THE BLOG
10/02/2013 05:40 pm ET

Where Moufettes Munch and Franglais Is Not Spoken

Our recent camping trip to Quebec brought many surprises.

First, before we left, I found out that all campsites at the park, not just those reserved for RVs, would feature an electric outlet. As we'd be cooking over a fire, I tossed the electric kettle into the car, thinking we could plug it in to make tea each morning.

As we drove from Boston into Quebec, hints of French nationalism were in evidence. Outside Quebec City, I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw a sign for the "national capital."

Wasn't that Ottawa? However, the guidebook explained that Quebeckers similarly call their provincial parks "national" parks, and require that government business, company names and legal documents be en français. A French Language enforcement agency makes sure that all comply.

What, we wondered, do the Manitobans think?

No matter. We arrived at the Parc National de la Jacques Cartier, checked into our campsite in French, and pitched our tent.

The park was situated in the Laurentian Plateau, a massing of hills, rivers and forest which, we discovered, was bursting with orignals (moose), ours (bears) and cerfs de la virginie (white-tailed deer). We didn't see a single specimen of any of these, although the wildlife log at the park lodge did list several sightings of moose. Instead, most of the talk was about moufettes.

Our first inkling that this charming creature might snoop closer to humans than we thought was at the top of the steep Scotora climb, which brought us to an overlook towering above a river. After we befriended a Norwegian couple by asking them to take a photo of us teetering at the cliff edge, they told us they were disappointed by their Canadian visit. "Nature is too inaccessible here," they said, "because you are permitted to enter only designated spots." Apparently, in Norway, the government lets the locals camp out on mountaintops, eagles' nests and fjords, without so much as a $7 charge.

We sympathized with the Norwegians, but their tale of woe really picked up when they described the goings-on in their tent the prior evening. "We had a little trouble," the woman said, "because at three a.m., a moufette was in there, eating one of our bananas."

I thought they were mad about the banana, until the Norwegians explained that a moufette is a skunk.

So it was skunks that were sniffing all over Jacques Cartier Park -- apparently, looking for food. However, we never got a single perfumed visitor at our tent site, probably because it was as empty of moufette snacks as the Quebec tundra. Instead of bothering with a campfire, we'd discovered that we could plug in the electric kettle at the park lodge to make tea, and cook our meals in the microwave at the coffee bar. The park rangers were so busy selling national park memberships to eager Quebeckers that they never noticed we'd set up kitchen next to the Canadian loon display.

We hiked and kayaked in the northern forest for a week. Many of the Quebeckers, we noticed, were energetically running up and down the mountain trails.

The day we left, an autumn rain pounded our tent, so we had to shove it sopping wet into the car. In Quebec City, we feasted on Quebec cheese, pâtisserie and sugar pie. On Parliament Hill, we saw sculptures of vigorous Quebec heroes, including the 18th century military leader Marquis de Montcalm, and Réné Levesque, 1960s founder of the Parti Québécois, which started the whole thing.

Finally, it was time to find our hotel, but the car windshield was so fogged up from the wet camping gear that I could barely see the road. "We'll have to set the tent up inside the hotel room to dry," I said, "or we'll never get back to Boston alive."

"You can't put a muddy tent in a hotel room!" said my daughter.

"I spent a week in a tent," said my son. "I'm not sleeping outside a tent in a hotel!"

After getting lost a few times in French, we spotted the sign - which announced that the auberge was under construction.

I slammed on the brakes. Zut! Had I really paid $175 for a room at an auberge that wasn't even built yet?

However, it turned out that the hotel was open. The management was simply adding a new wing, which was so big that it hid the old hotel.

"You are in one of zee few new rooms zat are finished," said the proprietress. "We hope you do not mind zhat zee brand new hallway, which eez rather large, is under construction."

"Mind?" I said.

Certainly not. We dragged in the water-oozing tent and chairs, and set up the whole campsite again in the half-built hallway outside our door. Nobody even passed by.

The hotel room was warm and huge. All the notices were posted in French.

I dozed off, wondering about Quebec's political future. Were the hill-jogging Quebeckers training to launch hand-to-hand combat against their fellow Canadians?

Had the moufettes really just been disguised government enforcers, making sure that all visitors were speaking French in their tents?

What would they say if they came across an English-quacking duck?

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