Ice Canoeing on the Saint Lawrence River, Quebec City, Canada
Pushing off from the shore outside the Quebec Ice Canoe office.
Putting in to the Saint Lawrence River from an ice floe.
We disembarked to begin trotting the canoe across a large ice floe.
Captain Yves instructs his crew how to pick at the ice floes.

The “snap, crackle, pop” of crunching ice does little to distract me from the notion that ice canoeing is supposed to be fun.  Of course, that overused word – FUN – one too often associated with adventure travel, would never have occurred to the early French settlers who braved the treacherous Saint Lawrence River of necessity.  

Back in the 17th century, there was never a question of if they would risk transporting families and goods between Quebec City and Levis, just when.  

On a visit to the 2015 Quebec City Winter Carnaval, I was back in their shoes. Literally, as our guides anxiously watched the 35 m.p.h. winds and changing tides shovel ice downstream. Figuratively, too — since instead of beaver pelts, my canoe mates wore neoprene socks and booties duct-taped to ice crampons. 

In Good Hands on the Saint Lawrence

Guides Yves Quesnel and Louise Viau are ice canoe racing hobbyists. They say there are three things you need for ice canoeing:  your best friend the canoe, ice, and the current of a big river. Since the Saint Lawrence is fresh water and tidal, that makes Quebec the only place in the world where this is done as a sport. The brutal cold produces ice that jams the car ferry, winds that whip up whirlpools, and 15-foot tides that cause an ever-shifting landscape, which only adds to the adventure. 

Sitting by picture windows in the riverfront offices of Canot a Glace (Quebec Ice Canoeing), facing ghostly icebergs obscured by arctic sea smoke, I marvel at Yves and Louise. One of more than 50 five-person Quebecois teams who compete regularly, they excuse their age by proclaiming they have 35 years of ice canoeing experience between them.

From discussing the merits of different model canoes made only in Quebec, to strapping on our hockey style kneepads and shin guards, their knowledge is limitless, their enthusiasm contagious.

The Experience, Unforgettable with Good Reason

Bundled in PFDs on top of workout gear for sub-zero temps, I followed my 60-something husband and the very fit Will Tang of out the office door, ice spikes clinging to the all-weather carpeting.  The 28-foot-long canoe listed gently against a frozen snow drift, masking how tough it would be to push it into the Saint Lawrence.

Our guides wordlessly pointed ahead, to where the water was indistinguishable from the frozen shore. With momentum from the slick ice and Louise’s cries, Yves guided us onto an ice floe. We mounted the canoe as instructed: Will first seat, facing our helmsman, me behind to follow his stroke, then Ron in front of Louise at the bow.

We were in, moving swiftly… way too fast I thought for people who weren’t even rowing. The guides marshaled their troops with a repetitive “In!” “Out!” as the river raced by. The effort, the biting wind, my oar flailing in its rowlock, the blade’s icepick missing the speeding ice floes and threatening my teammates…  the first half hour rushed by in complete exhilaration.  When I finally looked up beyond Will’s oar, praying that some recognizable stop like a Tim Horton’s was in sight, I realized we were exactly where we’d put in.

Yves suddenly directed Louise to retreat, to grab at some ice we could “trot” on. As instructed, they told us to disembark, keeping both arms and one leg in the canoe while pushing on the ice with our other iron-spiked foot. 

We were very quickly swallowed by the forceful current. Yves announced we’d have to paddle back out into the river and try coming back in at another angle. “Oh, f*ck,” I thought, “can’t give up now.”

Back at Home Base

Of course we got back safely; I always assume it’s bad business to lose travel writers on an excursion, so no one does. By then we were wrung out, using our last burst of energy to trot our best friend up onto some ice, toward the shore, and then inland back to the Quebec Ice Canoeing office.

How safe is this sport for your family? Our guides explained, smiling, there’s always a Plan B. Even if their three passengers had gone limp, together they would be able to steer the canoe downstream to an easier spot, perhaps by the Chateau Frontenac, and pull us and the 225-pound canoe up onto shore.

I was content. Thrilled to have done it, delighted to never have to do it again, unlikely to use the word “fun” to describe this unforgettable experience to anyone.

And yes, you should try it.

Practical Details for your Ice Canoe Adventure

Quebec Ice Canoeing provides the necessary gear, but participants are sent a suggested clothing list that is worth adhering to. Despite the -13º F weather, we were not cold because of the extreme physical activity required. Your experience –- especially in spring, when we were told families go out to picnic on ice floes and enjoy the view –- will likely differ.

The typical winter season lasts from mid-December to early March. Quebec Ice Canoeing offers two three-hour excursions per day, at a cost of CAD$200 per person. Although there are no stated height or weight requirements, participants should be realistic about their own fitness level. Reservations with a 50% deposit must be made in advance; cancellations within seven days forfeit the full deposit. Félix Blanchet-Levesque can answer all your questions at 418/670-6645.

It’s easy to warm up in Quebec City, where good hotels and very fine restaurants seem to be everywhere you turn. We had a cozy stay at the Hilton Quebec and can recommend the beautiful garden room atrium at Le Saint-Amour for a romantic four-course tasting menu featuring the best of Quebec. Taunted by not crossing the Saint Lawrence by ice canoe, we hopped the car ferry over the same route to Levis, fortified by the delicious New France cuisine at L’Echaudé, then soothed by the delicately presented lobster of chef Hervé Toussaint at Auberge Louis-Hébert. The food, like the people of Quebec City, is positively heart-warming.

Lastly, we must share this film of the arrival of Lord Minto by ice canoe, shot by Thomas Edison in 1902. As the French like to say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…”

Note that Minto’s escorts are in snowshoes, wearing the traditional costumes of the Winter Sports Festival of that era. The clip was found by Richard Lavoie at the Library of Congress and is featured on the Ice Canoe Quebec site.

Bon voyage!


Photos edited by Ron Bozman, from GoPro footage shot by Quebec Ice Canoeing.

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