Here on the threshold of the storied north Quebec woods the door opens gently on numerous colorful contrasts to please the venturesome tourist. Isolated by the majestic Laurentian Mountains, Lac St-Jean (Lake St. Joyn -- only French place names are use now) and its surrounding flat farmlands, 125 miles north of Quebec City and 250 miles northeast of Montreal, are removed from the mainstream of Canadian life.
Even the French spoken here differs from that in the rest of Quebec. A Quebecker from St-Felecien told me that French here "is more pure than you find farther south, where there is more slang and more English words."
But isolation is what gives this region its fresh warmth and charm.
For instance, this town, nestled on a bluff overlooking the terminus of the quarter-mile-wide river, Ashuapmouchouan (ashWAP-mooshwan), as it enters the lake, mixes on its main street local residents, loggers, workers from the hydro-electric construction at James Bay, hundreds of miles to the northwest, Indians from the reservation a few miles to the south, and, rarely, some English-speaking vistors.
North of town the vast forests of gray pine, larch, and birch begin; not much else separates this area from the Arctic.
On the edge of this wilderness outside town is one of the largest and most modern zoological parks in North America. Jardin Zooligoque and Parc des Sentiers de la Nature (Paths of Nature Park) combine a well-run conventional zoo with a 400-acre reserve of free-roaming wild animals. Modern trams take visitors to reconstructed Canadian forts, villages, and trading posts in simulated Canadian geographic zones.
Other contrasts await the visitor. Here ties to the wilderness are everywhere. Four-wheel-drive vehicles churn over the roads; rough, outdoor clothing is worn by everyone; talk is constant about "going into the bush" to hunt and fish.
Other practicalities father local customs. Upon eating dinner in a local, modern home with its swept-up roof eaves the visitor may be startled to find no napkins on the table. Why use napkins when corners of the everyday tablecoth will do?
Also, because of the sandy soil it is customary to remove shoes and boots to keep houses unsoiled. City and farm houses alike have rows of shoes and slippers beside the front door. Wise travelers planning to visit put slippers or heavy socks in their luggage.
Lac St-Jean, fed by numerous wide rivers flowing down from the north -- the Ashuapmouchouan being only one -- feeds the mighty river, Saguenay, at its southern outlet. Here is clustered most of the region's population and industry. But here also is the beginning of the longest and deepest glacial fjord in this part of the world, which makes for a memorable summertime boat cruise.
A highway parallels this river from its discharge into the St-Laurent (St. Lawrence). Two other highways cut through the dense forests and mountains of the Laurentides Parc and follow the picturesque St-Maurice Riviere. Train service is provided to the region by Canadian National, and small airlines fly in from Quebec City and Montreal.
Some other natural sights in the area are the Saguenay fjord from Cape Trinite (where a river, Eternite, flow into the Saguenay about 65 miles from the lake); Kenogami Parc (camping, swimming, and water sports), between the city of Chicoutimi and the lake; and the large provincial reserves, Mistassini, Chicoutimi, Chibougamou.
These reserves are set aside mostly for recreation. The Ministre du Tourisme de la Chasse it de la Peche (ministry of tourism for hunting and fishing) has brochures and other information on using these wilderness areas (write to the above department at Gouvernement du Quebec, 150 est, Boul. St-Cyrille, Quebec, P.Q. G1R4Y1).
Campgrounds in the parks and reserves near here are generally spacious. That is not always the case for private campgrounds, however, which tend to be cramped and ill equipped. A list of all camping facilities can be obtained from the Association Touristique du Saguenay Lac St-Jean, 198 est, Racine, Suite 107, Chicoutimi, P.Q. G7H1R9.
Canoeing and kayaking are excellent sporting on the rivers flowing into Lac St-Jean. Descriptions of them are available in a book (in French) from the Federation Quebecoise de CanotKayak (1651 rue St-Denis, Montreal, P.Q.) for $4. 25 (Canadian). The Association Touristique in Chicoutimi provides detailed river maps; the Ministere du Tourisme in Quebec City provides maps of provincial park waters. Also, Canadian topographical maps are available from map dealers throughout the United States and from the Canada Map Office (615 Booth Street, Ottawa, P.O. K1A 0E9).
For the traveler not interested in such rugged outdoor exercise, the region has many interesting museums and festivals to give the curious tourist insights into the region's social and historical backgrounds.
One of the more interesting stops in the Indian reservation and museum for Crees and Hurons at Pointe-Bleue, just south of St-Felicien. This reservation also has a Hudson's Bay store on the site of a company post established in 1866.
Local festivals sprout like the things they promote, from honey to marsh beans, sweet potatoes to pheasants. All of them provide a taste (literally and figuratively) of local Quebec customs. The famous blueberry festival at Mistassini during August pays homage to the many ways to eat the fruit. One of the more colorful sights is to see Indians encamped along the Mistassine Riviere in their white tents during blueberry-picking time.
Other festivals are summer carnivals such as at Dolbeau, north of the lake, where the town is decorated as a western village and Quebeckers dress in western costumes for festival featuring a rodeo and western food.
Most of the larger festivals center on water sports: an international power boat regatta at St-Felicien; a world championship canoe and kayak race at Jonquiere; a water sports festival at Otis, south of Chicoutimi; and the region's largest festival, the 25-mile international swim marathon across the lake at Roberval.
Since Lac St-Jean does not lack the snow, winter carnivals each year are in January and early February in Chicoutimi, and late February and early March in Chibougamou.
A complete list of all museums, festivals, and other activities can be obtained from the Association Touristique in Chicoutimi.
Cross-country skiing is a growing sport here. A ski race across the lake is a yearly event; and, as a Quebecker said, "We get so much snow up here, fences closing the farms don't matter; you can ski in any direction you want."
The Association Touristuque in Chicoutimi will send to inquirers a list of the 60 hotels and motels in the region rated by quality of accommodations and restaurants, along with the number of rooms and prices. It also has available a list of those hotels with English-speaking personnel.
Americans are advised by many people in the tourist business in Canada not to worry about the language problem. Any differences are overcome, they say, because of the natural friendliness and hopsitality of Quebeckers. I found this to be true.
While on th Mistassini Riviere canoe trip with a Quebecker friend, the outboard motor on the canoe (the only means of transportation up these northern rivers) stopped and would not start. Since we were near a logging road, my friend, Pierre Cote, hailed a passing truck and took the motor to be repaired. Figuring the canoe trip was ended, I set up camp for the night.
However, late that night Pierre's jeep came bounding up the logging road. He had made a 180-mile round-trip excursion to bring me another motor. I hesitated to use the other motor he brought.
"I want you to use it," he said, emphatically and insistently. "You came a long way for this canoe trip and I want you to go on it." And so I did.