Photo by Michael Carpentier
Leslie Woit, The Daily Telegraph, November 7, 2013
If you’re looking for adventure, what springs to mind? The powder-coated volcanoes of Japan? A Russian heli over Kamchatka? There’s no need to go so far or so exotic. For there’s another adventurous destination that’s closer, cheaper and just as quirky as further-flung locales. Think Canada avec une difference.
I’m on an eight-day foray into the wilds of the province of Québec – an adventure of planes, trains, hire cars and snowcats that spans many hundreds of kilometres across flash-frozen mountains, and dips into a modern melange of French, First Nations and English culture.
First stop, cat ski operation Ski Chic-Chocs in the Chic-Choc mountains. The name comes from the language of the Mi’kmaq First Nation tribe, and means the impassable walls. These impressive mountains are in the region of Gaspé, at the far eastern edge of Québec, where the St Lawrence river flows into a great gulf and wild storms roll off the Atlantic like a crazy loop of The Perfect Storm trailers. The long east-coast Gaspé peninsula juts out along three virtually uninhabited sides – making it subject each winter to a glorious average of 7m of lake-effect snow, a stormy phenomenon that occurs when cold dry air passes over a large warm body of water. Slather that snowfall across more than 25 summits over 1000m, and you’ve got an undiscovered powder playground.
After flying into Montreal, I board VIA Rail’s overnight sleeper train at 6pm with two friends from Toronto, Iain and Rae. As the twinkling lights of Québec’s largest city recede to a tableau of inky black wilderness, we repair for drinks in the glass-domed bar car. It’s as empty as the surrounding countryside, and we chat excitedly about the wild and wacky Québécois mysteries that lie ahead. With 800km and 12 hours to go, we have plenty of time.
But soon it’s time for bed – after overcoming the initially disturbing sleeping arrangement of a bed that folds down directly on top of the lavatory, I sleep dreamily to the gentle swaying of the warm train.
When I open my eyes, et voilà, it’s 8am, we’ve arrived in the city of Gaspé. The sky is blue, the mountains white and the wind chill -52ºC. As the carriage door slams shut, so too do our nostrils.
Bundled up, with heat switches flipped to high, we make the one-hour drive by rental car to Gîte du Mont-Albert, a very comfortable four-star, 60-room hotel within Gaspésie Provincial Park. It’s run by SEPAQ, the Québec government agency that oversees parks and wildlife.
Ski Chic-Chocs is one of three cat ski operations in the region and the only one in the Park. “People who come here for the first time can’t believe we have cat skiing or the kind of terrain we do,” says owner Stephane Gagnon. Over a welcome café au lait in the Gîte, he explains how the next few days will work. There are no chairlifts here – the cat will be the chariot that transports us into this eastern high-alpine wonderland. Every morning, it sits waiting, purring, directly outside the main door of the Gîte.
Our first ski day gets off to a slow start. After a brief consultation with Stephane about the day’s severely low temperatures, our cat ski group agrees that we’d prefer to keep our fingers and toes free of frostbite so we plump for the safer warm-up option of a snowshoe expedition from the door of the Gîte. Sheltered by the canopy of a snow-laden forest, we tramp past frozen waterfalls and feed gray jay birds from our hands. The tundra landscape here forms a unique habitat for a herd of woodland caribou, the last of this species south of the St Lawrence – a sighting is extremely rare, but we’re much more likely to see moose and deer.
Later that evening, drinks by the massive open fire in the main hall of the Gîte provide a warm-up for the main event. A gourmet four-course dinner proves Canada’s own corner of Gallic greatness is not to be outdone by the mother country. Vive le Québec and its duck breast sous-vide – slow-cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag. Poutine, the popular “national” dish of Québec consisting of French fries, gravy and cheese curds is notably absent. We’ll have to be patient…
Bon matin! I throw open the insulated curtains to a morning of blinding sunshine and balmy -30˚C temperatures. After a safety briefing and transceiver practice in an adjacent building with our growing group (Iain, Rae and I are put together with a few Californian guys who are facing their plunge from 30˚C to -30˚C bravely), we finally crunch over squeaky cold snow and climb into the back of the cat. She’s seen her share of action, this feline of the forest, originally used by the Swedish military for Arctic manoeuvres. Nonetheless, her NATO-engineered industrial tracks trundle steadily upward for 12km along an old mining road to the high-alpine summit at 1000m.
The ski zone is in an area knowns as Madeleine Mines. It looks a lot like the moon. Four massive bowls sit like giant ice cream scoops at the valley’s end, a subsection of the Chic-Chocs called the McGerrigles. According to Stephane, it’s not uncommon to get 1.5m of snow in one weather system – 20 to 30 per cent more on average than the rest of the Chic-Choc range. “Here in the Chic-Chocs, my friends,” he says, “We are in a real trou à neige – a snow hole.” Clambering over wind-scoured shale flats, we reach the snow line and click in. While Stephane drives the cat back down, our guide, Baptiste Maugin from Grenoble, France, leads the way. Allez, time to jump in.
