Family Camping In Quebec, If You Can Bear It

Forget Disneyland this summer and take the family camping in Canada - a holiday that pits man, wife and kids against the elements and, if you're unlucky, the local wildlife.
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Every parent wants the best for their kids. It’s only natural. Consequently, we have a tendency to over indulge. We have three young girls and wanted to give them a holiday they’d remember. So, we did what thousands of parents do; we took them to Disney World. As holidays go it was alright. But, in all honesty, they had more fun in the pool back at the house we’d rented than queuing up for a ride on a roller coaster or having their photo taken with Mickey Mouse. Such is life.

The year after we thought we’d try something different. My wife and I have fond memories of Quebec from previous, pre-parent era, holidays and, living in New Jersey, Quebec was drivable. So Quebec it was. We thought we’d tour around a bit, countryside, city, mix it up. Then it hit me. We could go camping. Camping yeah, kids love camping. Tents. Tents are ace. You can have a fire. Skip bath night. Stay out late.You can scare the crap out of each other asking, ‘What was that?’ and ‘Did you hear that?’ in the middle of the night. Cook on a propane fueled burner. What kid wouldn’t love that?

All well and good but we didn’t have any gear. You can quickly spend a lot of money on this stuff if you’re not careful.Then again, once you’ve bought it you’ll always have it. All we got from Disney was a ton of photos and a credit-card bill you don’t want to know about. We ran the idea past the kids, three avid viewers of Man v Wild, and got an enthusiastic response.

Calender duly marked - First two weeks in August - we started amassing equipment and reading up on this camping lark. They bought into it immediately. Trips to E.M.S. where we drove the sales assistants mental with stupid questions and ‘trying on’ sleeping bags, messing around with mini stoves, maps - God I love maps - Swiss Army knives, tents, backpacks, fleece cardies, waterproof matches, hiking shoes and small, powerful, ultra-bright head lamps - great for clandestine late night reading at home. Better for bombing around campsites in the inky blackness of a late summer Quebec night. Yeah we tried it all. We tried it all then found most everything even cheaper at Free shipping too. A no-brainer.

Big boxes started appearing on our door step. It was Christmas everyday for a few weeks. Regular bedtime stories were abandoned. The kids and I became engrossed in guide books, The Lonely Planet Canada, Rough Guide to French - that was a laugh. The SAS survial guide may have been over stepping the mark but God it’s full of good stuff. Maps. Always the maps. Often read with the light off and head lamps on. Route planning. Trying to break the trip up to drivable distances with stops at places worth stopping at. Who wants to overnight in a truck stop in the middle of an industrial estate? The tent, a thing of beauty from Sierra Designs (go for the previous years model, save a few dollars), went up in the living room. The kids were there already. We tried French then laughed hysterically at our ignorance and poor pronunciation. We ditched the phrase book. Back to the maps. A ton of leaflets came through the mail box from the tourist information office.

"I wanna go whale watching!"

"Me too!"



"Cool, it looks like a castle."

"Can we go there to Mum? Can we? Please?"

Stick that in your pipe Walt.

"Camping yeah, kids love camping. Tents. Tents are ace. You can have a fire. Skip bath night. Stay out late. You can scare the crap out of each other asking, ‘What was that?’ and ‘Did you hear that?’ in the middle of the night."

I think it’s only fair to mention at this time that we’re not hardcore. We like our creature comforts as much as the next family. As this was our maiden voyage, for want of a better term, it was decided we’d tour around breaking up a few nights on campgrounds with a couple of nights in hotels. Mostly to give my wife a break but also to make sure the kids stayed reasonably clean.

Cometh the hour cometh the fam(ily). The big day finally arrived and we set off for the border, heading North on The New York State Thruway. Nintendo DS’s protected their poor young eyes from the site of numerous white tailed deer lying prone on the side of the road. As we passed Lake George, the roar of a dozen Harley Davidson engines prompted my youngest daughter to pronounce the passing Hells Angels as,’Cool.’ Not the sort of thing a dad really wants to hear but I can kind of see where she’s coming from. At the border the kids said Bonjour. The customs officers said, ‘Welcome to Canada.’

Montreal is cool. A mix of old and new. I could happily live there. We lived in New York long enough that checking out the modern side of Montreal seemed a bit pointless so, after checking into our hotel, we headed down to the old town. We found an excellent little restaurant that served real food and was decorated in a Tin Tin theme. A hit.

Okay so it’s a straight run up to Quebec city then off North to Parc National Jacques Cartier for our first night under canvas. Modern tents go up easily and we were staked out in no time. Sleeping pads rolled out, the kids mucking in to help willingly, sleeping bags on top, bit of a jostle for positions, Mam and Dad on either tent wall, kids in the middle, lamps at the ready for the night, then back outside for dinner. All three of them were visibly excited about preparing and eating outdoors. The burner fired up, mum working her mojo and in no time we were eating a top notch pasta dish off plastic plates with plastic forks. We had a repeatedly refilled icebox in the back of the motor for drinks and cheese and butter and stuff like that.

The park is beautiful and has lots of things to keep you occupied. In years past my wife and I had gone white water rafting with a boat full of French Canadians who’d feared for our safety to such an extent any command from the guides, given in French, was instantly relayed, loudly to us in English. So, a word about French Canadians, they get a bum rap at times. I’ve found nothing but friendly and helpful. Even if, as in my case, your French extends only to 'Bonjour' and 'Merci', oh, and I can order eggs in a restaurant for what it’s worth. If you make the effort they are, in my experience, kindness itself.

