French Twist

Nordic skiing in Canada's Québec Province
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Skiers in the distance at Mont Tremblant.

You've got to hand it to French Canadians. They survive in a micro-culture forged in a climate that's frozen for more than half the year. It's cold up there—tellement vrai. So what do they do? Like intelligent people everywhere who are often buried in snow, they learn to play in the stuff.

Which is why you find Nordic ski tracks in every nook and cranny of the province. The French have a word for it, of course—ski du fond—and overall about 30 major centers boast thousands of miles of maintained and marked trails, many offering lessons, guided tours, and equipment rental. Now, while that may also be true in other cold North American places, in Québec, they do it with a flair that cannot be found anywhere else except in France. Furthermore, the favorable exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollars means Nordic skiing north of the border should be an affordable endeavor for the U.S. visitor.

OK, having established that this is a great place to go cross-country skiing, you're faced only with one problem. Where? As I said, Nordic tracks are laid down everywhere. You can stride and glide in the heart of Québec City—home to world-class ice climbing, believe it or not—on the Plains of Abraham, in Montréal, in the northeastern outback of the Outaouais, or bordering the Atlantic Ocean in the Gaspésie. But, perhaps my recent visit to the Laurentian Mountains' Parc du Mont Tremblant typifies cross-country Québec style. . .

Set a short drive from Mont Tremblant, the province's mega-downhill resort, Parc du Mont Tremblant lays claim to being the gateway to Québec's largest nature preserve, and to being the largest Nordic center in the Laurentians. Trails stretch for some 94 miles (150 km), allowing for short or long day trips, as well as for multi-day journeys with overnighting in a series of huts.

We began at the welcome center, a thoroughly modern, wood edifice that housed an excellent rental shop, waxing room, and snack bar. After waxing and, for those who needed to, renting gear, we embarked, following signs in French and English. (It may be advisable to carry a small English to French dictionary or phrasebook to cover your tail when/if the signs give out.) We ascended a gentle grade that disappeared into thick woods on a trail that, in most parts, would remain wide enough for two skiers. Within a hundred yards, the climb had us stripping off layers and gulping water, but the sunshine glistened through the still naked hardwood branches, creating the glittering visual spectacle we'd come to the woods to find.

The trail leveled off briefly, then continued its climb. Being a jovial and easy-going crew, we stopped often to marvel at the scenery, and shoot photos. "Allons," let's go, would signal the rowdy departure of our posse. The group slowly spread out into those who moved with greater skill and speed and those who had less skill or simply liked to dally. "Je vais lentement," I commented as I drifted to the back of the pack. Slowly, that's me. Until we came to an opening in the trees. A marsh was cut artistically by a bubbling stream, and large, undisturbed pillow-mounds of snow lay over the wetland, catching the peek-a-boo sunlight as it came and went, casting dramatic shadows and visual planes to dazzle the eye. That caused everyone to stop and take pictures—or wish they had a camera, if they didn't.

Photographically satiated, we strode on, the trail seeming to rise again, and disappeared into more thick woods until around a bend, first a large lake, then a hut, appeared. Maybe it is better described as a small log cabin. Inside was a wood stove, some bunks on which overnighters could sleep, and a couple of picnic tables. You'll find a lot of this in Québec—huts to allow multi-day treks deep into the forest. But, for us day-trippers, it was just a lunch stop. We dug in, some eating inside at large picnic tables, some lingering outside so as to ogle the lake. A few dispensed with lunch altogether, choosing to follow a trail that dodged along the lakeshore, seeking that even more terrific view that always seems to lurk around the next bend.

Lunch completed, we backtracked a short way, then forked to the left and began the backside of our loop. Oddly, the trail kept rising. But the rise was never too severe; we were required to herringbone on only a few occasions and then only for short distances. "Mon dieu," I muttered as we crested yet another rise that let out onto yet another flat, "Ou est le downhill?"

Just a bit farther, it turned out. It was short, but rather dramatic. The line thinned as folks gave everyone plenty of room. Some could telemark the descent, others had the confidence (foolishness?) to schuss it, but most of us snowplowed for dear life. Steep it was, with a mid-descent curve, but certainly not the equivalent of the amount of uphill we'd already done. And, soon we encountered another herringbone-inducing rise, a sharp left turn and—voila!—we were back where we'd started.

A terrific day of skiing on well-kept, well-marked trails. But, still I queried our guide, "When does the trail go downhill?" We'd been striding in a loop for perhaps four miles and, as best as my legs could tell, it was all uphill! The French have a word for it, I'm sure. Les Laurentides.

The region boasts a number of excellent cross-country sites, in addition to Parc du Mont Tremblant. Nearby, the Mont Tremblant/St. Jovite area offers some 56 miles (90 km) of trails and 8 miles (12 km) of skating-groomed terrain. You can actually ski from Mont Tremblant Village to the town of St. Jovite, passing by the downhill resorts of Tremblant and Grey Rocks, and following the banks of the Diablo River (La Riviere du Diable). You can also ski on Lake Tremblant and Quimet Lake, and find plenty of trails rated "tres difficile." The Villa Bellevue offers ski and stay packages, as does Mt. Tremblant Resort.

The Petit Train du Nord stands out among Laurentian Nordic sites. It's a converted railroad bed that runs south from St. Jovite for 25 miles (40 km). The skiing's free, but parking will cost you five bucks.

Farther south, you'll find Nordic trails plentiful in the Saint-Sauveur Valley, a popular weekend destination for Montréalers. The village of St. Sauveur contains myriad winding streets that overflow with shops, bistros, and restaurants, but with the vast Nordic ski choices in the region, a person can happily burn enough calories to justify eating in all those wonderful restaurants. In the nearby town of Estirel, the Hotel l'Estérel offers direct access onto 53 miles (85 km) of trails on rolling terrain, while the Hotel Far Hills Inn in Val Morin provides 80 miles (130 km) of groomed trails, plus easy access to an additional 26 miles (42 km) of backcountry trail skiing in the 500-acre woodlands with private lake that comprises their backyard.

Staying in Montréal itself? On business, perhaps? Bring your skis and do your striding on the Mount Royal trails, just a few minutes from downtown.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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