Quite a challenge
Back in the days of New France, residents often had no choice but to zigzag through winter ice floes in their bark canoes to get across the river. By the time the city’s first major winter carnival was held in 1894, the practice had been elevated to a fine art, and the canoe race from Québec to Lévis was a real crowd pleaser. Despite the risk, today this extreme sport has an ever-growing number of enthusiasts.
French immigrants adopted the Aboriginals’ main means of transportation—light but strong bark canoes, which were perfect for navigating Canada’s rivers with their many rapids that frequently left voyageurs no choice but to carry their canoes on their backs.
Bark or wood?
In the heart of winter, the French followed the Aboriginals’ example and plied the icy river in their bark canoes reinforced with rawhide. But later, sturdier vessels—canoes dug out of tree trunks—were used. Next were long wooden canoes that performed better. Although they were heavier to haul, they were safer, slid smoothly over the ice, and sliced effortlessly through the water.
In the early 19th century, crossings between Québec and Lévis in bark canoes were frequent. It was risky business for the sailors, stevedores, or farmers who moonlighted to earn extra money during the winter. It required skill, strength, and in-depth knowledge of the tides and weather conditions. Accidents such as the one in 1832 that took the lives of five of the ten passengers on board were not uncommon. The survivors were rescued by other canoeists whose courage earned them medals.
Such acts of bravery fuelled the folk legends immortalized by artists. Poet Louis Fréchette tells the tale of headless ghost Pitre Soulard, decapitated by a deadly shard of ice during a storm. He was said to appear floating above the water to reckless voyagers on foggy or blustery nights.
From practical to pleasurable
In the late 19th century, iron-hulled steamships began to cut a channel through the ice, thereby ending the canoe shuttle between Québec and Lévis.
In 1894 the organizers of Québec’s winter carnival decided to honour this fast-disappearing skill. The canoe race was one of the highlights of the event. Huge crowds gathered on either shore to cheer on the seven canoeing teams that launched out from Lévis for Bassin Louise. The Lord Dufferin team took home the $50 prize.
An increasingly popular extreme sport
It was not until the Québec Winter Carnaval returned in 1955 that ice canoe racing became an important annual event. There were even spinoff races. Today canoe racing is the main event in a circuit of competitions from Montréal to Isle-aux-Coudres. Traditional wooden canoes have made way for much lighter fibreglass vessels that lend further excitement to the races and expand the pool of competitors. Many women’s teams also sign up for this extreme sport. Make no mistake—rowing through icy currents in the cold is not for the faint of heart.