I slowly start losing the feeling in my fingertips. My thin “camera” gloves are no match for -35°C temperatures but with a spectacular eastward view right outside our cabin, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to greet the first sunrise of 2018. So here I am watching a new year being born out of the white silence interrupted only by a joyful bird song. Or is it my own joy reverberating through the frozen air?
The first sunrise of 2018
The rest of my body starts catching up with my fingers but I can’t move mesmerized by the view: a vast valley dotted with frozen lakes, grey hill outlines to the left, slender spruces wrapped in their winter coats down below. This view is the reason we ended up spending the last few days of 2017 and the beginning of the new year here – in a small cabin perched on top of a mountain in Quebec.
New year born out of the white silence
Well, the view combined with my continuous failure to remember the Ontario Parks reservation dates. And even though I was fully prepared when Gatineau Park opened its winter season booking, someone beat me to it. So I cast my gaze eastward to “la belle province”, which has remained largely unexplored by us up until now. I considered Mont Tremblant and Mont Mégantic, and then I came across La Cigale, a tiny cabin in Parc national d’Aiguebelle. It checked all the boxes: rustic, remote, a new location to start off a new year. The view from the cabin sealed the deal. We had to go there.
Our little cabin with a grand view
Parc national d’Aiguebelle is part of an extensive outdoor network – Société des établissements de plein air du Québec or Sépaq for short. It is located in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region in western Quebec, traditional territory of the Algonquin who gave the region its name. The word Abbittibbi means “where the waters divide” and refers to the Arctic and Atlantic watersheds split. There is a sign in the park north of which all the rivers drain into the James Bay and all the rivers to the south flow into the St. Lawrence River. The second part of the name, Temiscamingue, comes from the Algonquin word Temikami or Temikaming meaning “deep open waters.” And it was easy to see why: sleeping under their icy shells, lakes were plentiful.
The Atlantic/Arctic watershed divide lies north of Lac La Haie
It is in this land of deep, open waters that Parc national d’Aiguebelle is located – 268 square kilometres of taiga and billion-year-old rock. It is a camping, hiking and canoeing paradise in the summer. In the winter, it offers snowshoeing, skiing, and several cabins and rustic shelters to stay overnight. The cabin we selected sits on top of La Trompeuse hill, one of the highest points in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region. Its name, La Cigale, like all cabin names in the park comes from a bug – a cicada. I keep referring to it as a cabin but on the Sépaq website it is listed as a rustic shelter (read: wood stove and no electricity).
Parc national d’Aiguebelle is part of a large outdoor network
La Cigale, one of the rustic shelters in the park
Like all shelters in the park, the cabin is named after a bug:
La Cigale means “cicada” in French
The cabin has a deck with a picnic table, perfect for a morning coffee in warmer seasons
While I couldn’t find much about La Cigale online, I loved what little I could glean from the Sépaq website, a few reviews and an occasional picture. There was a small question of space – the shelter was listed as a three-person one. But the number of beds – one single plus a single/double bunk bed – indicated fitting four people wouldn’t be a problem. After an extensive Google search, I finally came across a trip report that confirmed my theory.
The cabin was a walk-in via a four-kilometre snowshoe trail, which wasn’t an issue (some of the park’s shelters are a ten-kilometre trek away). There was, however, a line in the cabin description that gave me pause: the last 900 metres are a difficult climb. How would we get all our stuff up there? I showed it to my husband half expecting to be talked out of it. But he was game so after a few more failed attempts to find an alternative we booked La Cigale and started counting days till we could wake up to that view.
With the date approaching, my excitement got a nagging companion. Could it be anxiety? I started fretting over a long drive in winter conditions, the cold snap that enveloped most Canada, a different language. And then to top it off I pulled my back (I wish I could say while doing something exciting but no, I was carrying a plant, not even a large one). So there I was – couchbound three days before the trip, unable to get up or turn over without external help, trying to convince myself that it could still work. I wouldn’t be able to carry anything. My best hope was getting to that cabin without becoming baggage myself. Luckily the park offers transportation services so it was time to dust off my French, or whatever was left of it from my university days, and call the office. My hopeful “Parlez-vous anglais?” was met with a decisive “no” so after ten painful minutes of back and forth I finally managed to reserve baggage delivery, fingers crossed for the right date.
On our way to the park
Three days later, with my broken back and broken French but unbroken spirits, we rolled into d’Aiguebelle. It was everything it promised to be: snow-sculpted trees lining the white road sparkling against the blue skies. We stopped by the discovery centre to register. Our baggage transportation service was waiting for us (phew!). Initially, our plan was to have them bring the heaviest stuff only, like water and food, and carry the rest. But once we saw the size of a sled attached to the ski-doo, we piled most of our stuff into it. All for a little over $13.
