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Dashing through the snow...

TIME : 2016/2/23 12:13:33

Dashing through the snow...

On a long thin pair of skis is THE way to see Québec, discovers Sarah Baxter

Question: if you fall over in the woods and there’s no one around to see you, do you still feel like an idiot?

Well, yes. Especially when you’re travelling at little more than a slow trot on flat ground along pre-scored,
fool-proof tracks in the snow. Luckily the trees, a forest of straight-backed firs poking out from the white stuff like candles on a birthday cake, were my only witnesses. They tittered in the breeze but otherwise paid me no regard as I hauled myself up from the powder.

This was my first dalliance with cross-country skiing, and I’d certainly picked the right spot. Québec’s Laurentian Mountains are to the sport what Monaco is to the Grand Prix – if you’re going to fall over in the snow, this is the best place to do it. I had been enjoying the silence and solitude of the wilderness – the speedy skiers had bolted ahead, the slower ones were somewhere behind – and, as always happens when I’m anywhere with trees and snow, I felt a bit of Narnia magic in the air. Thus enthused and knowing I was alone, I thought I’d step up the pace. As tutor Yves had said in our first lesson, “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski”. Therefore, if you can run, shouldn’t you be able to cross-country ski a bit faster?

One of the beauties of this sport (and there are several) is that at a beginner’s level you’d have to try really hard to hurt yourself. As I quickened my sliding – effectively jogging on the snow – I immediately lost my balance and plumped undramatically onto the ground. With your feet only inches apart and consigned to the tracks, one wobble and you’re down, but with nothing hurt save your snow-cred.

I would have blushed if it wasn’t so cold – the temperature was hovering around -20°C and a light fall of snow had started to fill the air. But the only way to keep warm is to keep moving, so I set off again – this time at a more manageable, less ambitious, rate. I was skiing the ‘classical’ way so only the toe-ends of my boots were attached to the long skinny skis; my heel was free to move independently. As you stomp down and push off with one leg, you thrust forward with the pole in the opposite hand. When performed correctly, it’s a series of graceful lunges; comically exaggerated steps that skim you smoothly through the tracks with the sound of a guillotine going through paper.

Despite the chill I was starting to sweat more with every forward surge, and my warm breath flew up under my sunglasses, steaming the lenses and blurring my vision. The robust smell of wood smoke mingled with the pristine air and the surrounding firs moaned in resistance to the bullying wind.

I felt like a pioneer – aside from the ready-made tracks in front of me, the only signs of life were a hardy black-headed chickadee darting amid the branches, and the footprints of a deer leading off into the trees. But I was way too late for blazing trails here. The legendary ‘Jackrabbit’ Johannsen, a Nordic immigrant with piercing blue eyes, opened up this part of Canada way back in the early 20th century, bringing cross-country skiing to North America. As I puffed away, I had to admire the man. As well as trailblazing all over Québec and training the Canadian Olympic team, Jackrabbit skied competitively until he was 84, and (allegedly) skated around his nursing home well into his 100s. He reached the grand old age of 111 before hanging up his skis for the last time.

I couldn’t see my own ski career lasting that long, but it was a wonderful way to get out into the countryside. Away from the downhill masses and lift queues, it’s just you, the trees and the submissive creak of the snow underfoot. And when the sky turns brilliant blue, and flashes of sunlight streak through the boughs, and the path in front of you glitters like Christmas – well, then it feels like you and nature are getting on pretty well.

It’s hard work though. I was staying in Tremblant, the small crop of Disney-cute buildings that sit at the bottom of the eponymous mountain, and walking even 500m to a bar was a struggle that evening. In Le Petit Caribou I was glad that the all-male clientele was fixated on the ice hockey channel and soft-rock jukebox as I limped across the room and my stiffening thighs struggled to cope with a bar stool. Hobbling around on limbs that felt older than Jackrabbit’s, I decided something needed to be done.

Perched on a snowy slope just outside Tremblant, Le Scandinave was to be my first spa experience, following the ‘hot, cold, hot’ regimen to soothe my aches and pains. First stop was the steam room, where pinewood and essential oils infused the soggy air and clogged my nostrils, while my face reddened and pores leaked in the heat. After six minutes I’d had enough and went to find the cold.

The deer across the frozen river looked on smugly, snug inside its warm brown pelt, while I quivered inside my own inadequate skin. I looked from the unsympathetic creature to the gaping hole in the ice before me. Fearsome shards reared up around its edges like tridents while my wet fingers started to cleave to the frosty handrail. But it had to be done – I took the plunge.

