More on last week's Quebec/VT circuit, with reflections on cold temps,
Le McSkiing, sunlight, Holiday prices, and the sport that passed me by,
XC skiing:

12/29 Mont Ste. Anne XC
Third ski day of the trip, and Laura wants to XC, which was how I
started skiing and all I used to do until 8 or so years ago. But for the
last 4 years maybe, it's been a distant second to tele--although I do
get a certain satisfaction out of using the same pair of boots for both,
and out of squeezing every low speed wobbly tele turn I possibly can
from my big heavy old metal edge double camber XC skis.

But my idea of XC is back county. Ste. Anne's, and I think most of the
XC world's now, is skating, racing, waxing and scraping and waxing and
scraping. The prep room at the XC center (a couple miles north, to the
right as you face the mountain, of the DH area) was a scene out of my
idea of ski hell: dozens of people frantically, busily, endlessly fine
tuning the bottoms of their skis.

Leave the waxing room for the actual trails and you're into this
regimented world of one-way skating lanes with pre-planned, loopy,
departing trails and arriving trails--often enough starting out in
exactly the wrong direction from where you want to go. I have no
patience for that--plus they make it so that there are practically no
signposts along the way, so if you don't follow their exact route start
to finish, you're sunk. I tried to wing it and got lost.

But what gets me most is how out of it I now feel on my equipment. Laura
and I--neither of us slouches, I thought--are being
passed--constantly--by every single Lycra-wearing, wax-plastering pinner
out there (although none of them use pins any more; it's new-nordic,
step-in something or other). They're just whizzing by, even the ones who
clearly have no technique. The worst, for me, is towards the end of our
trek when a woman with a baby riding on her back motors uphill past us.
This is not skiing, it's track and field. And the trails--what I think
of as the best part of XC--have all the pure, natural esthetics of the
Indy 500 speedway.

OK, that's an exageration. There were some pretty stretches, and on this
blue-sky sunny day, the white Quebec landscape had a golden glow to it
that was extraordinary. It hit me that at these far North latitudes, in
late December, the sun never gets that far off the horizon. At noon it
felt like it must be late afternoon. The sky had early twilight shades
to it almost all day. It was beautiful.

12/30 Massif/Ste. Anne
Day before, after XC, we stop off to take a look at Ste. Anne's DH trail
map. Not much open--none of the cool-looking (from the bottom)
double-blacks on the SouthEast side. But big snow is forecast for next
day and I go to sleep excited about the possibilities.

Wake up, big snow is here, and we make the blizzardy 1/2 hour drive from
Quebec City in pretty good time. Get to the slopes, line up to buy
tickets, and the ticket sellers are telling one skier after another,
bruskly, No Refunds, No Refunds. The snow is dumping, they're charging
full price, and they've closed off everything on the mountain except 1
lift and four blue square trails. I can't believe it.

Make a phone call to Massif--the thought of driving there is scary--but
at least they're busy opening more trails, not closing more down. Laura
and I hop in the car and go. Mentally I pictured us, alternately, flying
through powder (on skis) or flying into a snowdrift (on four wheels).

The road surface North through rural Quebec (goodbye Beaupre tacky New
Jersey) is packed powder, no asphalt anywhere. Falling snow creates
momentary whiteouts. And yet traffic, and I, are rolling along. The
tires are gripping. I'm not sure if Canadian snow is different or if
Canadian drivers are just crazy and it's rubbing off on me, but we're
making ok time through what in VT I'd call a white-knuckler. Then come
the semi's.

I'm going what seems to me pretty fast for conditions, when I look in
the rear-view and there's this huge semi right on my tail. It's still
blizzarding. I edge into the even-less-plowed slow lane and he barrels
by. Whew, at least he's passed, I think, when immediately there's
another. Then another. I let em both go by. Then another--only this one
doesn't have so much patience and he comes steaming up, passing me on my
right. All four big rigs head off into the far Quebec North, quickly out
of my sight. Laura and I joke with each other: probably don't have to
see the road, they remember where it is.

