The February Escape to Montreal, Part 6: Chicoutimi

St. Johnsbury, VT | Chicoutimi, QC (Map)

Winter 2013-14


Putting the car in drive, the day's sun was breaking over the ridge of hills off to the east of Yaz's place, that bright sphere finding the area between the dash and sun visor with ease.

There was little time to waste today. I-684 cut right through this small town & we were onto the American Interstate System within a mile of driving. The traffic volume wasn't all that crazy since we were going away from NYC at the right time, but as we entered Connecticut, we'd find traffic snarls soon enough. After stopping for Dunks0 in Southbury, we barely had time to consume our mediocre breakfast sandwiches before coming upon stop & go traffic in Waterbury.

As we continued through western Connecticut & western Massachusetts, I was happy that we were able to keep pace with the GPS's time of arrival, the only delay being that Waterbury one on account of seemingly poor design and an overwhelmed highway.

0 - Dunkin' Donuts.

The big disappointment today was having to fly through all of these places that I longed to see (or discovered that I wanted to see on this drive). Before today, I'd only driven through Hartford along the interstate one time, at night, tired and unable to stop. Now in this morning light with the city beside the expressway, I very much wanted to exit the interstate except it didn't fit into the plans. To have stopped here would have meant being unable to go to Chicoutimi on this trip & I've always thought Hartford to be relatively accessible (although it was 7 years ago that I managed to drive through that one time).

In addition to Hartford; Waterbury CT and Springfield MA both looked like really great cities of stone churches, hills and old buildings that I longed to explore. And if these cities that I could see were this intriguing, how cool were the towns we kept passing without highway frontage?

I was excited by the fact that we eventually would need gas and food, so I would get one stop somewhere in Vermont & I'd be damned if I was stopping at some fast food/Exxon stop. Previously researching & settling on St. Johnsbury, I wasn't disappointed in the New England buildings or the Vermont terrain. I also couldn't complain about the submarine place we chose, where they had a giant print of that famous Zdeno Chara picture where he's thrusting the cup into the air.

The border went surprisingly well, considering two non-resident people in a rental, entering Quebec, with some beers. And here I had allotted extra time in case we were pulled in, but it's better to be safe than miss a Chicoutimi Saguenéens game, as they say.

The driving in Quebec was neat in that I retraced my way past Sherbrooke & Drummondville, but otherwise it was somewhat dull in those flat, sparsely populated area of southern Quebec. Things picked up as we crossed the St. Lawrence, driving through the outskirts and closer to Quebec City than I ever had before - but Quebec City would have to wait.

Stopping for coffee and snacks at one of the last convenience stores, civilization dropped away abruptly as we motored north on QC-175. The last village was about 20km outside of Quebec City and suddenly there was difficulty in even finding a forest access road leading off the highway after said juncture.

We were now in the Réserve faunique des Laurentides (Laurentides Wildlife Reserve) with this four-lane divided highway cutting through the Laurentide Mountains for nearly all of the 210 km (130 mi) drive between Quebec City and Chicoutimi. While I pondered wishing for maybe some more sun, I also thought of how awful this road would be in a blizzard, or any winter storm, where Chicoutimi plans would be challenged or cancelled. This was a wilderness road, engineered like many other impressive feats in Quebec, going through the rough country you'll find in this province once you get above a certain degree of latitude.

Our cell phones stopped working soon enough, the radio was down to two or three stations and there was one gas station/motel along the entirety of this route. I felt like I was on a more hardcore version of the 146 km Burgeo Highway back in Newfoundland.

This Quebec stretch of highway was only completely divided by 2013, putting chills in me at the thought of getting caught in winter storms along this lengthy route as trucks bear down, head-on in the other lane.

The wilderness doesn't end until you're almost in Chicoutimi, the highway spilling you into fringe villages of the Saguenay Municipality. It isn't long before you reach an arterial road lined with those big box stores with the greatest reach, but also some local motels and restaurants that tend to do a better job of surviving in Quebec.

Almost driving right downtown, but stopping to check into the hostel, I had plans of walking these streets over to the game to get a better feel for the Queen of the North, but the amount of snow, hills and the frigid windchill put an end to those aspirations. In addition, the effort to get dressed up, the fact that I'd be sweaty at the game & the amount of clothes we'd have on in the arena, all contributed to simply driving back along the Boulevard de l'Université to the Centre Georges-Vézina.

The QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) formed in 1969, with Chicoutimi being granted a team in 1973. They've been in the Memorial Cup three times, but unfortunately have never made it past the round robin, unable to join the eight teams from The Q who have won the trophy for all of junior hockey in Canada.

One of those three visits to the Memorial Cup was in 1990-91, when they won the QMJHL's President's Cup on the back of Playoff MVP Felix Potvin, whose number hangs in the rafters with Guy Carbonneau's, amongst others.

For months I had visited the excellent QMJHL Arena Guide to read and reread the Chicoutimi page, excited by future plans of visiting this old barn from 1949. Walking through the jammed entryway and up the angled concourse, the view up towards the exposed wood of the arched roof did not disappoint.

This rink has hosted the Memorial Cup, but all the way back in 1988.

Chicoutimi renovated the ice to Olympic size and installed new cooling systems in 2001. In 2007 they added a scoreboard capable of video clips. They would bid on hosting the 2015 Memorial Cup, but even with the recent renovations and upcoming renovations, it was awarded to Quebec City instead. Now one might think that's simply because of Quebec City's arena, size and accommodations, but the Q is open to smaller markets hosting the event, instead of the joke that is the OHL, where they just give it to London every time, acting like there's some type of competition ,when they are already set on the sizable stadium, giant city, central location and decent weather of London. In the Q, they are classier and more commendable in that places like Shawinigan and Rimouski have been granted the right to host the event recently.

I had my typical troubles in deeply French areas of Quebec, once again having problems ordering a water, even though I'm pretty sure I'm saying l'eau right. Then I decided I wanted one of their fantastic jerseys, so walking into the team store I happily noticed a discount - which I then mimed my way through with the girl, finding that the jerseys were indeed still $169 and indeed still staying on the jersey rack. Leaving the store behind and spending the money elsewhere, I was walking with a beer in each hand behind a 30-year-old guy himself with beers, as we were stuck on stairs behind a group of slow-moving tweens. Said dude turned around and made some quip about the situation to me, where I could only heartily laugh in response, as I had no idea what he said.

Even when I was walking back to the car, a lady came up and asked something, but with such confidence that there was no possibility of me being English. It was only when she realized, that she thought for a second & asked for the time in decent English.

As for sitting in the seats and watching the game itself, it was remarkable the difference between the 2nd and 4th place teams back in Blainville-Boisbriand, and the matchup here of the 11th place Victoriaville Tigres and the 13th place Chicoutimi Saguenéens. Whereas Blainville-Boisbriand was fast-paced and had me on the edge of my seat, this game had me looking up at the roof, walking around under the wood beams of the concourse & staring up at the crucified jesus that hangs on the one wall of Centre Georges-Vézina.

At least it was amusing when Victoriaville scored their 6th goal to get the game to 6-0 and then the announcer played Kelly Clarkson's Stronger.

This being QMJHL stadium #10, I had to keep up the poutine tradition & oh boy did Chicoutimi hold their own (which isn't all that surprising considering how far inside & north I was in Le Belle Province).

Easily better than all of the ones in Atlantic Canada, I can't put Chicoutimi's poutine above Drummondville or Victoriaville though. I think Chicoutimi's offering needs to be in 3rd place, then Gatineau, Bathurst, and so on.

The future of Centre Georges-Vézina seemingly challenges one of the major things I liked about the place. Even though there was a new rounded addition above the entryway that replaced the sign letters of the arena (my picture, pre-2014 picture), it seems that even more renovations are coming.

One of the good things is that they will increase the arena building footprint for larger locker rooms and training areas - which is good because it makes people happy and able to deal with an old arena; but they also plan to replace the roof, because as a Google Translated document tells me, "Under the recommendation of the engineers, the current roof will be replaced by a more solid structure. Engineers have confirmed that the current roof is not dangerous, but must be repeated according to new standards. If an impressive amount of snow accumulating it, combined with an earthquake, for example, it could not hold on."

Thankfully they were still clearing the roof with experts on ropes during our visit, so that we didn't die during an earthquake this night.

I shouldn't be so salty though; after all, they're keeping the 1949 structure instead of replacing it.

