Spin the Globe: Jennifer Kahn in Québec City

AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent Jennifer Kahn on a spontaneous journey to Québec City.

Spin the Globe: Jennifer Kahn in Québec City

Photo by Jeffery Cross

Compared with other cities one might be flown to with little warning, Québec is a breeze. Getting there from the United States is relatively easy, and even as winter approaches, the city is welcoming. The day I arrived, in early December, the weather was cold but snowless. Though the Christmas season had barely begun, the stores in Vieux-Québec, the old town, were stocked with holiday gifts along with the usual tourist trophies: maple-leaf-shaped candies and bottles of syrup, moose T-shirts, feathered Inuit dream catchers.

Québec City is to Montreal as Albany is to New York City: an unassuming capital, provincial and quaint. The city bulges with banks and ministries, and the cobbled wedge of Old Québec—a steep, winding maze of lovely brick facades and gabled roofs—perches jauntily at its eastern tip, like a Santa hat worn by the Regional Sales Manager at a holiday office party.

At Le Château Frontenac hotel, a turreted fantasy castle from the late 1800s that now houses a street-level shopping mall and a Starbucks, a handful of tourists snapped photos of each other posed against the steely backdrop of the St. Lawrence River. Despite the frigid weather—the plaza outside the château was rimmed with black ice—people appeared happy, enjoying their window-shopping. A kid in Chuck Taylors slipped while sneaker-skating and cannoned into an older woman, causing her to slosh her venti latte all over her husband’s coat. But the mood remained cheerful.

I, however, was restless. Reading about Québec with my husband the night before we flew, I’d found lurid tales from the city’s founding in 1608, when it was still just a scrubby outpost in the French fur trade. Back then, the place had been wild: a boomtown built on beaver. Outside the city’s fortified walls, the woods teemed with black bears. Overhead, migrating flocks of snow geese would regularly eclipse the sun. In one account I read, a hunter, determined to drag an especially large beaver from its den, was bitten so badly that he bled to death.

As my husband and I walked through town, I kept hoping to find some echo of that wildness. Instead, the city felt all too settled, a Potemkin village of candle shoppes and French restaurants with the menu specials printed neatly in several languages. (Sample entrée: venison with a maple glaze, $36.) At the hotel, I asked the concierge how far we’d have to travel to see a beaver. He answered, “Far.” Ditto a caribou. Even some of the nearby national parks were closed, gated off for the winter.

At Les Fourrures du Vieux-Port, the town’s largest and most luxurious fur store, I fondled a frothy chinchilla coat and tried to chat up the saleslady, a frosty brunette who grew suspicious when I asked whether a local trapper provided the store’s furs.

“We have many sources for our furs,” she told me stiffly. “And some of them are in Québec.” I wanted to explain that I needed to find a trapper because I was seeking the heart of Québec’s wild past, but when I asked her for a name, her eyes narrowed. “You’d have to speak with the manager,” she said with a wintry sniff. “And he is not here.” Instead, she directed us to drive north.

“The coast is pretty, and I’m sure you’ll find something,” she shrugged.

So the next morning we drove along the St. Lawrence toward La Malbaie, about two hours north of Québec. The season’s first snow had fallen overnight, scribbling the low hills in black and white but leaving the roads clear. My plan—such as it was—was to locate a fur trapper. How exactly that would happen was unclear, especially since several people, including the concierge and the fur-store lady, had taken pains to explain that fur trappers don’t trap in the winter. There was also the problem of my limited French, and the added challenge posed by the confusingly duck-like accent of the native Québecois. As a result, most of my conversations had gone something like this:

Me: Je cherche une personne qui trouve les animaux et les tue. (I want a person who finds animals and kills them.)

Friendly local person: Pardon, je dois partir. (Sorry, I have to go.)

Me: Uh, répétez lentement, s’il vous plaît? (Can you say that again more slowly?)

But so what? This was an adventure. We stopped for lunch in Baie Saint-Paul, a coastal town mostly shuttered for the winter, and I quizzed our waiter about finding a fur trapper. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, then gave us directions to a local farm that was part of the government’s sustainable agriculture initiative. “They have alpacas,” he added encouragingly. “And the farm is organic!”

