TAKING WINTER IN STRIDE
A cross-country guide to planning good times close to nature, close to home — and close at hand
Allowing that life eventually becomes only those moments you can’t forget, there is one memory that’s guaranteed to be among the last of mine to fade. Ellen, my wife, and I left Quebec City by car very early one day last February, going northeast to the village of Ste Anne de Beaupré. We passed the basilica and turned north toward Parc du Mont Ste-Anne, where we paid $4.50 each for a full day’s rental of complete cross-country skiing equipment: skis, boots and poles, no tow tickets necessary. Then wre toted this stuff down from the noisy main chalet to the side of the mountain where the sugar maples still stand, but where most of the roughhewn cabins that once held sap during the spring sugaring off are used now as winter rest stops for exhausted skiers. And where the trails formerly traveled byfarmers’ cutters now belong to a new generation, whose only similarity to the farmers is simple taste and a dedicated belief in sweat.
We were there on a cold day — not so cold that, as my ranger grandfather would have said, you could freeze your shadow to the ground, but cold enough. And so we were well bundled when we set off waddling and falling through the winter silence. It was the first time on skis for both of us, and we were surprised to find after three miles or so that we were no longer cold. Fact is, we were sweating. I stopped to catch breath beside the Jean FaRose River, which was frozen in places, open in others, as if winking through the thick winter eyelid. And I imagined myself to be a great Canadian poet, slipping through long stands of planted spruce trees, all grown to the same height and positioned like green soldiers with great epaulettes of fresh-fallen snow. I was searching for other such melancholy images and waiting for Ellen to ski alongside and join me in my sighs. But she never arrived and, after a while, I looked back and saw this rather inelegant and unpoetic figure back down the trail, her bangs so loaded with moisture from her breath and exertion that they had frozen like a
mask over her eyes. Half her face was an icicle; she couldn’t see my river, nor even inspect the spruce soldiers. Yet there was something far more profound in her laugh, and in mine that followed. In that moment two Canadians who had previously gone to any ends to avoid winter realized they had just fallen in love with it. For the first time we realized that Februaries can be fun.
Perhaps if I had really been a great Canadian poet — like, say, Alden Nowlan — I would have been able to put it all into words, as Nowlan did in Canadian Love Song: December is thirteen months long/July’s one afternoon; therefore/ lovers must outwit wool/learn how to puncture fur.
It’s estimated that there are at least 200,000 cross-country skiers in Canada, and most of them, like myself, are recent converts to winter. To understand the sport’s new popularity, think of it as the winter realization of some of the better summer dreams of the Sixties. A frozen Walden. All the back-to-the-land hopes, the communion with nature, the fight against wastage — these ideas are incarnate in cross-country skiing. Better yet, it combines the outdoors with hard physical exercise and silence, meaning no gasoline required. It’s less competitive than downhill skiing at a time when people talk about taking the winning out of fun; it’s something the whole family can do together and along the same trail (unlike Alpine skiing where expertise dictates where each person skis). The silence is addictive to people who spend all week in a city. Alpine skiing, for all its good points, also means Cat Stevens blasting out of stereo speakers, 15-minute lineups, hills that sag with people, loud machinery and expensive fashion parades. Worse yet, downhill skiing is very restrictive. The mountain rules the skier. You can go anywhere on crosscountry skis; all you need is snow. What’s more, there’s a sense of craft to the sport: the more intimate you become with it, the more conscious you become of such qualities as camber (the spring that comes from the arch of the
ski), the best base (for instance, birch holds wax better than hickory, but it doesn’t stand up as well), bindings (whether toe or cable-heel) and waxing (a mystique all its own).
Fortunately for cross-country skiing, its popularity rise coincided with the energy crisis, hoax or not. People began looking for places close to home to visit, places within easy striking distance, and whereas a good hill might be a jet ride away, a good field is often just a walk away. Further, in a time of runaway inflation, cross-country skiing is virtually free. Once you buy equipment you never need to spend another cent, unless you wish to ski on private trails or specially marked public ones. Clothing is pretty well what you already have on hand, since cross-country style follows the Bauhaus school of thought — fashion follows function.
