It was one of those splendid winter days when the sky is a brilliant blue and the snow is still cool and silky - just the kind of day a skier dreams of as the snow begins to fly.
My ski buddy, Cinnie, and I had just finished cruising down some beautifully groomed trails at Quebec's Le Massif, stopping only to snap photos of ourselves with the St. Lawrence River in the background. Now, we were back at the top of the hill, sitting on bales of hay and having a drink before heading to our next ski stop in Mont-Tremblant.
Then we heard the weather report: Big snow - and a perfectly good excuse to stay put. We put in a call to Cinnie's husband, an overworked contractor in Montreal. The 20-centimetre rule was invoked. His clients would have to wait, because Richard was on his way.
Every powder hound loves this moment of anticipation, but it's rare in the East, where people think they've been powder-skiing if the snow skims the top of their boots. Except, that is, at Le Massif. With an average annual snowfall of 630 centimetres, hope for a powder day can actually come true.
In some ways, Le Massif reminds me of B.C.'s Whistler in the old, more intimate days before all the international ski tourists arrived, when you knew people in the lineups and on the hill. Physically, too, the mountain satisfies the Whistler girl in me. At 770 metres, Le Massif has the highest vertical drop east of the Rocky Mountains; its longest run is almost five kilometres.
But this mountain also has a definitive French accent. Back at the summit lodge for lunch, we enjoyed a meal that one might have ordered in a country restaurant in France: grilled sausages, local cheeses, good bread, fresh pasta and homemade meat sauce.
Cinnie's husband Richard arrived just in time for dinner. We were staying at a condo in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François at the foot of Le Massif, but we drove to nearby Baie-Saint-Paul for our meal. Founded in 1683, the town is now filled with restaurants and art galleries and is a winter delight, tiny lights flickering above four-metre snowdrifts.
Still, the hills are what matter most. And the next day, while skiing, we watched the snowstorm sweep in across the broad river. By afternoon, we were starting to make tracks in accumulating snow. That night, it snowed nearly 40 centimetres.
In the morning, we hired a local guide, 64-year-old Denis Robichaud, who immediately led us to the top of a long, steep slope with untracked powder. We bounced our way down, whooping in delight all the way.
From there, Denis led us into snowy glades all over the hill, keeping us in powder for most of the day. We hit the moguls, and relished the feeling of sinking between them on a light cushion of forgiving snow.
That didn't stop me from enjoying the view, though, which Ski Canada magazine has ranked as the third-best panorama in the country. With all the snow, the St. Lawrence was a vista of grey and white, like a contemporary painting that moves ever so gently.
Of course, the landscape has changed since the 1980s, when I would regularly drive the 73 kilometres from Quebec City to ski.
In those days, it was a journey through a landscape straight out of paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff and Jean-Paul Lemieux. And Le Massif was a quirky ski destination. It had no chairlifts, so you had to take a school bus to the top of the hill. You'd be lucky to ski five runs in a day.
Then a multimillion-dollar infusion of federal and provincial government money gave Le Massif enough chairlifts to retire the school bus. And in 2002, Le Massif was sold to Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil.
Gauthier has big plans to turn the ski area into a four-season resort. By Christmas, 2009, he hopes to open a hotel in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul. He also wants to connect the hotel to Le Massif by trains that will ferry skiers along the St. Lawrence to Petite-RivièreSaint-François at the foot of the ski area.
For now, though, you can still enjoy untouched powder. Powder good enough that I didn't even mind when we woke up to a howling wind the next morning. The chairs hadn't started, and it wasn't clear when they would, so we called it a day.
We could have gone to Mont Saint-Anne 20 minutes away, which isn't so exposed to the wind off the river, but by now we had given ourselves the skiers' fix - those few great runs that every powder hound craves.
Le Massif is 73 kilometres from Quebec City.
WHERE TO STAY
AUBERGE LA GRANDE MAISON 160 St-Jean Baptise, Baie-Saint-Paul; 1-800-361-5575; www.quebecweb.com/lagrandemaison
introang.html. Room rates from $85 a person, including breakfast and dinner. The inn is about a 20-minute drive from Le Massif.
A one-day adult lift pass is $59. A pass for five consecutive days is $179.
LE MASSIF www.lemassif.com.
CHARLEVOIX TOURISM www.charlevoixtourism.com.
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