Ha! Ha! It’s Lake Témiscouata!
Laughing out loud wasn’t exactly our reaction when Henk and I first saw this large, pristine lake an hour or so south of the St. Lawrence River. Impressed, yes, but amused? Not really. But we couldn’t help but smile when we spotted a sign for a nearby town named Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! As it turns out, this small Québécois town ten minutes from the shores of Lake Témiscouata actually owes its unusual name to the lake, something that was just one of the unexpected surprises we discovered in this beautiful region an hour or so south of the St. Lawrence river.
How Lake Témiscouata gave Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! its Name
The term ‘ha-ha’ originated back in France in the 1700s, and actually referred to a deep trench used in formal gardens as a sunken ‘fence’ to act as a barrier for livestock. Because this ditch was below eye level and only visible when someone got close to it, it came as a surprise, evoking a response of ‘Ah! Ah!’ Over time this evolved into the term ‘ha-ha’, which came to mean an unexpected obstacle in one’s path. But what does this have to do with a little town in Québec and the biggest lake south of the St. Lawrence River?
For early travellers, Lake Témiscouta would have posed quite an obstacle on their path. At 45 km long and 5 km wide, this deep lake required a lengthy portage to go around and would certainly have elicited a response of surprise from travellers, if not necessarily delight. Which is the reason why the town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! owes at least the ‘Ha! Ha!’ to Lake Témiscouata. (The ‘Saint Louis’ probably came from a local colonist or abbot.)
Fun Fact: Saint-Louis-de-Ha! Ha! is the only town in the world with two exclamation points in its name. How fun is that?
Lake Témiscouata: a Pristine Playground – with Eagles!
Today, Lake Témiscouata isn’t an obstacle, but rather a destination for many locals and visitors. It is part of one of Québec’s newest provincial parks, Parc National du Lac Témiscouata, established to help protect the natural and cultural heritage of the region. The park was opened to the public in 2013 and its unspoiled beauty attracts campers, canoeists, hikers and nature lovers of all ages, including Henk and I who visited for the first time last summer.
Henk and I were joined on our park visit by Étienne, an avid outdoorsman and our host from Québec Maritime Tourism, who acted as our guide while we explored a little of the park’s beauty. We opted to take canoes for a lengthy 7km round-trip paddle on Grand Lac Touladi, one of the lakes in the park, in the hopes of seeing bald eagles at one of their protected nesting sites. An endangered species in Québec, bald eagles are rare in this part of Canada, and the first time we had seen one was several years back on a visit to New Brunswick so we were keen to see one on this trip.
As we approached the end of the lake, we saw a series of buoys that identified the area where the eagle’s nest was. Respecting this 300 meter protective perimeter, we scoured the tops of the pine trees for any activity. We didn’t have to search long before a juvenile bald eagle showed up, gliding over our heads before landing in the shallows along the shore. Darker than a mature eagle, juveniles don’t get their signature white head feathers until they are about 5 years old, but this huge bird was magnificent nonetheless.
Lucky for us, ‘mom’ appeared shortly after to keep a close eye on her offspring (and us), and we had a great opportunity to watch her as she soared above our canoes.
TIP: Grand Lac Touladi is large and can get very windy, something we discovered on our return trip. Be sure to check the weather before you head out on any of the lakes in the park, and if you are not a confident paddler, stick close to the shore.
Discover Your Inner Archaeologist on an Authentic Dig in the Park
Lake Témiscouata has been a significant waterway for indigenous people for almost 10,000 years, and was also a major transport location for the logging industry in the 19th and early 20th century. So the park is home to many cultural sites with installations that highlight this history.
There’s even an authentic archaeological dig where visitors can participate on-site under the guidance of a resident archaeologist. Étienne and I tried our hand at scraping away decades of dirt on the hunt for signs of human habitation and learned a little about the process involved in a dig (and the painstaking methods for sifting through debris and cataloguing any finds).
More importantly, I learned that I could never be an archaeologist, because I absolutely do not have the patience for this kind of work!
Time for a Drink at Domaine Acer
The Lake Témiscouata area is Québec’s second largest region when it comes to producing maple syrup products. But one local entrepreneur, Vallier Robert has chosen to do something a little different with the maple sap he harvests: he makes wine!