It came along, cheap and very good for you, at a time when most Canadians began taking winter breaks. No longer are winter holidays the private joy of school kids, bank presidents and bums — we all take them. And it’s getting more and more difficult to spend a week or two on a southern beach. The air fare increase of last February (10.5%) had already been stepped up in July (9.5%) and threatens to jump again before the new year (a further 22.4%).
What all these trends boil down to, then, is a winter break in what amounts to your own backyard. Maclean ’s has attempted to find one, and in some cases more, such backyards for each province (if we tried for any more, this magazine would be as thick as an Eaton’s catalogue). All places mentioned are within easy weekend reach of city centres and, for out-of-province visitors who come for a week or more, they all offer nearby accommodation, information on which can be obtained from the provincial tourist offices. What follows is an arbitrary survey of backyards you can borrow, and if it fails to touch upon the northern regions and the territories, that’s only because these people are already very much aware of where their
When Voltaire dismissed the new colony as only a “few acres of snow” he was considerably underestimating
backyards are. Right behind the house. Besides, if you’re into cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or even ice fishing, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon would be your idea of paradise. This guide is one instance where it’s the rest of Canada we worried about.
Quebec menb°ned’ my own introduction to cross-country
skiing was in Quebec, which is where all discussions of the sport in Canada should begin. Cross-country began here and was first revitalized here. And any province that bans snowmobiling from areas where skiing and snowshoeing are encouraged deserves all the praise it gets. With more than 1,500 miles of groomed trails, and several giant recreational parks providing facilities for the sport (Mont Orford, Mont Tremblant, Paul Sauvé, Mont Ste-Anne, Laurentides and Duchesnay), Quebec is still the best cross-country province in Canada. The sport dates back to the early 1930s, when Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen mapped out the famous Maple Leaf Trail, starting near Montreal and running north to Mont Tremblant. That was the first serious attempt to get Canadians interested in the Nordic sport that dates back at least to 2500 B.C. Unfortunately, it wasn’t totally successful. But had more people followed Jackrabbit back in the Thirties they might still be skiing today, as is Jackrabbit himself, now 98 and planning to go back to Norway and do some skiing to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday.
The great cross-country revival of the Seventies didn’t take place so much around the old Maple Leaf Trail as around Quebec City, where every Sunday more than 10,000 people pour onto the trails, even mapping out new routes on the Plains of Abraham. In the past five years, cross-country skiing in the area has multiplied 10 times, suggesting that one attraction in saving so much money at the sport is that you have so much more left over to spend on Quebec City cuisine.
Mont Ste-Anne, where my wife and I went, is only one of three centres within an hour or so of the city. Ste-Anne, combined with Parc des Laurentides and Station Forestière de Duchesnay, offer 140 miles of marked trails (a competent skier can be content with 10 to 15 miles in a day, though some experts will do 35 or more). The trails are groomed daily — absolutely immaculate — and detailed maps announcing “You are here” point out directions, give the mileage and, often, even the degree of difficulty for a
particular trail. Many of these trails, mostly the expert ones with long and treacherous downhill runs, are marked sens unique — one way. Which is the only way, when perhaps you’re not quite in control.
Camp Mercier, at Parc des Laurentides, gives equal billing to raquette (snowshoeing), and trails for their exclusive use are mapped out. Not only are snowmobiles banned from these paths, but cross-country people too. So rugged and magnificent is the surrounding forest that a Camp Mercier rule demands that if any car is still in the lot come dusk, a search party is called out. People familiar with winter sightseeing, particularly on snowshoes, soon become aware of what George Herbert meant when he wrote “Every mile is two in winter,” and more than a few snowmobile-haters have been delighted to hear the sore-throated sounds of Camp Mercier rescue vehicles once the sun has set and wolves begin their howl.