Leaving the arena behind, there were thoughts of going to this bar in town, but it was already bumping on this Friday night at only 10pm, I thought better of it.

Instead, we found no one sharing our room of the hostel, as the management does an awesome thing in putting separate groups into separate rooms, unless there's not enough space I suppose. There was a group down the hall of early 20s kids and if my bed was in there, I'd likely have went back to that bar until I could just go right to bed.

I cracked the first ever Black Berry 211 that I had seen, purchased in Vermont & brought up to Chicoutimi. It was sickly sweet and hurt my face whenever I'd guzzle some down. Its only worth, in that Steve thought he'd be smart and send me a picture of the 211 he was drinking, where I magically had my own and wasn't wallowing on my castaway island at the moment.

I'd periodically look out the small, 2nd-story window at the blustery night outside, squashing hopes of walking around and hoping the drive back down that highway would be tolerable tomorrow.

The Black Berry 211 must've worked, because for some reason I thought it was a good idea to head down to the hostel pub. Since they give you a voucher for a free pint when you stay there (in hopes of getting you out and creating that hostel atmosphere I suppose) I decided to take them up on it & it was so casual that I ended up staying for another pint.

It was funny to think of how alone I'd be if I lived in Quebec though. All these handsome men that love dancing and are so gregarious. I'd be so behind that I'd be lapped twice.

The next morning, the first order of the day was to get some coffee, which we did at this tabagie - which I only now realize translates into a cigar shop or tobacconist. I wondered why they had such small cups of coffee, elaborate choices in lighters and minimal inventory. I assumed it was a factor of rough Chicoutimi.

Driving around in search of where to go for breakfast or lunch, it was disappointing to find many places not open until later on in the afternoon. There was sushi & thai spots, but parking the car and walking up to the door, they weren't opening until 5 at the earliest.

So we drove around and explored, finding a convent on a hill that gave a pretty good view over the wide Saguenay River. This is still about 100km / 60km from the St. Lawrence River, showcasing the power of the mighty Saguenay. There's a bridge crossing here in Chicoutimi, but there isn't another downstream crossing, save for the ferry at Tadoussac on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

Down the street from the convent was Chicoutimi's main cathedral, Saint-Francois-Xavier, built in 1922.

One reason you might actually know anything about Chicoutimi would be the great Saguenay Flood of 1996.

(Full disclosure: I only knew their hockey team and the flood history prior to this trip.)

^Notice that same white house? Picture courtesy of

I can recall a long time ago watching the news and seeing helicopter footage of this little white house with incredible amounts of water rushing all around, somehow still standing there, becoming a symbol for this catastrophic event.

The Saguenay Flood was Canada's first billion-dollar natural disaster, the product of hurricane remnants coming up from the Caribbean and mixing with a low pressure system from the Great Lakes, dumping extreme torrents of water into the Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean bodies. In just two days, the region saw as much rain as they normally get in all of July, the storm accounting for 280mm of rain, the people seeing the same amount of water as what goes over Niagara Falls every 4 weeks.

The stories of city developers long knowing this land was unsafe, but buckling to development pressure wasn't hard to believe. 488 homes were destroyed, 1230 damaged, 16000 people were evacuated and 10 people died. The only thing left in the above picture on the front side of the church road is/was Jeanne d'Arc Lavoie-Genest's little white house.

The land here was never rebuilt upon, save for the local skatepark.

The little white house was turned into the Little White House Museum, after it had sat vacant for a while, someone tried to burn it, and then eventually the grandson turned it into a museum that attracts thousands of tourists in the summertime. It survived the flood while so many other buildings didn't, because after a smaller flood in 1947, Alyre Genest decided to secure the house to the rock foundation, and also lifted it up from the ground to get away from any future flood waters.

An aerial view shows not too much else standing where the Riviere Chicoutimi would seemingly like to try and wash over the land.

Upstream of the Little White House sits the Compagnie de pulpe de Chicoutimi, which had just seen a $6 million historic site renovation when the floods came along - the pulp mill buildings visible with water pouring out of the windows in the CBC coverage (at 1:43).

Let's back it up a few centuries, or even more, as the Innu people had traveled the Chicoutimi & Saguenay Rivers long before the arrival of the white man; the name Chicoutimi coming from the Innu, meaning where the deep waters end (i.e. the Saguenay River) in Montagnais.