Domaine Acer is the only maple-based winery of its kind that actually ferments maple sap into delicious wine, sparkling wine and dessert liqueurs, and it’s just a short drive from Parc du lac Témiscouata.
For 25 years, this unique winery has been perfecting the art of making these delicious ‘acers’. (What grapes are to wine, and apples are to cider, maple sap is to ‘acers‘ – from the Latin word for ‘maple’.) The results are not at all what you would might think ie. maple syrup in a glass. Yes, there is a slight note of maple in the wine, but the wines are dry, not sweet, and extremely palatable. Of course, if you do like icewine, ports or sherries, you’ll love the dessert acers that are aged in oak casks, like the 10 year old Golden Acer that we took home.
I think that if you’re going to do a wine tour, make it something special. And Domaine Acer is definitely that. Plus I had to admire the ingenuity and creativity of Robert: rather than struggle to produce wine in a region not ideally suited for grapes, he chose to make something truly unique that capitalizes on one of this area’s natural riches.
TIP: Although Domaine Acer’s website is only in French, there are English tours available. Just call ahead to arrange it and confirm timing.
More Things to Discover in the Témiscouata area: Fort Ingall
Fort Ingall is a reconstruction of the British outpost originally built here in 1839 to protect the lengthy portage route around Lake Témiscouata, since this was an important transportation corridor between Québec and the British port of Halifax. But up until the 1970s, the only thing that remained here were stories of the fort’s existence.
Thanks to archaeological evidence uncovered in the 1960s, the fort has been rebuilt and today visitors can see what it was like to live the life of a 19th century soldier stationed here. There are permanent exhibits inside the barracks, cookhouse and doctor’s quarters, and staffers dressed in uniform man the fort during the summer months acting as guides and giving shooting demonstrations with replica firearms.
Don’t miss testing your endurance and pain threshold on the ‘horse’, a means of punishment for soldiers who didn’t tow the line: offenders had to sit on this narrow plank with hands tied behind their backs – something that is incredibly painful as Henk and I discovered. (I didn’t last 20 seconds!)
Where to Eat in Témiscouata
One of the most delightful surprises on our visit to the Témiscouata region was Auberge de Chemin Faisant, a true hidden gem of a restaurant located in the small town of Témiscouata-Sur-le-lac.
Auberge de Chemin Faisant is one of those unique little places you would never think to find in a place that is this far off the beaten path. Part inn, part art gallery and part restaurant, this little establishment in a 1950s house serves up an 8-course chef’s menu that is absolutely incredible, a 3-hour event that was one of the highlights of our trip.
Hugues Massey is the chef here, but don’t call him that. Hugues prefers to think of himself as a musician who can cook, but this is just his modesty talking. The man is as genuine and personable as he is talented in the kitchen, and his staff can’t say enough about him or Liette, his partner and co-owner, a classically-trained sommelière.
Henk and I couldn’t say enough about Hugues’ food, either, not to mention its artful presentation. Each tasting menu he creates includes selections from both land and sea, and ours included samplings of salmon tartare, duck teriyaki with wasabi cream risotto, tomato soup with lobster foam, crispy cod with amaranth, beef with bernaise sauce and even a mac and cheese ‘cube’.
The kicker of the evening was when Hugues finished his marathon dinner service, and then sat down at the piano to entertain us with classical takes on popular songs as our after-dinner music. This was the added touch that made the evening complete.
Where to Stay in Témiscouata
Same place. Auberge de Chemin Faisant.
There are two very good reasons why you should stay here: first because you’ll definitely want to pair that incredible chef’s tasting with a flight of wine and staying here means no one has to drive!
But secondly because the house itself is as eclectic and unique as the menu, having been designed by a Swiss architect in the 1950s for the former mayor of the town who lived here. The art deco décor is mostly original, with a few modern additions (like the outdoor space). As an added bonus, come breakfast, you’ll have another chance to sample Hugues’ food!
Off the Beaten Path Has its Rewards
Exploring areas that are off most people’s radar can yield all kinds of surprises. Our visit to Témiscouta in the Bas-Saint-Lawrence region of Québec turned out to be full of them, whether it was bald eagles, maple wine, or an artful food experience rivalling any you’d find in a big city. Témiscouata literally was one unexpected ‘Ha! Ha!’ after another, and all of them made us smile.
Special thanks to Québec Maritime Tourism who hosted Henk and I on our visit to the Témiscouata region.