Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Parc Nationale du Bic -- eco-friendly cabin country

Light on both the environment and the pocketbook, yurts are as comfortable and as equipped as a rental cottage

My husband and I were settling in for another night in the great outdoors in Quebec's Parc Nationale du Bic. Giddy from our previous night spent shivering in an igloo, we swigged whiskey and nibbled ginger snaps while struggling to remember the opening lines of the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree…"

It may sound silly but that's exactly how our home for the night -- a timber-framed canvas yurt -- felt to us. Especially after the igloo experience.

Le Bic's three yurts are a recent addition to the landscape of this tiny but breathtaking nature reserve located on the St. Lawrence Estuary just south of Rimouski (roughly across the river from Baie Comeau). Le Bic packs a lot of varied scenery into its tiny 33 square kilometres. Gorgeous peaks rise up from the banks of the saltwater bays and capes, covered in lush forest. Trails criss-cross the mountains and run along the coastline. In winter, the waters are an endless expanse of whiteness punctuated by irregular ruptures in the ice. In summer, they're havens for whales and seals.

The yurts were installed last summer, partly as an eco-solution and partly to save the park money. Vastly cheaper to build than a cabin, a yurt also has much less of an impact on the local environment -- they don't require a foundation, use very little in the way of building materials and they're temporary.

The idea is that, after a few years, the yurts will be packed up and moved to another part of the park, allowing the sites to regenerate. Le Bic actively promotes the Leave No Trace Canada program, and their yurts are a big part of this. Happily, these shelters -- which are available to rent year-round -- are also much lighter on the visitor's pocketbook than the cabins located in the province's other parks.


Steppe Forward
So how did these nomad dwellings end up here? North American yurting has been around since the '60s when a Harvard PhD student named Bill Coperthwaite read a National Geographic article about Mongolia and got inspired to adapt the yurt for alternative North American living.

The idea really caught on in the last decade when people working in eco-tourism realized yurts were an enviro-friendly way to offer portable roofed accommodation for people who like roughing it -- but not too much. Yurt-making is now a veritable cottage industry in the northwestern US, from where it spread north to BC and is slowly making its way east.

Yurts (or gers, as they're called in Mongolia) are the traditional portable homes of nomads from the steppes of Central Asia. The Asian yurt is an ingenious structure made from a strong wooden lattice circle fixed to both sides of a door frame and covered in felt. The vaulted wood-pole ceiling rests on the frame and a chimney pokes through the crown of the roof. The whole thing is bound together with yak-hair rope or sinew and can be quickly dismantled and moved to the family's next herding spot.

Mongolians take the cornerless shape of their dwelling very seriously. Some see it as the embodiment of the sacred circle, with their round homes representing the cosmos in miniature. The yurt's door always faces south, and when entering women head to the eastern side, where the kitchen is set up, and men head west. The north is the most auspicious part of the yurt, where the valuables and the shrine are kept. But the spiritual centre is the dead middle, where the fire burns. As part of this belief, people must follow a strict code of conduct while inside, including moving sunwise around the yurt and never, ever whistling (it's considered bad luck).

There are many variations on the North American yurt, ranging from deluxe to rustic. In the version used in Le Bic (made by a Quebec company called Yourte.ca), the Mongolian felt is replaced with canvas and insulation, and the sinew with metal cable. The wood stove is placed on the side, with its stove pipe poking out through the wall, leaving the sacred centre of the yurt clear. Probably the most spectacular innovation is that the smoke hole in the middle of the roof has been replaced by a bubble skylight so you can lie on your bed and stare up at the stars.

Le Bic's yurts are as fully equipped as you'd expect a quality rental cottage. There's a propane stove, fridge and lantern, all the kitchen implements you could wish for, a table and four chairs, and two surprisingly comfy rattan two-seaters. The two single beds have roll-out trundle beds underneath, sleeping a total of four comfortably. (Back in Mongolia, a large yurt sleeps up to 20 people, which may explain why everyone has to move around sunwise.) While there's no running water in the yurts (another ecologically-motivated decision), drinking water is supplied. Several pit toilets are nearby and in summer there's a shower block.


Big in Le Bic
The day we were scheduled to move from our igloo, the yurt unfortunately wasn't ready to receive us until 3pm (reading the comment book, this late 'check-in' time was the one complaint from guests who were otherwise universally enraptured by their experience). So on that late winter day, we grabbed a couple of kicksleds -- Scandanavian contraptions that are a cross between a dogsled and a scooter -- and headed out to see the sights.

In summer, the coastline teems with life. Though, the harbour or common seal (Phoca vitulina concolor) isn't so common anymore in the St. Lawrence Estuary. It and the beluga are the waters' only year-round residents. Although the harbour seal isn't yet on the endangered species list, conservation experts consider it to be seriously imperilled. In 2004, the Marine Mammal Observation Network came up with a Harbour Seal Action Plan; Le Bic is one of the participating parks working to save its population of 150 seals, as well as raise visitor awareness of their plight. In summer the park puts on a play about a harbour seal named Bicquette, to educate kids about their plight (free, in French).

July is a particularly spectacular time to visit. That's when the seals congregate on the rocks of l'Anse-à-l'Orignal (Moose Cove) to bask in the sun and moult. Kayaks ($41 per half day, guided) and Zodiak whale-watching tours ($43 per adult) are available. The park is also a birdwatcher's paradise, and birds of prey are frequently seen soaring overhead.

After a day of kicking and sliding and bird watching it was finally time to settle into our yurt. Not normally given to poetic outbursts, the simple, clean decor (Ikea meets Ulaanbaatar), crackling fire and warm beds had us waxing poetical pretty much from the outset. Memorable as the igloo experience had been, we'd found our true pleasure dome.

Once we were settled in, it was tough to get us out of the cosy yurt -- except to visit the pit toilet. Our secluded yurt's two large windows overlooked a lovely cove and it was easy to imagine the seals perched on the nearby rocks.

We did get in a little snowshoeing, taking in more of the trails and visiting the park's deserted campsites which we were interested to come back and try. But that was before we met our yurt. Sadly, it looks like our humble dome tent will never be able to live up to the deluxe, exotic experience of living in the round.

 

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

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