I'm still nervous about the screaming downhill access road coming up to
bring us from the ridgeline highway down to the river's edge. The
turnoff at first looks bad, but this time all the traffic really does
slow down (to like 6 mph) and safely crawls down the hill. On the way
back, when about 8-9 inches has fallen, the uphill has been plowed and
sanded to perfection. It's an effortless drive. (For comparison, Dave
Barcomb and Wesley have been talking about Rte 17 across to MRG. This
Massif road is a *lot* steeper, though, for the most part, straighter.)

Massif with falling snow is a new animal compared to the polished
surfaces two days before. They couldn't keep it all groomed even if they
wanted to. 3 or 4 new blacks have been opened--one, La Pointue, has this
cool little super-steep peak to start off--and the blue cruiser is a
heck of a lot more fun than before. (Summit area and Le 42 still
closed.) Rates are still 1/2 price, staff is still friendly, and with
the heavy snow the crowds are all somewhere else. It's a great, snowy
day. The river, when it can be seen at all through the snow, looks like
the surface of the moon. (BTW, the St Lawrence is several miles
wide--how many, I don't know--at this point. It is awe-inspiring.)

Major poaching is going on today. La Martine is still closed, but  every
time I dip under the rope I have company (the trail is in great shape).
Woods skiing at Massif? I heard later from a patroller that there are a
lot of secret trails, but they all escaped my eye. You certainly
couldn't just wing it. The trees and brush were extremely dense.

Massif lifts close at 3, which, again with the low sun angles, you can
understand. By 3:30 light is fairly dim. With our earlier stop at Ste.
Anne, we hadn't gotten to start skiing till nearly 11 so it had been a
short but sweet day. So, uh, hmm... Hey Laura, wanna do some night
skiing at Ste Anne on the way back to Quebec? You don't want to leave
here without ever skiing SA, do you? She was up for it, so we did. Never
took off our wet ski clothes, just turned the car heat up full and dried
as we drove. It worked.

By the time we got there (5ish) it was totally dark, but the snow had
stopped. For about 10 miles, we'd been looking at the lighted trails
down the mountain, trying to guess what was open. A lot more than had
been that morning, that was for sure. (Only blues though. Quebec law
says no black diamond night skiing, although I don't think any blacks
were ever open that day.)

Ste. Anne night skiing was not bad. It's a big mountain and the runs
were long and somewhat varied. The 6 seater gondola was open, as were a
couple other lifts so there were a decent number of choices to make on
the way down. Conditions were groomed but not brutal, a wee bit icy, but
with always at least a thin layer of snow to play with. End result: I
was totally glad we'd spent the extra hour to drive to Massif, but for a
night-cap (we only skied a couple hours) Ste. Anne was a lot of fun.

Massif is a classic Little Area That Rocks, newer and spiffier than MRG
but similar in size and mood. Ste Anne is a ski factory, an efficient
place for a lot of people to ski and probably perfect for the aspiring
crowd maintenance engineer who wants to pick up a few pointers.


Guess this is getting long again and I still haven't gotten to Sutton
and the -23 degrees F (seriously) car ride there. Leave that for the
next post. But a word about Quebec City:

I got such a happy feeling out of being there in winter. The place
(Vieux Quebec) just glistens and sparkles in the snow. It was fun to
look at and walk the streets, and much less crowded than when I'd been
there in the summer. (Traffic was easy as pie.)

Along the esplanade looking out over the river (the old city is high up
on cliffs) there was a fastive atmosphere well into the night. Joie de
vivre is more than just an expression. Teenagers were lining up to race
rented toboggans down a pretty steep, manmade, laned course. People were
out walking. I could get used to a place like that.

For a holiday vacation, I think staying in town, as opposed to at the
resorts, was a good move. The rates were discounted and negotiable, not
automatically doubled. (And the Canadian $, the loony, is an automatic
30% off.)

On New Year's Eve, we drove down to Montreal (Marc G's directions shaved
a half hour off the trip) where the atmosphere was entirely different,
mmuch more hustle and bustle.

To be continued...

--dan telenaut