story and images by DAvid Huggins Daines
What do you think when you hear the words “backcountry skiing”? Do you imagine epic journeys into the wilderness, sleeping in snow caves and dodging avalanches? Or hurtling down wild, ungroomed slopes past the “ski area limit” sign, that can’t be reached by any snow-cat or chairlift? Or, perhaps, simply heading out your back door into the woods with lunch and snacks to meander around, up and down, on narrow trails laid out long ago, before the detachable quad and the PistenBully, when skis were long and made out of wood?
In French there’s a specific term for this, ski nordique, which either speaks to our odd sense of geography in Québec, where the “North” starts 50 kilometres from Montréal and the sun rises in the “South” in the winter, or to some recognition that this sport is yet another Scandinavian import like hygge and sisu and Billy bookcases. The chaotic Laurentian landscape of old rocks and young rivers is a far cry from the sparse forests and smoothly rounded fells of Sápmi (Lapland) where skis may have originated; instead, it was the humble but ingenious snowshoe that made winter a season of unequalled mobility for the indigenous Anishinaabeg and the French-Canadian and Métis coureurs de bois, who flourished on this improbable land, only to be dispossessed to the North-West by the deforestation and colonization of the so-called pays d’en haut in the 19th century.
The colonists, seeking to recreate a Catholic, agrarian Eden, away from the spiritual and environmental pollution of Montréal and Boston, found only a desert of rocks and sand underneath the forest, and little evidence of this agricultural past survives outside a few isolated valley bottoms. But the infrastructure they built, in particular the P’tit Train du Nord championed by Antoine Labelle, ushered in a new wave of outsiders in the 20th century, bearing neither snares nor plowshares, but a curiously long, narrow kind of snowshoe, awkward for going up steep hills, but much quicker on level ground and lightning fast for going downhill. Not much good for hunting, but with the right trails, a fun way to get from point A to point B and see all the scenery in between.
And so, let there be trails…
It was once possible to ski all the way up and down what we now know as the Autoroute 15 corridor, from St-Jérôme to St-Jovite, taking the train to and from Montréal or from one town to the next. Not only that, but you had a choice of trails: the Western, the Laurentienne, the Fleur-de-Lys, the Maple Leaf, and the Gillespie intertwined through the hills above the valleys of the North, Diable and Rouge rivers, and the Train du Nord hewed closer to the train tracks. But this “heroic age” eventually succumbed to one more invader from the South: the automobile. With the advent of snow removal on the highways in the 1940s and the construction of the autoroute in the 1960s, the forest was subdivided and sold off for chalets and strip-malls, “No Trespassing” signs tore apart the historic trail system, and in a final indignity, the train tracks were ripped up and snowmobiles took over their right-of-way.
However, thanks to countless volunteers, and forward-looking municipalities like Val-David and Sainte-Adèle, it is still possible to ski in the tracks of the Iron Men du Nord like Gault Kerr Gillespie and Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen. And so, I set out from the Baril Roulant, a cozy hostel and microbrewery in the heart of Val-David, on a balmy January 2nd, with the forecast calling for 10cm of fresh snow and a high of -11C, to ski the GIllespie, the Maple Leaf, and any other trails I felt like, as far as I felt like going. I filled a couple of water bottles, stuffed my pockets with granola bars, and put together a couple of sandwiches with thick slices of sandwich bread from Aux Vieux Four in Sainte-Adèle, Yves brand fake ham, and “P’tit Crémeux” processed cheese spread from the Boivin dairy in La Baie, self-proclaimed producer of the second best cheese curds in Québec. I had in mind a lunch stop at the “nerve center” of the historic trail system, a pleasant crossroads in the woods at the edge of Val-Morin where the Maple Leaf and Munson intersect.
The beauty of the ski nordique network, especially the Maple Leaf, is that one rarely skis alone – even on the coldest days, in the middle of the week, it is inevitable that you will come across some other skiers, and, since nobody is in a particular hurry, they are usually keen to chat about snow conditions, directions, and so forth. Somewhere on the Grignon, I encountered two skiers on a frozen swamp – we chatted a bit and parted ways, happy to follow each others’ tracks rather than having to hunt for balises in the trees along the shoreline. I had planned to ski the Dix Lacs but encountered supercooled water under the snow on Lake La Salle and had to reroute through Far Hills – another skier I met on Lake Lucerne confirmed that she had run into the same problem on another lake.
On the Gillespie, curious structures and threadbare hammocks full of snow appeared in the woods around the trail – I was passing through the abandoned Jardins du Précambrien, an installation and performance site run by the artist René Derouin, noted citizen of Val-David, and frequented in his time by the poet Gaston Miron, who grew up nearby in Sainte-Agathe. His most famous poem, L’homme rapaillé, was on my mind as I climbed through the exquisite stillness of the forest, passing between open maple and yellow birch groves and dense pine and fir woods. But was I on “an abracadabresque journey”? Or rather, was I finally “home, in myself, like a house built during my absence”?
Thé des Bois, Oxford-Cambridge, Johannsen Est, Létourneau: one trail led to another and as the sun started to set, I found myself just outside Sainte-Adèle, on the reincarnation of the P’tit Train du Nord, a well-maintained but terminally boring rail-trail best suited for skate skiing in marginal conditions. I had 45 minutes to make it to the Inter des Laurentides bus stop on route 117, where $6 would get me and my skis back to Val-David for the night. It was a cold, though mercifully short, walk over Autoroute 15 to get there, but luckily there’s a Tim Horton’s next door. Their food might be terrible, but they’re always open and they always have fresh coffee and, more importantly, hot chocolate.
After getting off the bus, I found myself walking with my skis into the village, frustrated by my slow progress, and realized that the sidewalks were covered in fresh snow… so why not? I clipped in and glided all the way along rue de L’Église and chemin de la Rivière, up to the door of the Baril Roulant, where I plunked myself at the bar for a pint of Hopus Dei and a veggie burger and poutine (with sprouts on it). In my poor approximation of the words of Miron, “I did not return just to come back / I have arrived at a new beginning”.
Read more about David on his blog and follow his skiing and cycling adventures around Quebec and beyond.