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Quebec Winter Carnival is the world's largest, and Bonhomme is the star of the show

Bil Bowden

Carnival Queen  Amelie Godin-Gosselin introduces Bonhomme Carnaval

The boss here is Bonhomme Carnaval, an actor dressed in a huge white snowman suit, approaching seven feet tall, his puffy waist cinched by an official Quebec Winter Carnival belt.  Bonhomme is everywhere at the carnival, and it would be hard for the annual 400,000 visitors not to see him.

And they all want to see him. Bonhomme is a rock star.

He grabs a microphone, bellows something in French (naturally, we're in French Canada here) and the crowd cheers. His big red smile is painted on, but his dance steps, high kicks and laughter give away that he's enjoying his time-- cold as it might be.

Indeed, it usually is cold here. Last year, they had to shut down for a day or two because of dangerously low temperatures. And in Canada, that's saying something.  This is Canada, where snow is expected, even anticipated, and the cold is usually shrugged off with another layer of high tech coats, gloves and boots.  There's plenty of honest-to-goodness, bona fide, genuine fur here too. Bonhomme's belt is actually a ceinture fleche, or arrow sash, used to keep the cold out.

Bonhomme treks over acres of carnival grounds, known as the Plains of Abraham. Battles between the  French and English that determined who governed Canada were here, on the field named for its farmer.  The citadel covers 37 acres and was built in response to threats from the French to retake Quebec after their losses on these plains-- or an American invasion.

To get there-- It's nearly 700 miles to Quebec City by car, or 11 hours. Three different routes are given by various map services, but all are about the same driving time, so pick the route with fewest headaches and traffic. The Canadian dollar is still only about 73 cents to the American dollar, making trips north a deal. Gas is about 91 cents a liter, which amounts to about $3.45 a gallon or about $2.54 a gallon in American dollars.

Carnival's opening weekend was perfect. But Monday, as is typical of weather forecasting or expectations, was a wet disappointment. It reached near-record high temperatures of 43 degrees F. here, and the snow quickly became water, the carnival shut down. That night, temperatures sank to eight degrees F. and the plains quickly became an ice rink.

Blue skies accompanied 30-ish degree temperatures on Tuesday, and school students were out in force. But all over the carnival walkways, glaze ice made walking a challenge. It is understood that people here look at snow and ice removal differently than Americans. Sidewalks are often not cleared of snow, but rather, packed down. Stone crusher waste or small rocks are scattered on the ice, few salted. As one carnival employee noted when asked about all the unsalted and unplowed ice, he said, "We're in Canada. It's cold. There's ice everywhere. If you slip and fall, that's your fault."

Yep, that makes perfect sense, but insurance companies here would have a hemorrhage.

During the first weekend, Canada's own snow sculptors worked on their masterpieces, carved from giant blocks of snow/ice. On Tuesday, the international competition began with teams from France, Argentina, U.S., Mexico, Canada working through the night to carve their work.

Since most Americans' French language skills are non-existent, try introducing yourself with a "Bonjour. And good afternoon."  French Canadians know you greeted them in their language, but you don't speak French beyond that. At least you tried. If they speak English they'll let you know--and our lack of language skills is kind of embarrassing.

Trying to make up for the lost day, snow racers, three-ski snow sleds race down one hill, tubes on another and huge plastic balls with people inside on another. The Ferris wheel was packed, the dog sledders ran a lap with their two-person loads, and others, well, they were happy snacking on poutine (fancy French fries) and beaver tails (fried dough with assorted extras, cinnamon, sugar, etc.) .

Across the street was Bonhomme's castle, a 30-foot tall exhibition of the carnival history and traditions. The castle features exquisitely carved walls , a pool table, couch, a few chairs and coffee table-- all fashioned in 2,000 blocks of solid ice.

The tourists here from Vancouver, Texas and a few from Japan, weren't totally disappointed when one day was washed out. It's not like Quebec City is lacking tourist hangouts, historic buildings or romantic getaways. Restaurants were still serving poutine (one dish included beef brisket, barbeque sauce, onion shavings and a big scoop of shrimp meat), rabbit wings (front legs of rabbits), Faisan et flanc de porc braise' (pheasant and braised pork flank), venison tartare or the favorite, maple taffy on snow. Nestled against the carnival is the Discovery Pavilion of the Plains of Abraham, a fabulous museum explaining the battles here that Americans so often miss.

Quebec City hosts the carnival, but don't forget about old town, Quartier Petit Champlain, ride the funicular, enjoy a romantic ride in a horse drawn carriage. Talk with the locals--they are as friendly as any people you've ever met. And try the rabbit wings.