Winter in Québec: Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

Written by Eric Jay Toll

December 27, 2021
Home >> Destinations >> North America >> Canada >> Quebec >> Winter in Québec: Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

My bucket list trip to experience winter in Québec was made even more memorable by the excursion to Saguenay.

A winter visit to Québec has long been on my bucket list. It seems pretty offbeat to leave Arizona in February and land not far from the Arctic Circle. The trip to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean was an unexpected detour from Carnaval in Québec Citie. Bundling up meant I was never cold despite an air temperature that never cleared 12F (-11C). The Québecoise are exceptionally welcoming hosts. While I ran into fewer who spoke English than is found in Québec Citie and Charlevoix—my other destinations this trip—all were friendly, patient, and helpful as I struggled to remember all that Mme. Affillé taught me decades ago in high school French class.

Welcome to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

“What is this called again?”

“Sigitini,” laughed Marc in thickly accented English, while Hélene kept pouring and handing the drink to the rest of the group crowded into a one-bedroom fishing shack floating on ice over 400 feet (122m) of ice-cold fjord water.

Moments earlier, Hélene started pulling a rope up through a hole in the floor. There was already a bucket of sea bass sitting outside – after all, the -20F (-28C) midday temperature was colder than the freezer in the indoor ‘fridge. As the rope’s end came into the shack, she had opened a netted bag and removed a bottle of very chilled vodka—the good stuff.

As is common in the travel industry, Wander With Wonder sometimes receives complimentary products and services. However, you can always count on Wander With Wonder to report with honesty and integrity on those places we believe offer wonderful opportunities for our readers. Wander earns income from ads and affiliate links on our site. Some of those links are for Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, Wander earns from qualifying purchases. None of these practices influence our reporting, but we believe in full disclosure. For further information please visit our legal page.

We’re sitting on the six-foot (2m) thick ice pack over Baie du Ha! Ha! off-shore from Anse-à-Benjamin, near Saint-Fabien in the Saguenay-La Saint-Jean region of central Québec. In this rather luxurious and toasty shack, we’re enjoying the hospitality of the man they call the “Maire de Le Baie.”

winter in Quebec

Ice fishing on the Saguenay Fjord near Quebec. Photo by Chantale Ouellet via iStock by Getty Images

Marc carefully measures about a quarter-inch (65mm) of pure Québecoise maple syrup into each glass. Hélene floats about an inch (25mm) of vodka on top, making a dual-color layered drink.

“Hold the vodka on your tongue,” Marc says. “Then wait for the syrup to flow into your mouth.”

If I hadn’t had a Sortilege the night before—Canadian bourbon and maple syrup—I might have been hesitant. We were two French couples from Bretagne, three Québecoise from Saguenay, two grandchildren (with soft drinks), and one Arizonan, standing and chatting on a cloudy Canadian day. We’re in Québec, and pure maple syrup shows up at every meal. We all shouted the universal “skol” and downed our drinks. It was typical of the entire trip to Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean, about four hours northeast of Québec Citie nudging towards the Baie du Saint Laurent.

SAGUENAY 20200215 Baie de HaHa Fishing Village Marc and Sigitini

A generous splash of ice-cold vodka stored in the frigid bay waters floats on top of a big dollop of maple syrup to create the “sigitini.” The vodka is held on the tongue until the maple syrup arrives, then both are swallowed. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

Fjord Saguenay

At the center of the region is the Fjord Saguenay, one of the few and the largest inland fjord in the world. Instead of emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, the fjord connects with Fleuve de Saint-Laurent, the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

I discovered that the fjord, formed by the Rivière Saguenay, is over 900 feet (274m) deep. At the confluence with the Fleuve de Saint-Laurent, a massive bar across the lower mouth traps saltwater into the fjord’s deepest regions.

The world’s largest inland fjord, Saguenay Fjord is covered with a layer of ice. In the bays adjoining the fjord, the ice is more than two meters thick and supports large numbers of fishing shacks. In the main channel, and ice breaker smashes a channel in the center for commercial boat traffic. The view from Auberge Cap-de-Ouest is looking south towards the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The world’s largest inland fjord, Saguenay Fjord is covered with a layer of ice. In the bays adjoining the fjord, the ice is more than two meters thick and supports large numbers of fishing shacks. In the main channel, an ice breaker smashes a channel in the center for commercial boat traffic. The view from Auberge Cap-de-Ouest is looking south towards the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

Visiting the Musée du Fjord in La Baie

To learn more about the geography of the area and the Fjord, I recommend a visit to Musée du Fjord in La Baie. Inside is a large aquarium with fish from the different depths of the fjord. These deepwater saltwater species are unique to the fjord because they cannot mix with ocean-water fish. My guide points out that the starfish from Saguenay Fjord has six arms instead of the “normal” five.