Unfortunately, it turned out, the farm was closed for the season. So instead we spent the next day hiking the only trail still open in the Parc National des Grands- Jardins, a mountainous wilderness 50 miles west of the coast. With the snow falling steadily among white birch trees, the scene was pleasantly pastoral, if not quite wild.

We ascended a series of well-built wooden staircases to some viewing platforms near the trail’s peak and spotted a lone chipmunk nibbling at a tiny pinecone. We decided to count this as a wildlife sighting, but I was secretly growing worried.

We had a flight home in 36 hours. How could I possibly find my coveted fur trapper before then?

Hungry from walking in the cold, we drove back to Baie Saint-Paul for dinner. Our friendly waiter at Mouton Noir started the evening by requesting the English word for chevrette (young goat), and was amazed to hear that it is “kid.” (“Like a child?” he asked, mystified.) Still, the food was good, and caloric enough to stun a lumberjack. For the main course, I was presented with a pork chop the size of a baby’s head and nearly as round—a dish so bulbous that the elderly woman seated next to us actually pointed at it in alarm.

We spent the night in La Malbaie, another 45 minutes’ drive up the coast, and awakened to more fresh snow. There was also a single, neat line of animal tracks, small but deep. Disproportionately excited, I showed my discovery to the innkeeper. He nodded without enthusiasm and pointed to a long-haired orange tabby dozing on the inn’s back deck. “Cat,” he explained.

With only one day left to find a trapper, I was fretful. We drove back south to Baie Saint-Paul and spent the morning trying to gather intel from the local merchants, most of whom responded to my questions by saying things like “There’s a butcher shop on the next block” or “This store only sells candy.”

Discouraged, and with our rented car due in Québec by five, we decided to head back to the city. And that’s when it happened. During a brief stop at a gas station outside the tiny town of Saint-Tite-des-Caps, I chatted with a man in coveralls who was fueling up his snowmobile. When I said that the weather was good for this time of year, he nodded soberly. Then, without much hope, I asked if he knew any fur trappers in the area. Why yes, he said. There was one, Alain Asselin, just down the street.

Five minutes later, we pulled up in front of an elegant two-story house. A pair of border collies barked hysterically on chains in the front yard. As I stood trying to figure out how to get to the front door without being mauled, a man came out. He was gaunt, with a sparse black beard and a fur hat with earflaps tied over the top. In halting French, I explained that a guy at the gas station had sent me, and I wanted to talk about fur trapping. Then I paused, waiting for him to loose the dogs. Instead, the man merely shrugged and motioned for me to go around to the basement.

When I arrived at the back, Monsieur Asselin shouldered open a flimsy door and gestured me into a dim workshop, heavy with a meaty, rancid musk. In one corner, a thick mass of pelts hung down, alongside an ancient, taxidermied beaver with tiny, piggy eyes and a plasticky tail. “Castor,” he observed, French for “beaver,” indicating the animal. Rummaging in a barrel, he pulled out a strip of timber wolf fur. “For trim,” he said. Running his hands down a full-length wolf pelt, he flicked at a section of long fur on the upper back and shoulders. “For capuchons,” he added. “Hats.”

Sifting through the pelts, he showed me lynx—creamy white and sleek, with the large, catlike paws still attached—and beaver: a rich, dark brown fur, surprisingly soft. On a separate hook dangled a clutch of ermine, tiny pelts each the size of a doll’s dress.

Though I couldn’t understand most of the trapper’s explanations, it didn’t seem to matter. When we eventually parted ways, I felt vindicated. In its snowy heart, Québec was still wild.

Jennifer Kahn is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and has been a regular feature writer for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Wired, among others. Her work has been selected for the Best American Science Writing series four times, and has explored subjects ranging from the “rational self-help” movement in Silicon valley, to the challenge of identifying and treating child psychopaths. Since 2009, she has taught in the Magazine Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and was a visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton in 2015. Her 2016 TED talk on CRISPR and gene drives has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and was named one of the top TED talks of 2016 by conference organizers.
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