Obviously unhappy about the disturbance, the barely-above-freezing water went on the attack, bayoneting my body and trying to disable my lungs – with some considerable success. After no more than a second I erupted out of the river like a poor man’s Bond girl. This was supposed to be good for you?

Thankfully the third instalment – a lengthy dip in an outdoor hot tub – was much, much better. Sitting happily in the water’s warm embrace, I looked out over the gleaming carapace of the frozen river twisting off into the distance and saw the deer, looking decidedly less smug, scamper away through the chilly undergrowth – simmering nicely, I had the last laugh.

Slightly more capable of movement, I left the hilly environs of the Laurentians, bound for Québec City. Looking out of the car window, you couldn’t see the countryside, which hid under metres of snow; instead we passed huge yellow trucks with terrifying attachments that scoured the roads for drifts to attack. The trains also struggled to cope with the perilous conditions but, eventually, we pulled into the state capital… to be confronted by an enormous, grinning and slightly terrifying snowman.

It’s like clowns. They’re supposed to be funny but, really, everyone’s scared of them. The rational side of me knew that this big white blob was Bonhomme, the mascot of Québec’s Winter Carnival, but there was something sinister in his permanent smirk – and he bore more than a passing resemblance to the malevolent Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. A small child ran away, screaming. Before I could follow suit, Bonhomme had opened his fat arms and enveloped me in a ‘friendly’ hug.

This was my welcome to Québec City – one of the oldest cities in North America – ‘discovered’ when Jacques Cartier landed here in 1535; now, in 2004, the carnival’s 50th anniversary had arrived and everyone had gone a bit bonkers. My taxi driver was bellowing along to such anthems as ‘C’est la Carnivale’ and ‘Salut Bonhomme’, while outside the streets were jostling with horn-blowing revellers toting arrow-weave sashes and snowman-handled canes. Indeed, the festival atmosphere rang out all around: dog-sleds raced past the redoubtable Château Frontenac; snow sculptures lined the Place Desjardins; and even among the 400-year-old houses and mural-painted walls of the Lower Town, ice carvings of Bonhomme lined the narrow streets.

I bypassed this madness by heading to the Plaines of Abraham where, in 1759, General James Wolfe defeated French General Montcalm and claimed the city for the British. Now, cannon lie prone under a glaze of snow and instead of cavalry and foot soldiers, the park is peopled by husky sledges, horse-drawn calèches and cross-country skiers.

That I could practise my new-found skills in the middle of the city seemed unbelievable. Sandwiched between the town centre and the mighty St Lawrence River, this historic park is now an urban playground, laced with 11km of cross-country skiing paths. All I had to do was hire some equipment, pick up a map and take to a track. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple – after five minutes of happy gliding I realised, thanks to some brusquely shouted guidance from a French-speaking local, that I was going the wrong way round the one-way system. And, having turned myself around, I was forced to ascend one of the park’s gentle hills.

Going up is hard work – choose between an ungainly-looking herring-bone technique or a small-stepped sprint, which you pray has the momentum to get you up the slope before your skis realise that they’re fighting gravity. I tried the latter, clawing up the incline as if doing a frenzied treadmill workout – and plunged my poles into the snow at the summit just as I felt the laws of physics dragging me back down.

From the higher ground I looked over to the city rooftops and curving river with its cargo of boats and crumbled ice. Traffic noises murmured softly in the background as I watched the sunshine send sparkles across the virgin snow. The temperature was still Arctic – I’d removed my gloves only briefly to take a photograph and already the Québécois cold was viciously gnawing at my exposed fingers and turning my nose Rudolph-red, to say nothing of the constant complaints from my weary legs.

But, despite all this, I felt exhilarated – struck with that kind of childish euphoria that sweeps over you when everything around is fresh and beautiful, and your body is tired from wholesome exertion. I wasn’t surprised Jackrabbit lived so long out here and, as I felt the ridiculous, irrepressible grin start to form beneath my scarf, I realised why Bonhomme has a lot to smile about.

When to go: The winter months can see temperatures drop to -20ºC – or lower. However, the region is geared up for  it, so trains still run and locals make the most of the snow, taking to skis, snowshoes, sledges and skidoos. In the warmer months, cross-country ski tracks make great hiking trails. The Québec City Winter Carnival is in late January/early February each year.