The two water layers mean that freshwater and saltwater fish can be caught in the fishing villages on the river, depending upon the line length. That explained the bucket of sea bass Marc had sitting in the outdoor freezer. While most citizens of the ice fishing village own their shacks, some are owned and rented by the management company Contact Nature, a local nonprofit organization.

Outdoor Experiences in Saguenay

Contact Nature has several outdoor recreation agreements with the local and provincial governments. They manage Plein Aire, an outdoor recreation center in the mountains southwest of La Baie. At its center is a place to rent snowmobiles, cross-country skis, snowshoes or arrange a dog sled ride through the boreal forest. With the help of Contact Nature, I enjoyed numerous outdoor experiences in Saguenay to showcase winter in Québec.

winter in quebec

There are ample opportunities for winter sports during the winter in Québec. Photo by MarcBruxelle via iStock by Getty Images

Dog Sledding is a Must-do During Winter in Québec

Dog sledding is a unique experience. The dogs are medium-size, smaller than Labrador retrievers, but frisky as all get out. They are so excited when their mushers start hooking them into the harnesses. I snuggled into the sled seat, was covered with a thick blanket, and we were off into the boreal tree tunnel. The dogs pull at quite a pace. The musher brings them to a stop periodically, but they are raring to go again.

The thing that had me laughing when the lightbulb in my mind clicked on was that most people in Québec speak French, right? Well, the dogs only respond to commands in French.

“Allez!” and away we go!

“À gi! À gi!” Paul, the musher, calls out as the dogs turn to the right after a pause. He tells me, “They changed our route this year, and the dogs, they are still learning to make a right turn here, instead of going straight.”

In a deep green forested tunnel, a dogsled pulls its load on the groomed snow-covered trail. The working dogs jump and bark to be added to the harness when a sled is readied to head out from the Contact Nature winter recreation area south of Baie, Saguenay region, Québec, Canada. The one-hour ride glides through a boreal forest, the dogs pulling mightily and the only sounds are the swoosh of the sled, pounding paws of the dogs and the French commands of the musher.

A dogsled pulls its load on the groomed snow-covered trail. The one-hour ride glides through a boreal forest, the dogs pulling mightily and the only sounds are the swoosh of the sled, pounding paws of the dogs, and the French commands of the musher. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

After the ride, I meet up again with Marc André Galbrant, executive director for Contact Nature. We grab a burger in the café at Plein Aire at Rivière Mars.

“We are here to help people enjoy the outdoors all year long,” said Galbrant. “In the summer, we have canoes and kayaks, camping and hiking.”

Experience an Open-Air Preserve During Winter in Québec

The dawn brought a day with a bright Canadian sun poking through the overcast. The temperature was colder at Saint-Félicien along Lac-Saint-Jean than the day before at La Baie. Overnight, the temperature dropped to -40F, which is also -40C. Today, the highlight is Zoo Sauvage, an open-air preserve with wild animals representing boreal forests and sub-arctic regions around the world in a native habitat.

Traveling through the zoo takes place on trams and small buses. We were on the bus and wound our way into the preserve. In one area, a herd of elk was poking through the snow and grazing. An insistent bull walked over within a few meters of our bus when we stopped. The bull regally stood with a smug look on his face. Then with a snort, he turned and walked away. We headed towards the reproduction of a 19th-century logging camp.

SAGUENAY 20200213 Saint-Felicien Zoo Sauvage

A rather smug bull elk comes close to check out the passengers before walking off into the snow-covered field. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

Getting out of the bus, we walked through the simulated bunkhouse and dining hall to check out a restored log cabin. A lone horse stuck its head around the corner of the bunkhouse as we came by. After snapping some photos, we turned to walk back to the bus to find our path impeded by a bison that wandered up to take a closer look.

SAGUENAY 20200213 Saint-Felicien Zoo Sauvage

The bison wandered away from its position checking the tires on the bus and stopped at the edge of the birch copse to pose for a photograph in Saint-Félicien, Saguenay-Lac Saint-George region, Québec, Canada. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

“Attends ici,” said the driver, and I understood. Merci, Mme. Affillé. Maneuvering to watch the bison turn away from the bus and head into a birch copse, it gave me a quick pose between the trees. We meandered further in the bus passing arctic wolves, deer and returned to the main building. A short walk brought us to the polar bear habitat, but the only bear showed us its rear, turned, and lumbered over the hill upon our arrival.

Adapting to Winter in Québec

There is much to do in Saguenay and Lac-Saint-Jean. The snow sport activities seem endless. At the Parc national des Monts-Valin, I spoke in my awful French with two men who had ridden their snowmobiles from Laval, next to Québec Citie, the more than 280 miles (460km) to the southwest on designated trails.

