Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Le Massif Magic

The Mountain that almost made the olympics is Quebec's latest ski sensation

There was no escaping the cold as we emerged from our van. Yet, despite the harsh February temperatures, our attention was drawn immediately upward to the high reaches of the ski trails of Le Massif. It would take me only a couple of days to understand that every inch of this mountain, and the small sleepy community of Petite-Rivière-Saint-François at its base, was a bit of a rare find. No aspect of the slope resembled nearby Mont Saint-Anne or any of the other Quebec hills my friends and I had enjoyed over the years.

The temperature was about -12 degrees Celsius, but the wind was dead so it really didn't seem that cold riding the detachable quad chair up the side of Le Massif. As we made our way to the top, we looked back down the mountain and could see steam rising from a few open spots on the otherwise ice-choked St. Lawrence River that hugs Petite-Rivière-Saint-François. Smoke from village chimneys rose straight into the bright, clear sky. Morning sunlight danced on the dry snow and on the barren maple and spruce trees that line the chairlift and the trails.

I had come to Le Massif with two friends: a fellow Nova Scotian and school principal, who until now seemed more comfortable in a conservative grey suit than ski pants. The threesome was rounded off by another "partner at play" whose grey hair and beard and sturdy build made him an exact Kenny Rogers look-alike. As the frozen air formed ice on his hairy face, his resemblance to the burly American cowboy became more like that of a jolly old St. Nick. This fun-loving man was actually the inspiration for our trip. In his ski travels, he had heard of Le Massif and, one evening, had wondered out loud about going to see what it was all about. It only took a few phone calls and some rearranging of vacation time for us to hit the road bound for Quebec's Charlevoix region.

SNOW CONTROL
Le Massif is best known as the mountain earmarked to host the alpine downhill events if Quebec had won the right to stage the 2002 Winter Olympics. As we rode the lift up, we marvelled at the quantity of snow here. The region gets an annual average snowfall of seven to eight metres. We also were surprised at its dryness, which seemed more consistent with a region more inland than a mountain buffeted by the dampness of the St. Lawrence River. The trails seemed to have more pitch than the small mountain -- or should I say, hill -- that we were accustomed to skiing back home in Nova Scotia. And while we had all skied at Mont Saint-Anne, just 60 kilometres to the west, the snow there was not the same. With so much snow at Le Massif -- over 770 metres of vertical drop, the highest vertical in Quebec -- snowmaking is only on the lower sections of the mountain. Sounds like something more akin to western Canada than the East.

Once we reached the top of the quad, we decided a good cruising trail would be our wake-up call. A blue cruising piste, called La Desjardins, was our first choice. We were going to make that initial run slow, warm up our legs and muscles, find the right balance on the skis and check out the snow.

Well, that was the idea. But my school-principal friend obviously didn't pay attention to his own plan. Before we knew it, he was off the chair like a shot, pointing his ski tips down the mountain and tearing off like a rabbit with hounds in pursuit. That became his pattern all day. He couldn't explain the rush that hit him, and didn't really care to. The transformation from a "grey suit conservative" to wannabe Olympic racer seemed complete when he flew by me howling with sheer delight.

Such was -- and is -- the magic this mountain and the Charlevoix region. It would beckon me back. And soon I returned, this time with my family for two days of more skiing. But what attracted me to this mountain in the first place was clearly nderstood by others long before I ever discovered it.

 

MOUNTAIN IN THE MAKING
Le Massif was born in 1970 when the Quebec government purchased 44 square kilometres with the intention of turning the area into an international winter sports centre. Some trails were cut, but a revision of government policy on downhill ski areas resulted in a five-year moratorium on the development of the mountain. Then, in 1981, the Société de développement du Massif de Petite-Rivière-Saint-Franìois signed a contract to operate the hill. Those early days of skiing consisted of a few trails on all-natural snow. The lift to the top was not a chair or tow rope, but an old school bus that would pick skiers up at the bottom and drive them back along the road to the top. Four or five runs a day was about the limit for most skiers.

In 1986, following more studies, the government agreed to put money into Le Massif if private organizations invested $100 million. Those grandiose plans were soon scaled down, and a more attainable goal was devised. It was the vision of a local group that would develop the mountain into something different than the traditional ski area. They wanted to design trails and facilities in harmony with the natural environment, ensuring that even the aesthetics of the buildings fit the surroundings. They also kept in mind that Le Massif was part of the United Nations World Biosphere Reserve, where whales, caribou and other forms of wildlife as well as the region's flora and fauna all live within relatively close proximity of one another.

In 1992, with a combination of government and private money as well as loans, more than $12 million was invested into the mountain to create more trails, install a detachable quad and a double-fixed chair, as well as a base lodge along with an administrative building, ticket office, ski shop and parking lot.

But what you won't find at the base of Le Massif, or on the sides of its slopes, are big resort hotels or ski-in/ski-out condos. You won't find glitzy bars for après ski and you won't find dozens of ski shops with billboard adverts lining the road to the ski station. This type of development just doesn't fit the mould of the community and the environmentally friendly atmosphere of the ski area. That's one of the things that make this area unique compared to other major ski stations.

LODGE COMFORTS
Accommodations in Petite-Rivière-Saint-Franìois are small and quaint: bed and breakfasts, family-run inns and character-filled hotels. On both visits, we stayed about 10 minutes away from the hill at a four-seasons area called Le Genévrier on Route 138 at Baie-Saint-Paul. For my first visit, a small chalet with two bedrooms in the loft was more than adequate, equipped with a full kitchen and bath and a much-appreciated woodstove. The second stay was in a more modern two-storey condo with a fireplace and all the conveniences and comforts of home. While my first trip was a bit of a blur -- basically chasing "the downhiller" and St. Nick down the mountain -- the second visit with my family gave me more time to get to know the mountain and its terrain. With about 60 percent of the coverage being natural snow, carving turns on the steep pitch was a real treat -- especially without the fear of hitting an ice patch.

What I really relished was the way the mountain crew groomed the hill. On some of the trails, only half had been packed by the machine while the other side was left natural and allowed to "bump up." This was ideal for anyone, like myself, wanting to learn how to ski moguls without the metre-high bumps on an unmanageable pitch. The natural, dry snow formed soft moguls so even if you did fall, there was little worry of getting hurt.

My 20-year-old daughter, a former racer, wasn't long in leaving the old legs of her parents behind. And there wasn't any part of the mountain she didn't enjoy. She was able to carve Super-G turns on several of the trails and got a real workout on the long, steep double-diamond mogul run. For skiers who like glade skiing or Le Sous-Bois, there is some available. Nearly half the trails are classed as black diamond, but that doesn't mean they're not enjoyable. Of course, there's plenty of skiing for every ability and the runs can be long, ranging up to 3.8 kilometres.

The large base lodge has all the facilities and comforts skiers seek for their noon-hour break or end-of-the-day chats about their experiences on the mountain. And I found that a ski vacation at Le Massif is more than a ski adventure: The small nearby town of Baie-Saint-Paul, founded in 1678 and considered one of the oldest towns in Quebec, is a haven for art galleries, historical buildings and fine dining.

A stroll through the narrow streets, typical of old Europe, reveals houses more than 200 years old and restaurants with mouth-watering menus. One of our choices was Maison Otis at 23 rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, where the caribou and Guinea hen were delectable, the wine superb and the atmosphere warm and friendly. It certainly topped a great day.

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