For those who tire of the legwork involved in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, the Quebec City area offers one sport that involves only sitting and coasting. That’s tobogganing, and though it’s far more strenuous than it first seems, it’s every bit as exciting. The famous run outside the Chateau Frontenac (see picture page 102) is one of the best facilities in Canada, and there are several other good runs in the area. But whatever the sport, it should be kept in mind that the Quebec City area has a winter climate somewhat akin to the Alps, meaning snowfall averages of more than 120 inches. When Voltaire dismissed the colony as only a “few"* acres of snow” he was considerably underestimating.
OiltariO Several million more acres can be found in Ontario, though it lags far behind Quebec in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing facilities, but which still is something of a paradise for those who believe in the simpler winter sports. Right now, five areas are developed and all have nearby accommodation. There are five main trails around Thunder Bay (Mount Baldy, Mount McKay, Mount Norway, Pine Top and Centennial Park, which is right in the city centre) and these are undoubtedly among the most picturesque in the country, offering occasional glimpses of north Lake Superior. Good trails can also be found around Collingwood, Barrie, Peterborough and at Camp Fortune, which is actually in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills but caters to
skiers from Ottawa, just 15 miles away.
Yet none quite comes up to Muskoka’s Limberlost Lodge. Acknowledged even by other lodge owners as the very best in Ontario, Limberlost’s terrain and lodge setting comes perhaps as close as possible to duplicating the crosscountry mood of Norway and Sweden. Thanks to, of all things, the logging history of Muskoka, most of the bush is ideal for walking and skiing. Trees have breathing space; you’re not forever working your way through a subway crowd of undergrowth. But best of all are the hundreds of hidden trails left over from logging days. Old corduroy roads, built by placing logs side by side transversely, can still be found. These forgotten roads, along with old trappers’ trails and even deer runs, spread out like capillaries through Muskoka, taking skiers back to deserted hunting camps and lakes that still have enough fish in them to make cutting a hole in the ice and dropping a line worthwhile.
Limberlost is tucked in off Highway 60 about 17 miles northeast of Huntsville, less than three hours from Toronto. Hidden among the pine, cedar and birch are guest log cabins that date back some 50 years to the time when Limberlost was an exclusive private resort. The elitist feeling remains: posh leather chairs, ceiling-high granite and quartz fireplace, mounted lake trout and smallmouth bass, all the trappings. And spread out over the lodge’s 2,400 acres or so are 25 kilometers of impressively groomed and well-marked trails, though hundreds of miles of other trails, unmarked, are immediately accessible. Unless you happen to be staying there (last year it cost $115 for a Monday-toFriday ski week) it costs only two dollars to use the facilities, six if you’re renting equipment. And that leaves you lots left over for a delightful evening of draught beer and shuffleboard at Huntsville’s Empire Hotel beverage room.
Should you happen to be there on the first Sunday after New Year’s, a 25-mile trip back toward Toronto will bring you to the village of Port Sydney and the site of the Muskoka Loppet, one of Canada’s largest, single-day cross-country events. The main race, a full 30 kilometers, attracts skiers from all over the country, the real experts who waddle along in that slightly obscene gait that belongs only to them and to marathon walkers.
The Limberlost area is also excellent for ice fishing, another inexpensive winter activity that not only saves on energy costs, but food costs as well. Leaving
Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is the ice fisherman’s paradise — the limit’s 24 trout per day per person
Limberlost on cross-country skis or snowshoes will bring you very shortly to your pick of a half dozen lakes, rich in speckled trout, lake trout, whitefish and perch. All you need is warm dress, an ice auger to cut through to the water, a jigging stick, line, hook and bait. A flask is optional.
Newfoundland Flasks mi8ht be
classified as essential equipment farther east, in much colder Newfoundland, where ice fishing as a winter activity far outdraws crosscountry skiing (though there are several clubs, and six major meets were held there last season). Each winter weekend the people pour out of St. John’s for a little jigging. Red Soper, manager of Howie Meeker’s Sports Centre near the capital, claims he sells as many as 5,000 tubs of live bait a weekend, and his sales in chisels, augers, hooks and line have doubled each year for the past few. It’s understandable: the limit is 24 trout per day per person, and there’s yet to be a black fly or mosquito reported.
