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Paving the way for the northern winter

Tales from a unique scouting trip in Quebec

The challenge is a serious one: to pave the way for winter exploration cruises in Canada’s Far North. The scouting of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, led by José Sarica, Director of Research and Development for the PONANT expedition experience, and Émerick Le Mouël, Le Commandant Charcot’s First Marine Officer, marks the start of a new era. By surveying and exploring icy landscapes, and meeting local communities, they have helped create new cruises on board Le Commandant Charcot, the world’s only luxury icebreaker. Below, a recap of this scouting trip on which spectacular landscapes never before explored under such conditions were sublimely elevated by human encounters.

Adapting to nature in winter

José Sarica and his team were a little apprehensive before setting off, as scouting trips in the middle of winter can be unpredictable. “We can’t control the elements; the ice and the weather alone are what dictate our movements,” he confides. But as the trip progresses, people’s minds become more at ease; though the planes are sometimes delayed for long periods, the meetings with local operators and the technical studies carried out once on site auger remarkable discoveries. “What’s important is to trust the people around us and be curious and inquiring. You start off with a particular idea in mind, but you know you may end up with something completely different when you come back; that’s the beauty of scouting,” he explains.

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First steps in Quebec

Having arrived in Quebec City, José rediscovers the wintry city he used to live in, with its historic quarter inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He has long been dreaming of sharing his passion for this region and its people with PONANT expedition cruise guests. On arrival, however, he seems to be rediscovering everything in a new light: “If someone had told me I had landed in another country, on another planet, I would have believed them. The region has two highly contrasting sides to it, with the colours of the Indian summer on one hand, and the thick white blanket of winter on the other; I lost all my bearings. I realised that the true richness of the region comes to the fore at this time of year, when the elements take over and you have to work with them in all humility… It was a magical experience”.

From his first contacts with the port staff, José senses that everyone is dedicated to ensuring Le Commandant Charcot becomes the first cruise ship to explore the region in winter. After checking the port’s infrastructure and prior to setting off for the first of their adventures, the team climbs into an ice canoe to cross the St. Lawrence River from one bank to the other. They’ll be flying into Sept-Îles Bay in a small plane, capturing the archipelago from the air before setting foot on dry land to unearth the best immersive experiences.

Discover the report on this exclusive scouting trip and follow our teams behind the scenes as they explore Canada’s far north in winter.

This trip is packed with emotions. I remember laughing and crying, experiencing near-meditative moments, both when you find yourself faced fully with the grandeur of the elements – moments made even more magical when you also happen to be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights – and through contact with the communities that are the real beating heart of this adventure.

José Sarica

Encounters that give meaning to the scouting trip

The sensations are more intense than ever as José crosses the boreal forest on a snowmobile, the only means of winter transport in these remote regions. “I felt so alive, so in tune with the elements. I got a lot out of the experience,” he recounts. The cold is not a constraining factor here, and the snow-covered landscapes, the reliefs of which you can barely distinguish, transport you into a quasi-mystical ambiance and atmosphere.

Just 45 minutes later, he’s in a tent, enjoying the scent of balsam fir and the boundlessly comforting warmth emanating from a small wood fire. It’s here that the Innu community is waiting for him. This is where he meets Chrystal Fontaine, a local woman who tells him about the journey that led to her becoming a caribou hunter. She recounts the story of her decisive meeting with her husband and her immersion in the traditions of her people during a rare and special moment of sharing. These exchanges are the true richness of these trips, creating moments you can’t put a price on,” emphasises José. “We break all the taboos, we allow ourselves to be carried along, and we very quickly grasp that we are going through an incredible experience.” The next day at Sept-Îles, the team discovers that the port was originally designed to accommodate The Queen Mary, and Le Commandant Charcot is the only ship that will have the privilege of docking there in winter.

16_reperage_Charcot_Canada©PONANT-Julien Fabro

New activities out on the ice

The rendezvous point on the third day is on the shores of Saguenay Fjord. Here, out in the middle of the ice, Le Commandant Charcot will be operating in her element, and guests will have the chance to disembark onto the pack ice. After a helicopter flight to locate the snowshoe, ski, and dog-sled trails and to assess the ice, José arrives in La Vallée des Fantômes – the name given to this forest of fir trees covered in a thick layer of snow – where guests will be able to spend one night in a cosy chalet at nearly 3,000 feet altitude in Monts-Valin National Park, so they can spend time contemplating the lunar scenery of the boreal forest.

Back in Saguenay, the scouting team experiences what it’s like to be a ‘musher’ or ‘princess’ – a driver or passenger – on a dog-sled ride down the valley across the frozen lake and through the snow-enshrouded trees. They are then invited to an ephemeral fishing village on the pack ice, with its distinctive rows of colourful cottages. “As you get closer, in the company of enthusiastic local guides, you see that there are holes in the ice used for angling for fish on the sea bottom. They teach us the techniques needed to master angling for redfish before moving on to tasting in the form of ceviche,” José recalls.

17_reperage_Charcot_Canada©PONANT-Julien Fabro

Looking to the future

This scouting trip paves the way for new explorations in this region, which is inaccessible to traditional ships in winter. The journey has already begun, and José is imagining itineraries that make local communities the central focus of attention: “We see voyages of exploration in the Arctic with pride of place given to the people we meet; they are our greatest strength,” he explains. Respect for nature, which, adorned in its winter colours seems more hypnotic than ever, is embodied by the local inhabitants. They will pass on their passion to the cruise guests, who will in turn become the best ambassadors for the region.

Getting this scouting trip right was a huge challenge, but by taking this step, PONANT will become the first cruise line in the world to offer the opportunity to explore the St. Lawrence River in the middle of winter. As an expedition pioneer, Le Commandant Charcot continues to embody the company’s philosophy, Explore to Inspire: exploring to better understand, share, and protect, and to provide new development prospects for local communities.

Photo credits: ©Julien Fabro

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