After dinner we pottered about, checking out our surroundings. Brilliant watching and interacting with the kids. Having a chat with our new temporary neighbours. It got dark and a tad chilly fairly early but that was alright. We all messed about with headlamps on, reading Tin Tin books aloud the kids doing the voices of different characters. Then we went outside to brush our teeth and spit in the bushes. They couldn’t settle in their sleeping bags. The excitement tangible. I started with the what was thats? We were, in fairness, in bear country. And moose. And elk. And skunk. And wolverine. We didn’t get much sleep but it was a priceless night. Breakfast in the great outdoors, quick wipe of the faces with a damp cloth, teeth cleaned and we were off further into the park to explore. Sadly they were too short for the rafting but that just gave us an excuse to come back later. This trip had already surpassed Disney in the kids and, consequently, our minds.

We got a big canoe and played Davey Crockett paddling up the river to the base of some rapids. The girls loving it, hands trailing lazily in the water while Mum and I paddled like mad. They went into overdrive with excitement as a moose came down to the river for a drink. Desperate to shout out but afraid to make too much noise lest they scare it away. They talked for ages with the young girl manning the boating operation. She told them about travelling and, hopefully, sowed some seeds in their young minds. That night we gathered firewood and lit up the fire pit on our site, ate by the fire, doused it out, covered it in dirt then went to bed stinking of smoke. Excellent stuff.

"Weather wise it was a crap day but overall it’s in my all time top five days of my life. I think whales are sound enough, but at that moment I was living my life, through my kids."

The next night we were booked into a hotel down the road. Le Manor Du Lac Lage. An excellent place where they’ll throw an extra bed in your room and not get too excited about it. It poured down. We stormed the swimming pool while mum made good use of the spa. Make no mistake about it, it’s hard work for Mum no matter how much everyone mucks in. The kids had a blast, mixing with new, temporary friends as kids do. We had some top notch tucker in the restaurant, put the kids to bed then caught up on the laundry. In the morning we hit Quebec City. It’s like York on steroids. A real hit. Like all tourists, we walked the walls, sat on canons, read a few plaques, rode up and down in the funicular bought tacky souvenirs, watched some glass blowing, found a great sandwich shop then made a been line for a book store. We cried with laughter that night as we took it in turns reading The Black Island in French.

Up early for a longish haul along the banks of the Saint Lawrence river, The Mighty Saint Lawrence to Tadoussac. You know you’re somewhere remote when the Tom Tom guides you into the river. But wait, there’s a ferry. Tadoussac is awesome. The campground was on the cliffs overlooking the small bay village and harbour. The entrance had a sign warning of black bears. The family camped next to us had their food in a bear proof container hanging from a tree. Cool. The girls and I looked on in envy; my poor wife in horror. We got a fire going and made some snap. The girls were great. Helping each other not fighting. Gathering tinder.

We went down to the harbour and booked on a whale watching tour the next day. It lashed it down. The tent leaked a bit. I went outside and rubbed Gator balm on the offending seems. It slowed a tad. I dug small trenches to drain away the ground water. In the middle of the night people next door gave up and kipped in their car. The girls marvelled at the rawness of it all, a full scale attack of the elements. They were flat out, tucked up soundly in their bags by 11:00. Our tent held up quite well all things considered. My wife and I got about 2 hours sleep between us.

Tadoussac’s big draw is whale watching. It’s one of the best places in the word to see them. The Saint Lawrence, a tidal river is salty at this point. The Sagunuenay, a fresh water river and relatively shallow, runs into it creating the perfect environment for krill, the staple of a whale’s diet. Consequently, it’s possible to sit on the banks of the river and see whales. It is better still to get out there in the river itself on a boat. I will take to my grave the expressions on my kids faces when the saw their first whale surface. They screamed unable to contain their joy as the choppy waters threw the boat from side to side. It was hard to keep your balance. Weather wise it was a crap day but overall it’s in my all time top five days of my life. I think whales are sound enough, but at that moment I was living my life, through my kids.

There were loads of whales. In ones, twos and threes. A woman from some scientific research project was taking records but still took time to chat with the kids. Even the captain of the boat who’d given us a break on the cost of the trip, came over and chatted to the kids, answering their questions and marvelling at my eldest’s knowledge of them. A beautiful day that the rain could not spoil. We ate outside, in the rain, hey, you’re on holiday, you will enjoy yourselves. We went off to the pristine shower block to get cleaned up then took to the sleeping bags early, lying their content, listening to the girls talking over what they’d seen. Sometimes being a parent is the greatest thing in the world.

So, okay, we hadn’t done a load of camping but we’d whetted their appetites. They want to go back. Breaking it up with hotel stays seems a perfect compromise and only fair on my wife because it was hard on her getting three young girls organised. We all want to do it again. We talk about it loads. We don’t really talk about Disney much. They’ve seen a bit more of this wonderful world, they’ve had experiences. They haven’t just watched, they’ve done. They’ve lived a little. If you’ve got young kids, get a tent go camping. Do it before they’re too old and don’t want to go. You might get a few mozzie bites but it’s a small price to pay.