You are here

La Traverse d'hiver à l'Île aux Coudres

Accession number: 
Production Years: 


Film Properties: 
Length (feet): 
1058 (16mm)
Length (minutes): 
Holding Institutions: 

Library and Archives Canada: 16mm, Beta, Digibeta, VHS.
"Four months each year during winter the St. Lawrence river freezes ending all travel by ship. Fifty miles down stream from Quebec City, L'Île-aux-Coudres (named "Island of Hazelnuts" by Jacques Cartier in 1535 for its forests, since disappeared, abundant with that kind of nuts) becomes isolated during this period, surrounded by ice. For 200 years the only link to the coastal villages on the north shore in winter has been over the changing ice of the river. Opening with scenes of winter activities, including children toboganning and family gatherings singing and dancing in the evening, the film focusses on the crossing. Alexis Tremblay, 70 years old and a veteran of thousands of crossings, provides much of the description as footage from a crossing is shown. Using 'canots': sturdy 500 pound, 19 by 4 feet boats with an iron keel to act as a runner on the snow, a crew of five or six boatmen (bateliers) led by a master (chef d'équipe) use their knowledge of tides and experience with the ice to cross the river. The 'canots' are used to carry mail, provisions and travellers across the expanse. Before crossing the master must decide about the most propitious time to go = at slackwater the moment between ebb and flow when the ice stops moving. The boatmen see the crossing as a challenge; the dangerous game is to cross as quickly as possible, the goal being the far shore. Throughout the crossing the 'chef' watches for the best way: open space, a good ice flow. The pattern of the channel changes quickly and the master's job is to select the quickest route. The worst condition is the 'frasil', slushy snow mixed up with broken ice. By rocking the boat as they paddle a swell is set up which opens a pathway for the boat. Using 'boudignons' - solid pieces of ice three or four feet across, enough to support a man - the frasil can be negotiated. The boatmen use them to push off with their feet to propel the boat. It is possible to become trapped in the frasil. If they can't work through it they may be carried too far up or down stream as the frasil moves with the tide. There are techniques for moving through every type of ice and tide. Each movement of the flow is named, 'l'arrêté' - motionless ice at slack tide; 'le drivant' - ice swinging around with the current; 'le redoublé' - when the ice reverses its direction. The boatmen leave their boat periodically using the boudignons or the partially formed ice to push, half-kneeling to spread their weight. Each man must judge the quality of the ice from experience - its sound and colour indicating the condition, grey for rotting, green for the strong ice, and black hazardous ice full of hot holes. If they find an icefloe even eight feet across they take advantage of the change and rest tired arms. Tremblay remembers a rare complete crossing on a single icefloe before the war in 1914. Depending on the conditions a crossing can take anywhere from one to fourteen hours. Tremblay describes the perils of cold water. Although it makes for ideal ice conditions one of the hazards is the danger when a man falls in the water. His clothes frozen stiff he becomes seized by the cold and unwilling to work. In this case, Tremblay suggests, it is necessary to stimulate him. 'You have to give him your own will to work to force him. If he still won't work, you have to bully him a little. Tease him. Not exactly punch him, but wrestle him a bit. Rough him up a bit, so that he can loosen up and work.' Tremblay laments the loss of the tradition of the crossing and the vitality it inspires among the new generation, who are beginning to rely on plane deliveries. 'It seems to me that young people are forgetting. They are relying too much on the plane. But they shouldn't forget. They should keep on crossing, for the pleasure of it, if not for necessity. They should cross in all kinds of weather, so that we will have some experienced chefs d'équippe, when we need them. The plane does its best to give good service, but there are many times when it cannot come ...(poor weather conditions). Nothing can stop bateliers in their canot ... ' The older generation see in the crossing an appreciation of adventure, strength of tradition and bond of friendship in the face of the elements between men. The film concludes: 'The winter crossing over the paths of ice remains as a symbol of the character of her (L'Île-aux-Coudres) pioneers, and the bond between this little island and the rest of Canada.'"


Online database National Film Board of Canada.
"Pour atteindre la terre du nord parmi les glaces à la dérive, les courants et les marées, les gens de l'Île-aux-Coudres ont élaboré toutes sortes de stratégies et construit les étonnants canots d'hiver qui se propulsent sur les glaces à la rame, à l'aviron et à toutes jambes. Interview d'Alexis Tremblay."

"On an island the road ends where it begins, at the wharf. The wharf is the link to the rest of the world, until winter cuts it off. But the islanders know the winter sea and its movements. They judge the ice by its colors, avoiding the open channels, fighting through the slushy fragil ice, catching their footing on the chunk ice, and running all-out across the solid ice to the North Shore."