It’s sugar-snap cold powder, turn after turn. From high-alpine open bowls we quickly descend through open glades, each run 300m to 500m long. The air is crystal crispy and powder rises in plumes from our skis. Clouds of condensation shoot from our mouths. Near the bottom, the trees and brush become tighter and tighter and the path slows to a slog. At the valley floor, Stephane is idling in the cat – his grin a beacon. He clearly enjoys driving his toy as much as we love riding in it. It’s also warm in there.
“You’re not cold, eh?” he asks with a laugh. “What happens out there in the mountains really happens in your head,” he says, tapping his woolly toque (Québécois for beanie) with his mittened hand from his position in the driver’s seat, happy to dispense psych-counselling as we rush to share body heat. The mercury is a major talking point but he’s right, as long as you’re dressed properly and keep moving, Québec cold is a dry, manageable cold. And with not a human soul for miles, keeping moving is a breeze – they don’t do queues in Québec.
I ask Stephane about the Chic-Choc version of a crowd, and he enthuses about his annual Backcountry Weekend Festival. He was over the moon with a record turnout last January of 60 ski tourers and splitboarders. Sixty people – an all-time record for human presence on this mountain. Every run is a study in splendid isolation – and we have several more days of it, all to ourselves. And one moose.
After three fantastic days, it's time to bid à tantôt (as the locals say) to the Chic-Chocs. (They say a lot of things round here, but not much is comprehensible to a non-local; Québécois is just as unlike French as Swiss-German is German.) Our twin-prop plane rises noisily over frozen waters dotted with ice fishing cabins, veering south west for the one-hour flight from Gaspé to Québec City. From the beautiful walled provincial capital (worth an entire trip on its own), it’s another hire car – this one has a heated steering wheel – for the one-hour drive to the prettiest ski resort in the east, Le Massif.
Compared to the Chic-Chocs, the village of Baie-Saint-Paul – a funky artists’ haven of galleries, cafés, shops and 7000 souls – is a population density study. But it’s relative. The place is still so quiet, at a red light in front of the liquor store I pull up beside one other car – inside, are my sister and brother-in-law, joining me from Toronto.
With no traffic to contend with, in no time at all we’re making our first turns down towards the icy floes of the St Lawrence River – without ever having sat on a chairlift. High on quirky scale, Le Massif’s main lodge and parking are perched at the top of the mountain, so after checking into our hotel in Baie-St-Paul, we make the 20-minute drive to the top. From car park to piste, it’s all downhill towards what looks and feels like the edge of the St Lawrence River. No danger of drowning – it’s actually a bit further away than it appears. The occasional tanker floats past our ski tips in the watery distance as we zoom around more than 50 waterside pistes – groomers, glades and long runs than stretch to around 800m of vertical drop. With zero queues to give us a break, eventually it’s our legs that call time, and we head back to the hotel.
Baie-St-Paul may be tiny, but our lodgings are fabulous. We’re staying at Hôtel La Ferme, a stunning eco-chic hotel opened in 2012 by former Cirque du Soleil president and local boy Daniel Gauthier. I take a wander through trendy chill zones dotted with funky art and chic luxe sofas, mosey through the shop stocked with local farm produce and wine, watch a young couple ice skate on the small rink that sits opposite the hotel’s own bijou train station. You can get on the train in Québec City and step out in the hotel foyer. Unfortunately, its schedule didn’t jive with mine, hence the car with the heated steering wheel.
Before heading to dinner, there’s time for a massage that puts the treat in treatment. I’d never had a 90-minute massage before; I’ll never have a 60-minute one again. After presoaking in the peaceful outdoor heated pools and being kneaded like warm dough for an hour and a half, there is no extra charge for the cryotherapy that follows – aka an outdoor dash back to my room. I borrow an extra towel to wear as a blanket, a touch of Cirque du Soleil in the snow. I’m told Monsieur Gauthier thinks guests should embrace nature not hide from it.
Magician that he is, there’s more wizardry to come. In front of the open fire in the lounge I’m rewarmed by an aperitif of Premices d’Avril, the local maple wine. Moving upstairs to Les Labours restaurant, the flames of the open kitchen dance a sorcerer’s ballet of dry cured ham, seared emu liver, a luscious lobster cannelloni, a whole roasted arctic char… fine euro-cuisine at New World prices of around C$10 each.
Just as my head hits the cool of the eiderdown pillow, flakes begin to fill the air outside. Relaxed, restored and ready for more days of upside-down riverside skiing, it occurs to me one thing and one thing alone is missing. Tomorrow, Poutine.
Need to know
A three-day cat skiing adventure with Ski Chic-Chocs ( skichicchocs.com ) costs from C$899 per person. Price includes avalanche safety gear and qualified mountain guide. Groups are a minimum of six people and a maximum of eight. Powder skis or splitboards can be hired for C$50 per day. Ski Chic-Chocs is able to arrange accommodation at Gîte du Mont-Albert – a room costs C$250 per night and includes half board. In Le Massif, double rooms at Hôtel La Ferme ( lemassif.com ) start at C$155 per night.