Thursday, February 18, 2016

Canadian Adventures: Snowshoeing in the Valley of Phantoms

It's pretty widely known that Canada is a great outdoor adventure destination. From the amazing national parks of British Columbia, to the mountain biking and kayaking opportunities that Vancouver has to offer. But as I discovered on my recent trip to Quebec, the opportunities for adventure aren't limited to the western part of this expansive country. In fact, just the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region alone has plenty to offer the intrepid traveler.

A few days back, I wrote about my experiences dogsledding and encountering wolves at a very special place in the Saguenay region. And while that was a fantastic day, it was just one of several unforgettable adventures that I was lucky enough to have while there.

Perhaps my favorite day while visiting Quebec was when I had the chance to go snowshoeing in the unbelievably beautiful Valley of the Phantoms. I've been fortunate enough to snowshoe through some great environments in the past, but none of them came close to the Valley of Phantoms. This very special place is covered in a blanket of 5+ meters (16.4 feet) of snow each year, thanks in part to a unique microclimate that creates extra moisture in the air. When temperatures drop, that moisture turns to snow, which falls almost continually throughout the winter. As a result, the snow is deep, powdery, and fresh. It also tends to cling to the trees of the dense forest found in the valley, shrouding them in white. Those trees are referred to as "ghost trees" or "mummy trees" and walking amongst them is something you won't soon forget.

Our day in Valley of the Phantoms began at the visitor center of the Parc national des Monts-Valin, in which this unique landscape is found. Shuttles depart twice in the morning, taking guests into the starting point of the trail that winds through the valley. With so much snow on the ground, it is impossible to drive to the trailhead yourself, but fortunately there are some special vans equipped with treads that are more than capable of navigating the snow-covered roads.


After collecting our gear, securing are permits, and meeting our guides, we were soon off on the 40 minute drive to the start of the trail. Along the way, it became evident what makes the Valley of the Phantoms so special, as the road you take to the start of the hike is surrounded by thick forests which already prominently displayed the ghost trees that the region is famous for.

Before long, we reached the trailhead. Hopping out of the van, we each grabbed a pair of snowshoes and poles, and went to work getting geared up for our trek. That day it was roughly -23ºC/-10ºF without the windchill, so it was important to get bundled in layers. Proper boots and gloves were necessary too, and even then it was cold enough that when you stopped moving, the chills set in pretty quickly.

The trail through the Valley of the Phantoms winds upwards, constantly climbing as you go. While it is a fairly easy ascent, being in good physical condition will certainly make it less of a challenge. Thankfully, the main trail is groomed all winter long, which makes it a comfortable walk. In fact, if you stayed on the trail it would be possible to hike to the top without the use of snowshoes. But wander off piste at all, and you'll be glad you have them. Even with the snowshoes, every member of my group still managed to fall through deep holes int eh snow, sometimes ended up buried to our chests.

Hiking up the trail, the trees provided good shelter from the wind, and brought a sense of solitude to our walk. When walking alone, the place was nearly silent, with just the sound of your snowshoes in breath breaking the silence. Despite the cold, it was a truly memorable and enjoyable day in the outdoors, with breathtaking scenery around just about every bend.

About halfway to the summit, we stopped to take a break in one of the valley's warming huts. On that day, it was crowded in the small hut, but very warm too. We allowed our toes and fingers to thaw a bit while enjoying a tasty lunch. It was a nice respite from the cold temps just outside, but once we had finished our meal, we bundled up to head back outside in the elements.

From the warming hut, it was just 1 km (.6 miles) to the summit, and with recharged batteries we soon topped out on the 984 meter (3228 ft) peak. The winds at the top were much higher than they were in the shelter of the valley itself, which caused temperatures to drop sharply. Still, the cold was far from our minds, because the incredible views that were found there trumped everything else.

We picked a great day to visit the Valley of the Phantoms. Throughout most of the winter, the skies are cloudy and snow falls almost constantly. But when I was there, it was a clear day with bright blue sky, and the sun shining overhead. That translated to breathtaking views from the summit, allowing us to see for miles in all directions. The ghost trees stretched out around us, showing us the boundaries of the microclimate that make them possible, while offering enticing views of the wilderness beyond. In a word, it was spectacular.

After spending quite a bit of time on the summit taking photos, we decided it was time to begin our descent at long last. But, our guide took us off the trail and into the more remote areas of the park. Here, the snow was deep and treacherous, and far different from the nicely groomed trail. It was during this part of our trek that we all discovered how well hidden holes in the snow can be, as everyone of us plummeted into the deep powder, which acted a bit like quicksand, even with snowshoes on our feet.

Those occasional obstacles only added to the fun though, and exploring off piste was a great adventure. If walking on the trail showed us the beauty of the valley, getting into the heart of the forest displayed its wild side. Walking amongst the trees was real joy, although if you do wander away from the hiking route, it would probably be good to do so with a guide. It is easy to get lost in the forest, and there were plenty of times I was happy that someone else was taking the lead.

By late afternoon we arrived back at the main trail and finished our descent back to where we started. It has been a tremendous day in this amazing place, and we were all reluctant to leave it behind, despite the very cold conditions. Thankfully, that evening was spent in a cabin that overlooked a frozen lake, giving us a chance to experience this pristine wilderness after dark too. We took advantage of that opportunity by heading out in the evening to catch a peek at the stars overhead. By then, the temperatures had dropped even further, but we didn't mind at all. We knew a hot fire was waiting for us back inside, and the view was well worth it.

Next up, ice fishing on Lac-Saint-Jean!

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