Daniel Gauthier, who started Cirque du Soleil with Guy Laliberté in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul, had skied Le Massif since he was 10. After learning in 2002 that the hill was on the skids, he bought it. “I wanted to ski that mountain, and they were almost in bankruptcy,” he explained to me not long ego. So far he has invested $75-million of his own money and $195-million from others to clear runs, build lifts and a hotel and a model farm, and refurbish the railroad that follows the river up from Quebec. His goal is “appropriate development without destroying the soul of Charlevoix.”
Tom Morgan, the walrus-like oil and gas geologist who owns Monashee Powder Snowcats, first skied the trees in his territory as a guest in 1999, back when the “resort” was a huddle of fixed-platform tents. Within five months he and his wife Carolyn were partners with the owners – $50,000 for 25 per cent of the operation. By 2004 they had doubled down on a new lodge and a second one at Mustang Powder, another cat operation; when the partnership disintegrated a year later, the Morgans were left with the original lodge they have since expanded and modernized. “I was in love with the romance of the cat operation,” Tom says. “I had no idea of the realities.” But the cat-skiing business in B.C. is only 30 years old, which is why the history of the mountains feels close at hand and personal even to a visitor. You could almost be part of it.
7. At Le Massif, especially if there is new snow on the ground, you want to run the glades first, removing your skis to make an easy boot hike 15 minutes further up the mountain for some of the best tree skiing in the East. The trees can be tight, but as the instructors say, you aim for the spaces.
I spent a morning making four runs through the forest, a vast silent outdoor church: Each one was 45 minutes to the bottom. I skied the other side of the mountain for steep groomers, and then into the middle for moguls. Jean-Luc Brassard, the Canadian Olympic gold medalist, makes Le Massif his winter base these days: I watched him thread a bump run at full speed, a tightly tucked tornado of turns. People cheered as he blew by; women waited in the gondola line at the bottom, hoping to ride up with him. “It's not a mountain,” regulars say of Le Massif. “It's like our lover.”
When you've skied the hill out, you can snowshoe or snow-cat up to the new luge run, to race down again on a face-first skeleton sled or (preferably) a classic wooden Austrian sit-up luge steered by the feet and hands. The luge course is 7.5 kilometres long and takes an hour to fly down if you stop at the warming hut halfway there. The hairpin turns are named for articles that fly off your body (Virage d'la tuque, Virage du foulard), and you hit 40 kilometres an hour very, very easily. Let me give you some advice: Turn high and early. The run is already so popular (at $30 a go) it's booked every weekend into April (but weekdays are open). French Canadians have always been keen tobogganers, which is why Krieghoff so often painted them sledding.
This is the sort of thing you think about as you carve your way down Le Massif, looking out at the St. Lawrence River. From the top, surrounded by history, you can see where the country started, and feel the waiting weight of its past. Out West in the Monashees, where you see no one all day, dropping into the weightless whiteness is the opposite sensation: You leave the bonds of the human and the past behind, until you gratefully come to a stop and join your pals again. In both places it is the same encounter, merely enacted from opposite directions.