As a child, winters in Canada provided endless fun and excitement. There were snow forts and ice slides to construct, snowmen to make, snow angels to form, snowball fights to finish on the way home from school and king-of-the-mountain games to win atop 6 ft piles of ploughed snow. There were skates to lace followed by tricky blade-walking over snow-covered sidewalks to one of the many neighbourhood outdoor rinks. And there were icicles to eat.
Finally, there was our mother, who had learned to ski in Switzerland after the war, and (to her credit) piled her three children into an old station wagon on weekends for a 2-hour drive to a ski hill.
This year, I rekindled my appreciation for our Canadian white winter. Alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and winter walks on sunny days filled the last three months. Despite a changing climate, winter began in earnest on Christmas Day, at home, along the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario.
To meet the challenge, I bought a set of cross-country skis, a season’s pass to the local downhill ski resort and a warmer ski jacket. I booked two trips – one to British Columbia in the west and one to the Québec in the east. It was time to play outside.
After some practice at home, I flew west to Sun Peaks, a downhill ski resort in British Columbia about 56 km northeast of Kamloops and about 400 km inland from Vancouver on the west coast of Canada. Sun Peaks sits in the North Thompson Valley area with its base elevation at 1255 m (4117 ft) a.s.l and its summit at 2152 m. (7060 ft). Although not as large as Whistler and without the scenic, jagged peaks of the coastal mountains, it has a large variety of terrain and wins in terms of snow quality. In this area of low humidity, moist air from the west mixes with cold, dry air from the north producing an average annual snowfall of 5.6 m (18 ft) much of which falls as fluffy, weightless powder.
I’m not much good at powder skiing but with some instruction from my brother and some practice on gentler slopes, I slowly mastered the art of staying upright. The large amount of snow keeps your speed under control and falling in it is painless, which makes the whole experience a load of fun.
By afternoon we were sneaking through the trees to an ungroomed, hidden hill that had not been skied. I divided my time equally between standing on top of the snow and lying beneath it. I felt like a child again, laughing each time I collapsed but then…isn’t that why I came? I call myself a backcountry skier now, although I suspect that term might appropriately be reserved for people who mostly ski, rather than somersault, down the hill and for skiers who have neither burning thighs nor aching knees after one run.
On our final day we hunted out a new winter adventure – fat biking on the snow, an increasingly popular sport in Canada. Fat bikes are available by the hour in the village at Sun Peaks. My daughter and I scoffed at the short and flat trail around the village but after three days of skiing, my legs were ready for a rest. Little did I know…..
With the increased resistance, it is all pedalling and no coasting. After one day of it, these were my take-aways: 1) When the temperature is hovering around freezing, the snow is soft which adds to the challenge and you quickly find yourself overdressed, so forget the coat. 2) Give your self extra time. Our (fortunately) flat, short trail took more than double the time expected, so if hills are involved pack an overnight bag 3) Do try it. It would be great fun with a group, you’ll feel fit when you finish and the après fat bike drinks and food in the pub taste much better after a day in the fresh air.
Next, I was off to Québec for some winter play at Le Massif de Charlevoix, a smallish but beautiful resort on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, an hour’s drive east of Québec City. Every run overlooks the river and has a postcard view (if it is sunny).
The vertical drop is 770 m (2536 ft) the highest in eastern Canada. Before there were lifts, the hills were serviced first by snowmobiles and later by school buses that transported skiers from the bottom to the top. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that chair lifts were installed and in 2001, a gondola was put in. The planned expansion of the area will bring more skiers and it is a lovely spot for a week’s get-away to French Canada. It is also close to the village of Baie St. Paul which has become somewhat of an artists’ haven and a lovely place to eat, drink and browse.
For a reasonable price, we rented a large house with views of the pretty countryside between Baie St. Paul and Le Massif.
Yet again, I was with ski companions who are better skiers than I am and they insisted on being at the gate waiting when the hills opened at 9 am. This first-tracks approach won me over because the snow is infinitely easier and more fun to ski before it’s been mounded by skiers. On the third night, we had a 32 cm snowfall and so once again I had to ski powder. Despite my newly acquired backcountry skills, I found it hard going in this heavier, slightly wetter snow. My legs screamed after every run. Fortunately, two days of cross-country skiing provided respite and introduced new muscles to the mix of sore downhill muscles. Strangely, I welcomed it. Québec has pretty wooded trails in the Laurentian mountains and we spent a day at Sentier des Caps, an hour’s drive northeast of Le Massif and a day at Mont Grand Fond very close to our house.
A weekend in Québec City ended our winter play week. Québec City was founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608, near the Iroquoian First Nation village of Stadacona. This garrison-walled city is where battles between New France and Britain took place in 1759 and later, in 1775, between Britain and America during the American Revolutionary war. Today, the old town has been preserved and is a maze of cafés, pubs, restaurants and interesting shops. In the middle stands the Basilica de Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic cathedral founded in 1647 and one of the oldest in north America.
The Chateau Frontenac in Québec City is also worth a visit, even if all you can afford are drinks at the bar. It is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, over a dozen of which were built across the country by the Canadian Pacific Railway during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Then, it was home to a few more weeks of the white stuff. Soon the maple sap will begin to run, wood fires will burn as syrup is made in the sugar bush and snow drops and crocuses will poke their heads through the last vestiges of snow. I’ll emerge feeling fit and ready to tackle a new set of spring outdoor activities.
When growing up in Canada you learn, early on, to make the most of the snow but it’s never to late to learn. Look at me. I’m a first-tracks, powder-hound now. I know that true powder-hounds would spit out their après-ski beer with laughter at this precocious, self-proclamation. While too old to ever reach the level of ski-competency necessary to comfortably mingle with this breed, I think I might have stepped onto the bottom of the trajectory. I have nowhere to go now but up. Care to join me?