The biggest ice fishing increase has been in family “trouting” along the Avalon Peninsula. Few people are aware that fully one third of the island is water, and there are literally hundreds of rivers and lakes close to St. John’s which are accessible by walking or by snow machine. Cochrane Pond and Paddy’s Pond, both only 12 miles from the city along the Trans-Canada Highway, offer good trout fishing, mostly eastern brook and speckled trout. Ouananiche (which go up to five pounds) and brown trout are also found. Nonresidents require licenses to fish, but they only run five dollars per person or $7.50 for the entire family.
Cross-country in Newfoundland is a side attraction, but given the climate and the terrain it will likely soon catch up and pass ice fishing. The province’s most novel idea is a ski loan service, wherein stations have been set up in 23 centres to provide skis for enthusiasts who do not own their own equipment. More than 100 full sets of equipment are made available through this service, making Newfoundland easily the country’s best winter bargain.
PEI F)n another Atlantic island, Prince Edward Island, winter’s main new activity switches back to cross-country skiing. The best area is the Bonshaw Hills Hiking Trail, 15 miles southwest of Charlottetown. Created by the Red Cross as a summer hiking area, the trail is now used for cross-country
and showshoeing as well. Organized and well-marked trails ranging from five to seven miles fan out from the starting point, and it’s possible to do the entire 20-mile trail in one day.
But if you’re not turned on by crosscountry skiing (and it’s virtually impossible to turn on to downhill skiing in PEI since there’s only one hill, Brookvale, in central Queens County), then there’s always ice skating. The 20 indoor rinks are rather overshadowed by the several hundred impromptu rinks that form overnight when the temperature freezes but the snow doesn’t fall — which happens regularly on the island. And in keeping with the area’s quaintness, it’s not unusual for a live band to gather by a frozen pond and play for the skaters. That, though, has to be seen to be believed. Norman Rockwell paintings aren’t supposed to happen anymore, not even on PEI.
New Brunswick 0n themain-
land, Maritimers are heading to Mactaquac Provincial Park, just 15 miles outside Fredericton. It’s a perfect winter setting for the mood of the Seventies. A series of cross-country trails have been set up to accommodate skiers interested in racing, exploration or just good, strenuous exercise. Mactaquac was the site of the 1973 Junior Cross-Country Ski Championships, which should give some indication of the quality of the trails. At the main lodge in the park, the ground floor has been set aside specifically as a selfmaintenance and waxing room for skiers. And 10 miles of trails have been set aside for the exclusive use of snowshoers. Cross-country and snowshoe trails never intersect, and both types are kept far away from the park’s snowmobile trails. Skaters are offered their choice of two ponds complete with warming shacks and piped-in skating music, and there’s even a selection of different toboggan runs.
All the above, however, require work, and Mactaquac has thoughtfully provided for the more decadent winter souls. Sundays, at one in the afternoon two teams of horses set off on a twohour sleighride around the park. About all the participant has to do to enjoy this is get himself onto the sleigh and, with a handy but well-secreted wine skin to while away the time, getting off the sleigh at run’s end should be the least of worries. A full wine skin is also good exercise around an ice fishing hole, and with a free license from the park office, you can fish in the Headpond for small-
mouth bass and perch. Ice fishing holes aren’t large (eight or nine inches, one foot maximum) and there’s yet to be a report of someone slipping through one. And judging by the belly size of an average ice fisherman, there’s little likelihood of that excellent safety record ever being broken.
NOVO ScOtía F)ne w^nter attraction in Nova Scotia is the excellent ice fishing on the salt water estuaries of the many river systems, or on the bays and inlets of the Atlantic coastline. Cross-country skiing, however, is just beginning. At present there are few facilities, and enthusiasts make do mainly with the forest areas around the Alpine ski areas and in two national parks. Cape Breton Highlands and Kejimkujik, where they follow hiking trails or improvised trails.