Our hike to the cabin begins with a trek across the lake
The prudence behind this decision became apparent the moment we hit the first slope on our way to the cabin. Even our small Pelican sled with some snacks, a couple of water bottles and a few odds and ends proved to be too much as we tried to make our way through the deep snow with nothing but an occasional snowshoe trail marker or a pink ribbon betraying a trail. It was obvious it hadn’t been walked in quite some time. The sunset found us still on the trail ploughing through the knee-deep snow. By the time we hit the 110-metres-to-the-cabin sign, it was already dark. Luckily, an almost full moon reflected of the snowy whiteness made the path fairly visible. The last 100 metres seemed to be the longest. La Cigale at the edge of the hill was the most welcome sight. Our things were already waiting inside. The wood stove was on. The cabin was nice and warm. The best $13 ever spent.
The view of La Trompeuse hill in the distance, the site of our home for the next few days
The first section of the trail, La Loutre, was fairly easy
And here is where the fun begins
Snowshoe trail markers, not always visible, pointing the way
How much longer? Trying not to panic as the sun goes down
In the next few days we walked that hill quite a few times. There was another path down used by Ski-doos and, supposedly, skiers. Less vertical but also longer so the steep hill was still the preferred route. With temperatures in negative twenties and thirties, my husband insisted on making a daily trek to the car to make sure it would start. It is ironic that in our attempt to get away from civilization we had to attend regularly to one of its most prominent symbols. The alternative, however, was getting stuck on a deserted parking lot on January 1st.
Ready for our daily hike
And that’s what we looked like at the end of the day
My pulled back got me out of this daily eight-kilometre walk. Unfortunately, it also spoiled all my grandiose plans that featured 10+ kilometre expeditions. Our younger son would join his dad while the older one stayed behind to help me with cabin chores. We would then meet up at the foot of the hill and do some short hikes before starting our uphill walk back to the cabin.
Birches bowed by a tornado a couple of years ago
Over the bridge
Through a birch forest
Suspension bridge over Lac La Haie
The ice seems strong enough to hold us
Taking a break
A rare photo of me
Bundled up and frozen
With every trip the trail became wider, the snow more packed, and the climb if not less challenging then at least familiar. We learned to divide it into sections looking for signposts: the first slope, descent to a frozen stream, a zig-zaggy climb up (because what goes down must come up), a broken tree, a small slope, the first view of the valley, a bit of a reprieve with a short walk through the forest, more climbing, then another view, deer poop, a lengthy upward section lined up with somber spruce trees and birches with flapping skins, the sign and the final 110-metre push.
Our trek to the cabin starts here
Here comes the first slope, an easy one to begin with
How do I get up there?
The higher we climb, the better the view
A deceptively small-looking hill
Going up is sometimes easier than going down
The climb might be hard but with views like this it is absolutely worth it
Enchanted forest section
Time for some snow showering
We made it!
At the end we had the view waiting for us, that same view that brought us all the way here. Constantly changing, whether adding streaks of pink or blurring the lines in the mist of a distant snowfall, but always magnificent. I would pause to take it in before ducking inside.
The view that brought us here
In the first rays of the sun or under the glow of the moon
There is supposed to be a bench somewhere under all the snow
And then there was the cabin: small, cozy, filled with a woodsy smell, crackling of the fire and stories of adventurers, serenity seekers and nature lovers who stayed here before us. It inspired hours of board games and card playing, the most delicious meals cooked on the wood stove, laughter and teasing, unhurried mornings and idle evenings.
Inside our little cabin
Wood stove, the source of heat and delicious meals
Our sleeping quarters
Hours spent reading
Getting bored, occasionally, and daydreaming
Every night is a game night
Most of all, enjoying the serenity and freedom to idle
It felt as if the cabin was located in its own bubble outside of time constraints. Celebrating the arrival of 2018 felt almost silly because hours, days and even years ceased to exist in this tiny cabin on the hill.
But celebrate we did. We even piled outside right after midnight to do our traditional photo with sparklers. It wasn’t our best but with the temperatures nearing -40°C, demanding a retake seemed cruel. There was a lot of teasing about “mom making us do it.” But then they launched into reminiscing about all the other light paintings we did over the years, some successful, others not so much. They laughed remembering that time we tried, and totally failed, to write 2015 with burning marshmallows or the time we had to redo 2014 because someone drew “4” backwards. Next year they’ll probably add the time they almost froze to death. As I listened to them, I knew the quality of the photo didn’t matter. The moment was already imprinted in their memory. Along with the view that brought us here.
Happy 2018! Looking forward to a year of new adventures