Story Ideas

Ice canoeing—a Canadian sport that’s not for the faint-hearted.

Raging ice floes, lethal paddles and boots covered in duct tape? This winter activity is for true adventurers.

21 October 2015

Suggested tweet: Looking for a true Canadian winter adventure? Try ice canoeing on your next trip #explorecanada @TourismQuebec

I once tried to explain curling to an incredulous colleague from The New York Post. Even after our lengthy discourse, she remained unconvinced of curling’s existence.

Imagine her response if I’d attempted to explain ice canoeing, the Carnaval de Québec sport that alternates between ice-shard scrambling and frigid “open” water paddling? I wouldn’t know where to start. However, any sport that begins with duct tape and modified footwear that involves nuts and bolts deserves attention, so here goes. 

First, a little history: until the late 1800s, canoeing was the only way to get across the Le fleuve Saint-Laurent. Families living in Lévis or Île d’Orléans would have to navigate this aggregation of raging ice floes several times a winter. This being Canada, as soon as iron-hulled steamships arrived on the scene, ice canoeing became a competitive sport, with its first official race in 1894.

Today, ice canoeing is a cherished component of February’s Quebec Winter Carnival, when two dozen male and female teams take to the river to race each other for little more than bragging rights. Amateurs can now paddle among the ice floes with Québec Ice Canoeing, accompanied by two guides, from mid December to early March. Which is just what we did.

The footwear is hard, plastic “galoshes” that we secured to our feet with professional-grade duct tape. Those galoshes were pierced with half-inch #4 bolts to help us dig better into the sheer ice. Initially, the spiked shoe worked brilliantly as we slid the canoe over the smooth ice of the small channel before entering the river. I experienced the satisfaction a husky must feel accompanied by his canine brethren racing across a trail somewhere in northern Quebec.

Ice doesn’t lie down when being tousled by a mighty river’s current. Soon, we had to carry the canoe over the first iceberg’s apex before we slipped into the belligerent St. Lawrence. Our default position was one leg within the boat resting on a horizontal support while we pushed off the uneven ice with the determination of a one-legged hockey player.

Once into the water, our instructors told us to slide onto our benches, remove our paddles from the floor and slide them—protruding spike and all—over the heads of our mates. Despite the chance of decapitation, we soon learned the oar’s razor protuberance was necessary for successful “rowing” against (and upon!) the madly approaching ice vice.

Off we sailed, carrying our canoe over the broken topography, sliding clumsily onto our benches, swinging our guillotines over the heads of teammates. We’d savour a full stroke or two, then spike the ice and disembark—rather hurriedly on one occasion when, according to our skipper, an approaching floe would have “shoved this boat two kilometres down the river.”

Comfortably sipping hot chocolate in the local community centre 90 minutes later, my skip leaned over and asked if I would ever considering ice canoeing again.

“In a heartbeat,” I laughed.

I was also eager to watch the two-dozen “professional” boats race each other the next day, especially after my skip declared: “Colder temperatures would actually make the race something of a challenge.”

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