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Tepees and canoes leave the world behind -- but for a touch of the spa

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / May 23, 2004

LAC-SAINT-PAUL, Quebec -- Pierre Duguay lives in a modern house on the shore of Lac-Marie-Louise about as far north as the paved roads go from Montreal. But he grows eloquent and nostalgic when he describes the 50 days he spent fasting and living in a tepee.

''It's magical," Duguay says. ''You live in harmony with your surroundings. You can hear the wind and animals. It's the most beautiful habitation you can have."

Maybe it was the month and a half without food, but Duguay came away from the experience with a vision for spreading the word about the salutary spiritual benefits of tepee living. Ten years ago, he built ''Village de Tee-Pee La Bourgade." The cluster of 12 tepees stands in a circle inside a wooden stockade. Duguay welcomes visitors who just want to take a look, and also offers overnight stays, which are especially popular with families.

When we told a few Montreal friends that we had booked a night at La Bourgade, their response was cautiously neutral. ''It's . . . interesting," one very urbane (and urban) Montrealer said. So we weren't sure what to expect as we drove 160 miles north from Montreal, crossing the Laurentian Mountains and continuing as the web of roads on the provincial map grew increasingly spare.

''You'll be in Turquoise Cougar," Duguay said when he greeted us. Each of the tepees is named for a color and an animal, corresponding to the 12 divisions of the Sioux medicine wheel. Sioux-style tepees arranged in a Sioux medicine wheel was puzzling because the lakes area north of the Laurentians was historically a boundary region shared by Cree nomads and Algonkian village dwellers. When we broached the question, Duguay shrugged. He's more interested in spiritual than anthropological purity. He used a Sioux model because it was the best documented. As a civil engineer, he was taken with their ingenious tepee design and has taught himself to construct one in a day, using 14 poles.

''The first thing you'll have to do is open the flaps," he said. He demonstrated by removing a rope from the bottom of the door flap and walking one of the poles around behind the tepee. When the sticks are crossed behind the cone, the front is open, he explained. He then proceeded to show us which way to swing which poles, depending on the prevailing wind, to open or close the smoke hole at the top of the tepee. ''Flaps 101" was beginning to feel a little like an introductory sailing lesson.

Duguay's enthusiasm was infectious, especially when we squatted down to sidle into the tepee and discovered that the interior was remarkably spacious -- at least as big as an apartment bedroom, but round. Turquoise Cougar was equipped with a low double bed, a round table resting on a base of deer legs, and four stools and a bedside table cut from thick logs. Stones surrounded a cast-iron fireplace in the center. Since it was a hot day at the end of June, we expressed skepticism that we would be lighting a fire.

Duguay was crestfallen. ''It is very agreeable to see how the fire works," he said, and launched into an explication of the principles of tepee construction. The outer skin is held on poles about 10 inches from the ground. The floor rises up on the sides to overlap beneath, keeping out rain. Hot air inside the tepee rises through the smoke hole at the top, sucking in cool air from outside. ''It's a chimney!" he exclaimed. The tepees get so warm that he keeps them open year round. In the winter, they are especially popular with Germans who come to snowmobile Quebec's northern wilds.

We agreed to consider a fire.

Each tepee comes with its own canoe. We half expected it to be a birch bark model, or maybe a pine dugout, but it was a modern fiberglass craft, color-keyed in turquoise. We struck out across the small, spring-fed lake like a couple of voyagers, paddling around the mirrored surface. Only a handful of houses on distant shores marred the illusion of utter wilderness. We also spent part of the day hiking the 4 miles of interpretive trails that Duguay has cut, musing over the plaques he has erected to relate the natural history of certain trees and shrubs.

Duguay's wife, Yolande Forcier, has figured out how to bring just the right touch of luxury to the wilderness. She offers spa and beauty treatments as well as massage in her studio in their house, and was the prime mover behind Les Bains du Lac-Marie-Louise, a gracefully landscaped small complex on the lake shore.

We took advantage of our two-hour exclusive use of the complex (tall wooden gates swing shut to provide Edenic privacy) and followed Duguay's advice to sit in the sauna awhile, dip into the cold lake, spend some time breathing pine aroma in the tight little steam bath, then stretch out in the therapeutic outdoor whirlpool. Sauna, lake, steam, whirlpool, lake, sauna. . . . Tellingly, Duguay referred to the steam bath, which he constructed inside a fiberglass calf shelter, as the ''sweat lodge." He didn't mention the cushy lounge chairs on a patio by the lake, but we found them on our own.

Once we were thoroughly de-stressed, it was time for dinner. The heart of the tepee stockade is a large fire pit flanked by a summer kitchen with a refrigerator and a massive propane stove that looks as if it came out of a lumber camp. Picnic tables, brick barbecue grills, and a little herb garden round out the culinary facilities. There's also a small building with showers and flush toilets.

Although we were far from yuppie takeout in Montreal, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a well-stocked country grocery with gourmet aspirations where we picked up salad makings, herb-marinated pork steaks, and a sugar pie from a village baker. As we grilled over the seasoned split-maple logs that Duguay had provided, a very friendly Lab-shepherd mix named Miss Daisy came to keep us company, at least until she was satisfied that all the scraps were gone.

Nightfall came late -- around 10 p.m. -- and we were treated to a cavalcade of stars that seemed almost bright enough to light the trails. Given the rustling sounds in the brush outside the stockade, we stayed inside the pales. As we lay in the tepee, studying the stars through the smoke hole, the heat of the day radiated away and the air took on an autumnal snap.

With a sigh, one of us lighted a candle while the other laid and lighted the fire. The tepee warmed quickly, as the smoke (mostly) rose through the chimney-like cone at the top. We drifted off to sleep beneath the slowly turning wheel of constellations. Despite the soot that made us feel we had spent the night in an old-time pool hall, we woke refreshed in the morning, called to wakefulness by loons on the lake.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers in Cambridge.

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