As white man came to North America, the whites found themselves downstream in Tadoussac, where the Innu would travel down the Saguenay River to trade with them. Seeing the staging point for this trip at the confluence of the two rivers, New France set up a trading post here by 1676.

Sawmills built in the mid-1800s would prosper with the available water and lumber resources, leading this place to become the seat of Chicoutimi County in 1855 and the Roman Catholic Diocese in 1878.

Along with the city's growth from industry, Chicoutimi also benefited from being along train lines and important maritime routes. As the 1800s came to a close, there was money available for industry and subsequent money to be made. The Compagnie de pulpe de Chicoutimi was formed and built along the Chicoutimi River, at a time where newspaper was extremely popular and pulp was subsequently needed. The quality produced here was so good and the demand so great, that nearly 3/4s of their product went to England and the other 1/4 to New York.

From an 1898 start, they built a second mill in 1903, a third mill in 1912, expanded the 1903 building in 1919 and built a massive mechanical repair shop in 1921. (This mechanical repair shop is now the museum and was closed on our visit, but the pictures on their website/facebook show an impressive interior that I didn't expect.)

Shahlene's Photo.

The good times for Chicoutimi's Pulp Mill didn't last very long. A shift in the economy, along with poor management based on constant expansion, meant that even restructuring couldn't save the company. It closed in 1930.

The buildings were left to ruin and threatened with demolition in the 1970s, but amazingly they still stand today because of quality in construction and those who came along to build a museum here.

While it was nice to see in the winter with no one around, I have to admit I'm intrigued by the closed areas I couldn't reach during my visit. In addition, thankfully there were enough people using the area for winter activities that it was plowed and had some pathways, because I had my doubts about trudging through waist deep snow like I had back at the skatepark.

I can't remember having any breakfast which is a strange oversight for me, but even more so on a day of physical activity.

So with that hunger, I was excited by the place we finally chose, the mix of swank and mafia chic that was Chez Georges.

Reading "Saucisse avec moutarde" from the menu, I thought to myself, "well hey, I'm hungry. A sausage with mustard? Sign me up!"

And here I was wondering why the otherwise friendly waitress gave me a weird look when I ordered "Doo (deux) Sauce-siss (Saucisse) avec moo-tard (moutarde)."

Thankfully Shahlene got the spaghetti, which was plentiful, allowing me to have some which just so happened to be the best spaghetti I've ever had. I'm not one to get excited about spaghetti on a menu or otherwise, but I would order it again if I was back at Chez Georges. Actually, if I was back in Chicoutimi, I'd probably go out of my way to go back to Chez Georges just for the spaghetti.

It was a good thing I put all of that pasta in my belly because as I was driving along the Saguenay riverside road, it was time to go to church.

Yep, church! Chicoutimi has an indoor skatepark built in the main hall of an old church! While it's not a gothic cathedral and it's not an old arena like Zurich Ontario, it's still really awesome and a neat thing to look forward to. I didn't get all that much done on account of the 211 fog and worrying about the nasty day outside in relation to the upcoming highway drive, but regardless, I was looking forward to the Skateparc d'église for months and happy to have rode it for a bit. I also think I confused the locals as they mustn't get too many strangers in late February.

The highway drive would end up being fine, but it was still good that we left when we did on account of needing to move along before it grew dark in these northern latitudes.

Continue to Part 7...


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< Older Update:
Backcountry Snowshoeing to Bakers Brook Pond

< Older Update (this series):
The February Escape to Montreal, Part 5:
Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Newer Update: The February Escape to Montreal, Part 7: Quebec City >

1 - Rinks - inland - Ville de Saguenay
2 - Construction of $3.5 million at the Georges-Vezina Centre - leQuotidien
3 - La Cathedrale Saint-Francois-Xavier - Ville de Saguenay
4 - The Little White House Still Attracts - Le Journal de Quebec
5 - Diocese of Chicoutimi - Catholic
6 - The history of La Pulperie - La Pulperie De Chicoutimi Regional Museum
7 - Historique - Le Musee de la Petite Maison Blanche
8 - Chicoutimi - The Canadian Encyclopedia

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