There are a few miles of maintained cross-country trails at the Cape Breton Ski Club located at Ben Eoin, overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes some 17 miles west of Sydney. There’s a 492-foot “mountain” that is lighted up four evenings every week, but though they downhill ski on these nights, cross-country skiers only come out on full moons. One plus for skiing at this club is that there’s fairly good daily bus connections throughout the industrial Cape Breton area.
Virtually at the other end of the province, near Middleton in the Annapolis Valley, the Twin Oaks Ski Area also offers limited cross-country skiing. Enthusiasts are encouraged to use the summer hiking trails that spread out into the hills, but since snowmobilers are encouraged to use the very same trails a lot of the charm is lost. Cross-country skiing with ear plugs is about as much fun as making love through the mails.
Manitoba There are those who argue that to really know Canadian winters you must first survive one in the West. It’s a different season. A settlers’ guide issued in 1882 concerning the area that later became the province of Manitoba described the place as having “ . . . seven months of Arctic winter and five months of cold weather.” What Manitoba has lately done to make winter less bitchy would make you wonder why farmers pray for rain and not snow, for the long months that used to be spent around the pot-belly are now spent on skis or in the shelter of an ice hut. A short drive from Winnipeg will take you to a number of lakes, all open to winter fishing, and all packed tight with pike,
Southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan have an advantage over the rest of the country — they’re aheady well-groomed ski trails
walleye, fake trout and whitefish.
Ice fishing is at its best in Whitesheli Provincial Park, less than 100 miles east of Winnipeg, right near the Ontario border. Most of the lakes in this area yield northern pike, walleye and perch. There is no limit on perch nor on whitefish, which are abundant in nearby Falcon Lake, and it is with these two variety of fish that the Manitoba fisherman is at his oddest: they use perch eyes to catch their perch, and it’s commonly believed that eggshells thrown through the jigging hole attract whitefish. They are both true fishermen’s tales, but perhaps not so odd for a province so flat that it’s rumored prospective fishermen go out early in the morning with a divining rod, just to find the lake.
As for cross-country, it’s the fastest growing sport in the province. Trails are being developed in the eastern part of the province at Riding Mountain National Park (where there’s also Alpine skiing) and at Whitesheli Provincial Park. But Manitoba has a great crosscountry advantage over that part of the country that lies to the east — after all, most of the province is already a well groomed trail.
Saskatchewan A well-groomed
trail, too, is Saskatchewan, but the great irony here is that the best areas for enjoying the “natural” sports of cross-country and snowshoeing are both man-made, artificial structures. The first and finest of the two is Mount Blackstrap, about 30 miles directly southeast of Saskatoon. Built during 1970 out of 800,000 cubic yards of earth, the 300-foot “mountain” allows for downhill ski runs in the 1,400foot range, which is not bad. Blackstrap, host to the 1971 Canadian Winter Games, also features an excellent threeand-one-half mile cross-country trail, and there’s a toboggan slide and a small rink which is lighted for the romance of night skating. There are also limited cross-country skiing facilities at White Track Winter Resort, the oldest (1962) ski area in the province. Located on the high slopes of the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley in Buffalo Provincial Park, and about 22 miles northeast of Moose Jaw, the resort offers only one trail, 3.6 kilometers long. A good day of crosscountry exercise would require four or five or even six times around this track, which, if it doesn’t bore you, would certainly bring on dizzy spells. There’s always a change-of-pace close at hand, though, as White Track also has facilities for skating and tobogganing.
