ST-FÉLICIEN, Quebec — After seeing the black bear nursing her two cubs, her back settled against a tree with her head turned to the side and her giant paws resting on top of their heads as if in benediction, I could easily have gone home happy. What could possibly top that?
And just like that, any reservations I might have had about spending the night at Zoo Sauvage in St-Félicien were gone. Frankly, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of zoos. My daughter is a vegetarian. We have rescue pets. I usually find animals in captivity depressing, but this Quebec zoo was something else.
The Nature Trail Park section is the unique part. Here animals native to the region, such as elk, bison, and deer, roam free on more than 800 acres and the humans are in cages. True, the main part of the zoo is more traditional, with polar bears and tigers, but the Nature Trail Park was the draw for me.
Visitors can take a special “train,” (more like attached trolleys with bars for protection), on a 4-mile ride to see what North American mammals they can spot. Whether you see any is entirely up to chance; the bison, black bears, caribou, and other animals have plenty of places to hide.
When I saw the mama bear with her cubs, I was participating in the zoo’s overnight “Adventure in the Land of the Caribou.” There are no promises of wildlife spotting here, either, and certainly not of nursing sows, but the chances are better. The package includes touring the park in a private van with an experienced guide who goes off the main trail. And that’s just one part of the 26-hour package.
Our small group (limited to 12) started by dropping off our overnight gear at the zoo at 11 a.m., then we watched a brief movie about the region. Soon we headed out in a van with our guide, Gabrielle Paré, to drive through the park, learn about the animals, and see what we could spot. We stopped at a colonial farm, a sort of living history exhibit, where we enjoyed a simple lunch of soup and bread and blueberry pie while a costumed zoo interpreter, who stayed in character, told us about life on the farm in the 1800s.
As we ate, the zoo’s train drove by and we waved at the regular visitors, feeling a bit smug at being part of the exhibit for a time. Then we were back in the van. We entered a gated region inside the Nature Park for a short hike, where our guide discussed the flora. We knew there were moose and caribou around, but none showed themselves.
Eventually, we headed to our camp for the night, where prospector tents were set up, complete with sleeping bags on beds of balsam needles. After touring the facilities (an outhouse, no showers), we headed back outside the gated zone for a canoe ride on a small lake where caribou were drinking. Since this section was out of the safe area, we had to stick close to the guide and be alert for bears.
Besides being our driver, naturalist, and tour guide, Paré was also our cook. While we unpacked and settled into our tents, she began making our meal, which we followed up with sitting around the campfire and discussing the day’s sights. Paré wasn’t done yet, though — she brought out night-vision goggles, which we used to look for caribou around the camp. The caribou in this part of the park are used to people and wander through the camp at will. It doesn’t hurt that the guides put out food for them.
In the morning, I awoke to a caribou walking right by my tent. As we had coffee and fruit, some caribou lounged just outside the food tent, seeming as tame as dogs, but if you got too close, they’d walk away. The final part of the outdoor experience was a walk to look for moose — which we found close by — and then it was time to head back to the zoo, where we could stay as long as we liked.
Though it was amazing to see caribou so close, as well as the musk ox, wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals that live in the park, the bear was most memorable for me. Paré said she’d never seen anything to rival it, and she’d been on plenty of these trips. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but that wouldn’t stop me from going again. Who knows what I might see next time?
WALKING ADVENTURE IN THE LAND OF THE CARIBOU Zoo sauvage de St-Félicien, Quebec. All-inclusive package June through mid-October $315 per person ($280 for children 14 and younger). 418-679-0543, zoosauvage.org/en/Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.