The Blade Runners of Quebec
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar



A fully mobile writer heads to Quebec province in the middle of winter and puts himself in the other man's shoes…and skis.


Quebec travel

They say that dogs have the personalities of two-year-old children, cuddling with each other one minute and fighting the next. But Daisy seemed wise beyond her years. The friendly, black-and-white husky hovered around us like a mother about to send her children out into the world.

Indeed, she was.

No longer pulling sleds herself, Daisy was the mother of several pups that comprised our sled dog team which would pull my friends and me over the frozen landscape of Quebec Province.

"Don't worry, we'll take care of you," she seemed to say while nuzzling and prepping us in the warming shack during Kinadapt owner Peter Boutin's dire safety warnings of stinging wind, falling trees, deer chases and barn roof avalanches.

Daisy plopped down at my feet onto the cold cement and exhaled.

"The lawyers make us say this stuff."

But soon we were out in the biting air and cozily packed into three sleds with blankets covering our legs. In an instant, the three teams of eight dogs each pulled us away from the frenetic barking into a magical white world of ice and dappled forest light. Standing behind us on the sled runners, our drivers mixed soothing compliments with coaxing directions.

dogs

"Nice job, Woody," my driver Vanessa cooed as the lead dog kicked up snowy clouds of puppy love. Woody was her own dog that came home with her every night.

"Haw, Uliviak, Haw," the young woman murmured, and all eight dogs swerved to the left in unison.

Just as quickly as we had entered it, we left the forest and sped downhill across the fringes of a clearing. Through the crystalline light I saw the remaining days of our journey.


Clashing Ice Warriors

In Montreal, my new friend Nicolas and I would sit above the action, vicariously experiencing uniformed gladiators perform their hypnotic, high-speed ice dance. Our heads moved left and right, up and down. The muffled click-clack of hockey sticks and bouncing pucks mixed with screams of fans dressed in the red and white team jerseys of the Canadiens. The amphitheater's protective net curtain separating us from the rink seemed as ephemeral as a young boy's dreams of a career forged of speed and daring.

With an expertise that came from years of following his team, Nicolas leaned into my ear and explained every play, penalty and substitution before it was replayed in close-up view on the giant screen in the center of the stadium. When the red light on the ice signaled a two-minute break for the televised broadcast to insert commercials, our chit-chat continued at a reduced volume.

Quebec hockey

A captive audience of 20,000 revved-up hockey fans, however, is too great a business opportunity to forego advertising. The JumboTron beamed out its rapid-fire commercials in all directions for Tim Hortons donuts, Labatt beer and other products while the Lindt Chocolate "Kiss Cam" caught unsuspecting couples in the audience and forced an embarrassing on-screen smooch before the camera would shift away.

Meanwhile, I watched grooming machines methodically traverse the scarred ice surface restoring it to its original glistening condition that would allow the puck to once again shoot unimpeded from one end of the rink to the other. If you're on the defending side of the playing surface, however, excessive speed is not a desirable quality. The goalies immediately scratched up the ice in their own boxes to slow down an approaching missile.

As quickly as an angry player delivers a jab to an opposing team member, the game ended with a nail-biting victory for the home team. We hobbled down the steep arena steps, judiciously watching our footing to keep our balance.


snowmobile

Soaring Snowmobiles

The following morning we would pack ourselves into our van and slide over gently falling snow that dusted the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal. Zigzagging past the imposing gothic architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral that dwarfed the surrounding iron-gated storefronts, we drove along the port and exited the city. Traveling north into the Lanaudiere region, we passed blanketed wheat and potato fields, but were soon reminded that the economy doesn't sleep in the winter. The landscape changed into forested hills and we dodged logging trucks on the busy two-lane highway.

After a clumsy costume change into bulky, black overalls, jackets and boots at Lac Grenier, our instant transformation into menacing action figures was complete. As if holding an oversized light saber, I gripped the handlebars of the snowmobile and squeezed the acceleration trigger. I moved onto the frozen lake surface, dazzling sunshine bouncing in all directions between sky and snow. Walking canes strapped at his side, Nicolas shot out ahead of me. For the next thirty snowmobile afterminutes, we played hide and seek in an intergalactic shootout, performing figure eights around islands and dodging under spruce boughs draping the shoreline.

Peering through the Plexiglas bubble of my space helmet, I saw Nicolas hit a snowy rut. Suddenly I could see that he had escaped the planet's gravitational pull and was traveling through time to a different galaxy that he hadn't inhabited in years.

It was hard to pull my friend back to ground, but our journey ended soon enough. In the cozy warmth of the lakeside chalet, we sat and laughed over an earthly lunch of cauliflower soup and ham quiche, and I knew that our mission had been a success.


Swooshing Skiers

We hit the snowy road again and journeyed toward the Eastern Townships, that part of traditionally French-speaking Quebec province settled by Loyalists whose allegiance remained with England after the Revolutionary war. At 2,400 feet elevation, Mount Orford was a relatively small mountain in comparison with peaks in the Rockies. But I hadn't skied in years and I wondered how this would work.




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