Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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A lake of one’s own

The sound of silence echoes at this historic and secluded Quebec retreat

There aren’t many places where guests get a lake all to themselves. So I hesitate to call these 13 cabins on the ancient Laurentian Shield merely cottages. The Fairmont Kenauk offers something cottage country rarely can: pure, unadulterated silence.

Set in the wilderness, miles from anywhere, this little-known property was once a playground for titans of industry. The lakes, woods and mountains were part of the Seigniory Club, which in 1930 built an equally impressive clubhouse — the world’s largest log cabin. Today, it’s the Fairmont Château Montebello, the legendary home of G7 summits and five-star accommodation on the banks of the Ottawa River, halfway between Ottawa and Montreal.

The Fairmont Kenauk is the hotel’s 264-square-kilometre backyard, one of the largest private reserves on the continent. It’s about four times the size of Manhattan, and there are only 13 cabins.

From the entrance gate, it’s a 45-minute drive up and down gravel roads to the Cedar chalet. You don’t want to forget to bring milk (or any treats you consider essential to a great getaway). I’m not here to fish or hunt, as many of the guests are, but to enjoy the surroundings with my dad and an old family friend. We’re urban guys and don’t pretend to do the Deliverance thing.

Kenauk’s cabins are well spaced from each other, as you might expect: eight of them are on their own lake. The other five are on the largest in the area: 1900-hectare Papineau Lake. This means bathing suits are optional. The cabins want for nothing that electricity could provide. They are kitted out with wood stoves, propane furnace and lights, comfortable furnishings, bunk beds and a full kitchen complete with gas barbecue. Solar panels power the water pump, fridge and outdoor sensor lights.

If the name Kenauk brings to mind hosers on holiday — think Bob and Doug Mackenzie in the backwoods — you’d be half-right. This is the quintessential Canadian escape. But Kenauk offers more than the promise of back bacon and Molson Export. The tone is rustic elegance for year-round, environmentally aware outdoor activities and, for those who want it, there’s even room service.

The name is a diminutive in the Algonquin language for turtle, mukekenauk, of which there are plenty lumbering around. “Some of these turtles are impressive prehistoric creatures, 60 centimetres in diameter, 80 years old with moss growing on their shells,” said Bill Nowell, the property’s manager of recreation and fisheries. Small painted turtles and large snapping turtles are plentiful in the area’s lakes. To staff members at the marina who watched them grow over the decades, the big ones are as familiar as pets, Nowell said, adding the best season for viewing is in June when they lay their eggs in the sand.

Kenauk is a wild and natural place where close tabs are kept on each of the 50 varieties of mammals, 200 species of birds and all manner of fish that are raised in a hatchery to stock its 65 lakes. This angler’s paradise also attracts families and couples seeking a unique spot to get away from it all.

Big game season in the autumn means hunting a well-managed supply of whitetail deer and moose. The bears are spared and are a main attraction for summer safari excursions for guests at Montebello. Nowell explains that 30 percent of the black bears aren’t black at all: they’re red, cinnamon and blonde, colours that were once common for the species and eliminated a century ago by hunters, though they’ve been able to prosper in Kenauk’s protected territory.

Upon our arrival, a loon swims up to the dock to check out the interlopers in its domain. I suppose it doesn’t see many humans. The view across the water to forested hills and secluded inlets is instantly calming, but I’m not prepared for what comes with it: a silence like I’ve never experienced.

Suddenly, I’m aware of the electronic calibrations of my digital camera as it finds its focus. The ticking of my watch is audible where I never knew it made a sound at all. The fizz of my gin and tonic is like a bubbling cauldron. The appeal of Kenauk’s remoteness expresses itself in wordless wonder.

Autumn’s splendour sets hills ablaze in colour that is reflected in the many lakes. Nowell said peak leaf-peeper season is early October and some years extend to Thanksgiving.

I set off for a walk along the road hoping to spot a moose or a bear and have to settle with deer, a giant blue heron and a fox, all of which I’ve seen in the valleys of Toronto. The smaller lakes without any cabins have rowboats at the ready, should anglers want to cast their lines. Outdoorsmen can choose which lake they stay on based on its available fish, which includes rainbow and speckled trout, northern pike and small and largemouth bass.

Only three cabins are open year-round; the others are too deep in the woods to contemplate plowing the road, Nowell said, adding that snowmobiles are not permitted. Snowshoeing and back country skiing are popular and the reserve welcomes the annual Canadian Ski Marathon in February, the largest and longest-running Nordic ski tour in North America with close to 2500 participants.

Back at the cabin, I’m prepping steaks for the barbecue and glance at the two-way radio in the kitchen, which is there for emergencies. Does that include running low on guacamole? For a $150 delivery fee, à la carte choices from Château Montebello’s menu — including regional fare like Papineauville goat-cheese terrine, maple-smoked buffalo carpaccio, émincé of pheasant, grelot potatoes and sugar pie — will be brought to the door. It’s tempting, if only to see how it’s done, but we stick to what we brought.

For a sunset cruise, the canoe and kayak at the dock are appropriate for the setting, but I opt for the guilty pleasure of taking the 14-foot outboard aluminum boat for a spin and break the mirrored surface of the water as well as the silence. After 24 hours of serenity, I was craving some noise.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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