ear scratching goes a long way

The air in northern Quebec is fresh and crisp, the only sound is the crunch of snow underneath my feet. I hold my gaze steady, enthralled by the bull moose ambling towards me, now only a few steps away. He’s about seven-feet tall, with massive antlers, about the width of my outstretched arms. “He doesn’t like you,” says Dereck, my guide, who’s standing next to me. “How can you tell?” I ask. “See how his head is lowered and his rack is kind of swaying side to side? It could mean he sees you as competition or an opponent. Plus, when they look at you sideways, that’s not a good sign.” Sure enough, I was getting cut eye from a moose. “But don’t feel bad,” he says with a grin, “He doesn’t like anyone.”

Luckily Azur, the first moose I’ve ever seen in the flesh, is standing behind a tall metal gate, his antlers now scratching and butting against the bars that keep him inside a large penned area on the grounds of the Ferme 5 Étoiles, a certified ecotourism adventure farm in the Sacré-Coeur-Côte-Nord region of northern Quebec. Moose are generally not aggressive animals, but they tend not to react well to humans invading their space and will quickly charge if they feel threatened. Azur has grown up on this farm, an abandoned calf that would not have survived on its own in the wild, so is at least used to human presence. I tentatively stick my hand through the gate to touch his antlers, the smooth bone punctuated by slight grooves where veins run during spring and summer months when they are covered with a velvety fur. It’s the extent of my interaction with the moose, but it’s the first of several memorable nature adventures over the next few days.

Côte-Nord and neighbouring Saguenay, a popular tourist region about 230 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, have a diverse ecosystem of fresh and salt waters, plains and mountains, lakes and rivers. Surrounded by spectacular mixed boreal forests — endless kilometres of black spruce, balsam firs and other conifers — it borders the Saguenay Fjord, one of the longest in the world, framed by dramatic cliffs and dotted with villages and national parks.  It’s an area rich with history, from the First Nations and New France settlers, their early trades and fur-trading outposts, and is an important forestry and agriculture base. It’s also a nature lover’s paradise: Travellers come year-round to enjoy everything from hiking, cycling, kayaking, fishing and hunting to whale watching and dog sledding. The surrounding area is also ideal for moose spotting or hunting. Quebec has some of the highest numbers of the Canadian mascot, with the densest populations located in Matane Wildlife Reserve and the Pointe Taillon National Park. But at this time of year, late January, Azur is the only moose I see. During the winter months these animals stick together, receding into the forest for survival. While they can’t see very well, they have exceptional hearing, and with all the snowmobilers in the area, chances of spotting one are slim. The best time for sightings is during the late summer months, at dusk or dawn, when they wander to forage for food.

Sacré-Coeur-Côte-Nord Quebec Photo by Federica Maraboli

Sacré-Coeur-Côte-Nord, Quebec. • Photo by Federica Maraboli

After my visit to the moose pen, I meet with more welcoming residents of the property — arctic and gray wolves. The opportunity to interact with these often-feared animals is just one of the experiences at Ferme 5 étoiles. What, a generation ago, started off as a personal farm with a few barn animals owned by Claude Deschênes has evolved into a vacation destination with accommodations that include cabins, apartments and yurts, and a licensed animal refuge that’s home to Canadian wildlife including bison, lynx, foxes and even a cougar.  It’s a story of happenstance; in the farm’s early days, travellers would knock on the Deschênes’ doors looking for a room. And because they had a farm, orphaned or injured animals would often be brought to their doorstep. Over the years, accommodations were added and today, daughter Stéphanie Deschênes, with husband Yanick Morin, carries on the farm. With the help of an on-site biologist and animal care technicians, the team learned how to care for and educate visitors about the wildlife housed onsite.

Before meeting the wolves I get an introduction to their story, partly as education and also to allay any fears of stepping into their pen. Wolves are genetically closer to dogs than coyotes, so their behaviour can depend on how they are trained and educated. You don’t want to befriend one in the wild, but Nalu, Luna and Jacob were raised here and are used to human interaction. Even so, I suit up in a thick snowmobiler’s jacket and pants before walking over to the enclosure. “Just make sure you keep your back against the fence,” warns Dereck, before we enter. “That way when she jumps on you, you won’t fall backwards. And push her off, she’ll expect that.”

Standing at only 5-foot-1, I can be easily taken down by any large dog. Apprehensive, I slide my back along the fence while my mittened hands find holes in the chain link to support me as I step over uneven snow. Nalu, the alpha of the sisters, immediately bounds up and, throwing her paws on my shoulders, presses me into the fence and licks my face. Turning my head to the side to avoid being French kissed, I hug her before pushing her down, a little too timidly at first. Having none of that, she keeps bounding back until I push her off more assertively. It’s a workout, trying to keep my balance against a jumping 110-lb animal, but any initial fear I had quickly vanishes. She is a sweetheart, as smart and affectionate as a dog, and I soon discover that she loves belly rubs. This beautiful white arctic wolf, with what appears to be a permanent smile, is so happy that she pees herself.  “She really likes you,” Dereck says. “She’s not often quite that playful.” I couldn’t help but feel chuffed. Take that, Azur.

Ferme 5 etoiles Photograph by Federica Maraboli

Photo by Federica Maraboli

My animal encounters continued the next morning with my first foray into dogsledding, one of the area’s main draws during the winter months. I make my way to the kennel early to meet Florian, my instructor, and help harness the dogs. Their barking turns to a frenzy, a cacophony of about 30 mix-breed huskies jumping and pulling at their chains in hopes of being chosen to run today. After demonstrating how to place the harness correctly, Florian hands one to me and directs me to pick a dog from the back rows. I feel guilty walking by the ones tethered at the front, all of them seemingly begging, “Pick me, pick me!” After a botched first attempt that ended up with an entangled dog in need of Florian’s assistance, I manage to harness several others and attach them to the sleds.

A couple visiting from France, who came here specifically for this activity, joins us for the instruction: Hang on to the handle, keep your feet on the sled’s “skis,” make sure the lead is taut at all times, shift your weight on the turns and use your brakes — a lot. The brake is a metal lever between the two skis that digs into the ground. “You may need to stomp on it with both feet, especially downhill,” says Florian. “And if you fall off, the dogs will keep running, so yell out ‘Traineau!’ to alert me.” Falling off? Down hills? I thought this would be a pleasant introductory ride across flat plains. “Are you scared?” Florian asks me, with a chuckle. “You should be.” I manage a feeble laugh before uttering a silent profanity.

Being pulled by dogs is at once exhilarating, humbling and terrifying. I am comforted by their intelligence and obedience, but amazed by their strength and stamina. Going downhill means also going uphill, and the dogs put me to shame as I trudge up steep snowy paths that remind me of my need for more aerobic activity. I have trouble around sharp bends and must throw my weight on the brakes downhill, fear sliding off the edge and at times navigate an obstacle course of low-hanging or fallen branches. But the reward is being led through serene canopied trails — if I stretch my arms out I can touch the snow-covered trees on either side — and along creeks, rock faces and open forest. I catch sight of a white rabbit hopping away from us and at one point snow starts falling gently, which adds to the sense of a winter wonderland.

Three hours later, my hands, neck and shoulders stiff from gripping the handles for dear life, we return to base. I thank my four dogs for their hard work with plenty of ear scratches and belly rubs, and help feed them before making my way to back to eat my own lunch. All this activity has made me hungry, not to mention very sore — I wince taking off my jacket and snow pants. Luckily, I’ve booked a massage for the afternoon, the perfect warm, relaxing antidote to a wintry weekend getting to know Quebec’s wildlife. 

Read more from our Adventure issue here.

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