“Weren’t you cold (N’avais tu pas froid)?” I managed to ask with the help of the mobile phone French-English dictionary.

With a laugh, one said, “Nos vêtements sont chauffés (our clothes are heated),” I learned after he helped me look it up, repeating it several times, more slowly each round. Québec has hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails connecting major cities with the rural countryside. It’s not uncommon for snowmobilers to travel dozens of kilometers a day on a multi-day excursion from urban Québec to Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean.

Québec Boasts an Extensive Snowmobile Trail System

Two snowmobilers from near Québec Citie chat outside the café at the Plein Aire center run by Contact Nature south of Baie, Québec, Canada. The pair arrived at the Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean region by traveling the extensive Québec snowmobile trail network stretching hundreds of kilometers across the province. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

Traditional Lunch in Saguenay

Back at the hotel, I settled in front of the fire in the lounge with my feet up, looking out the window at an icebreaker making its way up the fjord from the seaway.

Having been to Québec several times, I was craving a bowl of soupe-aux-pois, a traditional soup of yellow whole peas and ham.

“It’s not terribly fashionable anymore,” they said when I asked for it at the hotel. However, the next day, I ate at La Fornée, a local café in Saint-Félicien, and the chef made a bowl especially for me. It’s one of those perfect meals for a cloudy provincial day in a café with everyone around speaking in French.

Arts and Crafts in Québec

After lunch it was time to visit an Economusée Pelletier Bottier, a working furrier and taxidermist, Bilodeau, in Normandin.

Bilodeau is a company of craftsmen working with animal fur and leather. They are taxidermists of global renown and mount animals for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Natural History in New York, and other museums worldwide. They also make the famous fur hats for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties.

Saguenay fur hats for mounties

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police hats are made in Bilodeau, a family-owned furrier, taxidermist, and clothing company in Normadin, Québec, Canada. Each of the fur-covered hats is hand-sewn and hand-combed before distribution to the RCMP. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

As a living heritage museum, they demonstrate the craft and its evolution since its founding in the 19th century. No longer part of the network of artisan economusées for 2022, Bilodeau has constructed a $C700,000 interactive exhibit hall with robotic wild animals and a great learning experience.

Across Québec, there are other economusées in which passionate artisans demonstrate their crafts. The living museums are a vital part of the local economy in the dual role of visitor attraction.

Regional Museums in the Saguenay Region

Visiting unique museums in the Saguenay region is central to the experience of winter in Québec. The local indigenous peoples, the Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation in Mashteuiatsh, have opened the Musée Amérindien de Mashteuiatsh with historical and contemporary crafts in their reserve near Roberval.

The evolution of snowshoes and the birchbark canoe are a treasure. The bead- and leatherworks are quite beautiful. The museum features stories and legends and interactive craft opportunities to experience beadwork and other arts.

things to do in Saguenay Museum display with leather boots, moccasins, shoes and gloves made by indigenous peoples in the First Nation community of Mashteuiatsh

The Mashteuiatsh decorated their clothing and instruments with embroidered artwork on the leather. Photo by Eric Jay Toll

Articles Related to Winter in Québec

Visiting the Saguenay Region During Your Winter in Québec

Most visitors heading to Québec think of Montréal and Québec Citie as the only places where you can experience winter in the Québec region. My experience in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean demonstrated an extraordinary wealth of places to visit, things to do, and food to enjoy. It’s much more Québecoise than cosmopolitan, making for a feeling a more real visit to French Canada.

When I left, it was âbiento as opposed to au revoir. Although I enjoyed my winter in Québec, I’m planning a summer return to skip the parka and hit the bike trails. Be sure to check out Wander for more great ideas on what to see and do when you visit the Québec region any time of the year.

A winter visit to Québec has long been on my bucket list. The trip to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean was an unexpected detour from Carnaval in Québec City, but made my bucketlist travels even more memorable.

Winter in Québec: Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

Written by Eric Jay Toll

Eric Jay Toll is a Phoenix-based freelance travel writer with an emphasis on Eastern Canada and the American West, particularly the outdoors. He has been to Québec six times and believes he was a Québecoise voyageur in another life, at least after a couple of sigitinis he believes that. Eric has been published in USA Today, National Parks Traveler, Houston Chronicle, ROVA, Roadtrippers, Traveling Mom/Dad, Golf Digest and other regional and national publications. He is a four-time award winner for his writing. An avid camper and cyclist, Eric lives in Phoenix with his chocolate lab, Chaco, who is often along for the biscuits on backcountry adventures and road trips.

You May Also Like…


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest food, wine & travel updates! We look forward to having you Wander with us.

You have Successfully Subscribed!