The other man-made structure is Lake Diefenbaker, not far from Blackstrap (about 30 miles) and located roughly in the isosceles triangle formed by Saskatoon, Swift Current and Regina. Completed in 1967 at a cost of $116 million, Lake Diefenbaker is 140 miles long, and is undoubtedly an ice fisherman’s heaven; since 1969, eight million whitefish, 10 million pickerel and 9,000 lake trout have been used to stock it. In 1973 alone, the provincial department of Tourism and Renewable Resources planted approximately 575,000 small trout of five species, 18.25 million pickerel and vast numbers of northern pike and perch through a wide variety of Saskatchewan waterways. Fish stocking is like farming, and the planting does not represent the end crop, but at least the province has moved to cut down the odds for success. And more than that you can’t ask.
fflbarta No man-made structure could ever compete with nature in Alberta. At Jasper you can cross-country ski 12 months of the year on the ice fields, and at Banff National Park last winter from 500 to 1,200 people a weekend were going crosscountry in the park, 87% of them coming from Calgary, 120 miles east. Banff, which is much better known for Alpine skiing, also has close to 700 miles of summer hiking and horse trails, and most of these have been opened up for Nordic skiing. There are 16 marked trails, making 65 miles of organized cross-country facilities. Courses vary in difficulty and length (two to eight miles) and the great thing about cross-country in Banff is that you can phone in for a taped telephone message on the latest weather and snow conditions.
Ski mountaineering is gaining in popularity in the Albertan Rockies, and though the sport seems like cross-country skiing, it could be lethal to confuse the two. The backgrounds for most cross-country activity are groomed trails, open fields and even golf courses; the equivalent for ski mountaineering are glacier fields, narrow passes and avalanches. In ski mountaineering all the equipment is sturdier, particularly the skis. You’ll need climbing skis for uphill travel and warm, leather Vibramsoled ski mountaineering boots. Participants must be prepared for such unforeseen emergencies as bivouaking the night in the mountains, breaking a leg or two or suddenly finding yourself under a few tons of snow. Not exactly fun for the whole family.
British Columbia 0ne of the few
winter vacation areas where the most popular new activity is not cross-country skiing is in the British Columbia Rockies. Alpine skiing from far above the cloud level is not altogether new, but for the first time the cost has come within range of the average skier. Helicopter skiing used to cost the rich — guys like Pierre Trudeau — from $525 to $760 a week. Now it can be done for less than half that amount.
Two local men, Bob Ambrose and Roger Madsen, bought themselves a Swiss-made, eight-passenger Pilatus Porter airplane that was specially designed for high altitude mountain flying. The aircraft — one of the STOL (shorttake-off-and-land) type — requires a mere 300 feet of runway, so it can do pretty well anything the much more expensive helicopters can. Last year, Ambrose and Madsen began shuttling skiers up into the Purcell Mountains, immediately adjacent to the famous Bugaboos and about 20 miles west of Radium Hot Springs (which is only 155 miles from Calgary and 90 from Cranbrook, BC, both of which have airports, and both of which offer good bus service). Once in Radium Hot Springs, you can have the plane at your disposal for only $49 a day and be guaranteed 10,000 vertical feet of perfect snow conditions, ideal for powder pigs and those who can’t tolerate lineups. Additional skiing is available at $2.50 per 1,000 feet. To get in 10,000 feet usually takes three plane rides, and for the runs down the mountain you’ve a choice of a dozen or more glaciers.
There’s even a ski-week package guaranteeing you 50,000 vertical feet of skiing (which, if it were possible to do all at once, is roughly akin to falling out of a plane 10 miles up), plus five nights at Radium Hot Springs soaking away the charley horses, and three meals a day, for those who don’t get airsick.
Personally, I’m not ready for glacier skiing. I haven’t even had a full season of cross-country under my belt. But I know when I’m hooked. Only a month before I first tried the sport I had gone to Sweden with a minor hockey team, to a tournament in a town so far north that night lasted 20 hours. It was January, right in the height of the energy scare, and gas was severely rationed. Yet out in the west end of town expensive mercury vapor lights burned well into the long night, marking out a rather crowded municipal cross-country trail. I wondered then how the Swedes could set such a priority. Now I know.