Standing outside the doorway in the cool Quebec winter twilight, I know I’ve got the wrong cabin.

 

“This can’t be it,” I say, squinting at the sign over the door. My snowshoes squeak on the packed snow as I step forward to put my face against the cabin window. “The name is wrong and there’s no firewood beside the wood stove. How’d we get lost on a quarter-mile marked trail?”

We stare at each other for a long minute and then share an embarrassed laugh before retracing our steps to the last fork in the path that led us here. Night is falling, the temperature is dropping. We’re lost and having a great time in Quebec’s haunted park.

Earlier that day, we had arrived with a car packed full of snowshoes and enough fleece to clothe a small Nordic nation at Parc National des Monts-Valin, a rugged 60 sq. mile wilderness two and a half hours drive north east of Quebec City.

The park’s high, rolling peaks, some of which rise above 3000 ft, dominate the surrounding Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region. In the summer, campers can see the park on foot via a variety of day and overnight hiking trails or by water on the winding Monts-Valin River.

But it’s in winter that Monts-Valin reveals its true nature, and its ghosts.

On average, the park is completely ice free only 80 days a year. Due to a unique micro-climate, Monts-Valin receives a significant annual snowfall (over 10 feet is common) that arrives in October and sticks around until mid-May.

Sheltered by the high peaks, evergreens in the valleys below are coated in thick layers of powder, twisting and molding them into a weird medley of spooky shapes. Mummies, Caspers and animals of all kind abound, particularly in the park’s famed “Valley of the Ghosts”.

Skiers and snowshoers can sample the peaks and phantoms with day trips based out of the park’s information centre. But those seeking a more rustic adventure can turn their trip into a comfortable 2-4 night excursion by taking advantage of the park’s excellent system of winter cabins, or refuges. Spaced evenly throughout the interior, each is equipped with bunk beds, an eating area and a well-stocked wood stove. Travelers simply bring their food, cooking stoves and sleeping bag.

If carrying a backpack through the snow is not your cup of tea, a snowmobile shuttle can be arranged to carry your gear between cabins, leaving you with only a day pack to carry as you make your way from one night’s stop to the next.

We arrive at the park on a Sunday evening, just as most day trippers are returning to their cars. The communities near Monts-Valin offer many comfortable options for an overnight stay. But if you’re a snow-starved southerner craving winter adventure, you can spend your first night in a rustic cabin or even an igloo just a few hundred yards from the information centre before starting a longer trip.

After a long day in the car, we wuss out and opt for the cabin over the igloo, if we can find it…

In a cool winter sun set, we strap on snowshoes and stride eagerly down the short trail to our first refuge. While debating whether the extra bottle of wine I’ve left in the car will explode overnight, we blithely march past a clearly marked fork in the trail that would lead us to our accommodations.

Ten minutes later, we’re standing by the Monts-Valin River staring at the wrong cabin.

It doesn’t take long to correct the error (the bruised ego may take a little more healing time) and we settle into the right refuge just as the sky turns completely black. With the woodstove pulsing and the wine poured, we sit at the kitchen table to discuss the park map and the next day’s beginning of our trip through the interior.

We have selected a three-day snowshoeing excursion that will take us 11 miles through the Valley of the Ghosts in the park’s northern high ground back down to the information centre.

The next morning, two snowmobilers shuttle us to the Valley of the Ghosts trailhead. While this lift takes care of most of the overall elevation gain for the trip, the hike to the Valley of the Ghosts refuge is still a climb. As we ascend, broad panorams open behind us. Ahead, the snow grows deeper and the first phantoms begin to appear, peaking from the tree tops in growing numbers and sizes.

Within an hour, we reach the cabin where we will stay the night. Only a year old, it’s clean, tidy and large enough to sleep 8 comfortably. The woodstove is already stoked and radiating heat thanks to day trippers who have used the place for their afternoon lunch break.

We ditch our own packs and continue up the Valley trail towards Dubuc Peak, at 3200 ft, the highest in the park. As we gain altitude, we gain ghosts. Soon, every tree seems laden with phantoms of various shapes and sizes.

Near Dubuc’s crest, the trees become stunted as they loose the leeward shelter of the mountain. The 360 degree view from the top is starkly beautiful. To the southeast, the Saguenay Fjord is plainly visible, stretching south in a widening scar towards the St. Lawrence River. In the opposite direction, a green and white boreal carpet rolls north towards James Bay.

We return to our cabin and just before dark are joined by our roommates for the night – 7 backcountry skiers in the middle of their own trip through Monts-Valin’s interior. Exploring a new route that’s just opened in the park’s northeastern tip, the four men and three women 30-somethings have spent most of the day unsuccessfully hunting the red flags with which the park has marked the trail. Despite the tough going, they’re in high spirits and chat with us and each other amiably in stout Québécois accents as they settle in for the night.

Within minutes of their arrival, the quiet, tidy cabin is a messy cacophony of polypropylene and French jokes. Make-shift clotheslines are strung over the woodstove and decorated with damp socks, mitts, and sweaters. The doorway to one bedroom is curtained with ski climbing skins, the other with long underwear. A fat pot of snow is laid on the stove to melt for drinking water.

After dinner, our groups exchange details of our trips and talk about our routes for the next day. A previous guest has left behind a deck of dog-eared playing cards with the word “Amsterdam” proudly emblazoned over a marijuana leaf. A game breaks out and continues into the night long after Janine and I take to our sleeping bags.

As we fall asleep, we hear low chuckles as our roommates take turns at giving theories for the origins of the Ghosts. Isabelle wins the most admiration and laughs for her opinion that the phantoms are actually the frozen corpses of backcountry skiers who followed red flags to a chilly demise.

By morning, 8 inches of fresh powder has fallen and the white trail to our next refuge is marred only by the occasional rabbit or lynx track. The phantoms now rise seamlessly from the ground, leaving barely a sprig of green to be seen.

Despite the fresh deep powder, we make it to our next cabin in just a few hours. Our new roommates are a far cry from the previous night’s companions – a friendly but quiet student couple that spends most of the day reading and most of the night engaged in a quiet game of Canasta. Later, curled up in our sleeping bags, we giggle at how boring they seem compared to our skier friends before realizing how much they remind us of us. We put our books away and go to sleep.

We begin our final morning in the park walking through a cold, eerie fog. It covers the trees in a gossamer hoar frost and turns our hair and eyebrows white. As we descend the last 5 miles back to the information centre, we begin to look like ghosts ourselves, drifting through a winter limbo of glistening trees and ice-covered rock.

The fog diminishes the views from the high peaks but brings more subtle rewards. We gawk for minutes at a birch encased in a perfectly translucent half-inch thick skin of ice. After Janine continues down the trail, I impulsively lick it. For the next half mile I ponder how dumb I’d look stuck to a frozen tree trunk by my tongue and wonder what kind of ghost I’d make.

As we lose altitude, the fog parts and wide views of the surrounding lowlands are again visible. When we hit the last mile of the trail, the sun makes a partial break through the grey ceiling that’s brooded over us for the past three days. By the time we reach our car, the ghosts have been chased back up into the highlands of Monts-Valin to await the next group of travelers in this winter wilderness.

copyright Jason Murphy

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