It’s a tale of two worlds. The age-old story of progress versus tradition, with the inevitable end— convenience wins out. The old couldn’t keep up, not because it couldn’t compete, but rather because of forces outside its control— technology, economics, geography, climate, political clout or perhaps a little of all of these.
by MARTY MCLELLAN
Beyond the politicians, business people and weather, we skiers played our part. We chanted the “bigger is better” mantra, marvelling at faster lifts, greater access, amenity-laden slopeside condos and busier, bustling ski runs. We traded the familiar for the flashy, the local for the transnational. In short, we abandoned the family-run ski hill for the big-business four-season resort. It seemed normal, progressive. A no-brainer.
No surprise we end up with fewer choices, and even fewer ski experiences. To make up for the loss of ski areas we rejuvenated the sport with blades, twintips and park skiing. And skiing was getting better we were assured. Wherever we turned, the numbers and graphs were jumping. And sure enough, the slope-scene matched the prognostics— every weekend they were packed with record skier-visits and, of course, greater industry profits. Soon sport engineers made quicker carving skis so we could avoid the new traffic. Yes, developers had succeeded in moving the cities north. Their genius most recently brought urban skateboard parks under the hail of snowmaking machines.
Yet, amid the fanfare a red flag went up, at least for me. Somewhere between mortgaging my home to pay for a skiing addiction and a sickening crash with a suicidal snowboarder, I asked myself that lingering question: What happened to the ski experience of yore? Predictably, the technocrats rattled off in millennial ski-speak—poor skier density and low lift capacity. Tsk tsk, they scolded me. If I was irreverent enough to ask, I could go ahead and buy isolation on helicopters. But I was barely elbowing my way through the $75-a-day lift lines.
All along the way, the notion stuck in my head: In this global world of skiing, where does the local fit? Were there still ski areas where people knew my name, where I could get a home-cooked meal, and where I could find the quintessential peace-and-quiet experience of the outdoors combined with the joy of carving turns far from the
With a little research, I found out that many of these places really haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, it was I who left. Turns out the counter corporate ski culture revolution has been going on for decades—just don’t let the power suits know that it’s catching on. At the core of it are long-time skiers who have been working with axe, saw and lobby to bring back the turns of yesteryear all along forgotten Route 117 in Montreal’s Laurentian backcountry.
My introduction begins the minute I veer northeast off the Laurentian Autoroute at the Shawbridge interchange. I squeeze onto the antiquated bridge that leads across the Simon River and onto the raunchier Hwy 117. I’ve already passed Foster’s legendary Big Hill 50 and the lesson can’t be clearer. Once the most quintessential of Québecois scenes and home to the first-ever mechanical ski lift in North America, Big Hill 50’s celebrated historic past is dwarfed by gaudy, vinyl-sided hillside condos and defaced by the largest McDonald’s in the world outside of Moscow.
Despite the glaring injustice, something else makes me chuckle. And that’s the image of skiers decades ago, fresh from the train, grinning maniacally, clenching hell-bent onto that rope tow with tar-covered mitts. The tow, powered by an ancient Dodge on blocks, launched skiers up that hill in delirious wintertime pleasure. It’s the same spirit that fuels the people I’m about to meet.
Rejoining the 117, the north’s former bloodline, brings back the depression. Once full of bustling little cabins and lodges, the highway is now lined with abandoned restaurants and empty lots. The ancient rails of the former P’tit Train du Nord poke through the earth like scars. The place is an economic backwater. To bring some needed jobs to the area, the government fitfully introduced the only lasting enterprise in the modern economy—a juvenile detention centre. I drive by Shawbridge’s infamous home for troubled young men. Scenes of its history have been so harrowing that to erase their association to it, the villagers changed the name of their town to Prévost.
This is just one of many changes that the Laurentians have seen since postwar promoters heralded the area “a little Switzerland” to entice migrating settlers to clear the land and open a dairy industry. The settlers came, chopped down the forests and put up their farms. But there was little prosperity in the soil for the farmer. The next wave of migrants was foresters. But once they knocked down the rest of the trees, there was nothing worth sticking around for. However, despite the hardships, the word was out. The Laurentians, though fallow for settlers, was ripe for tourists and entrepreneurs. And they came seeking adventure.
Adventure came in the form of the great outdoors. And a group of legendary débrouillards, or creators, were being born in the hills. Moise Paquette invented the ultimate winter ride—a heart-stopping skijore behind a wingless warplane on skis throttling thrill-seekers at up to an icy 100 kph over frozen Lac des Sables. Perhaps more enduringly, though, it was the mechanized ski tow that really put the Laurentians on the map. Once Alex Foster got his Dodge winterized and the towline tightly around its rear wheel, the ski industry took off not only here, but in the rest of North America. Locally, virtually every existing hill along the stretch of the P’tit Train’s tracks ran a tow up its summit. Demand for access to the region became so great that in 1959 Premier Duplesis kicked in, creating Quebec’s first Autoroute— Hwy 117.
These were the decades of the family-run ski area. A cottage industry based on the idea that the owners managed everything—the lifts, the mechanics, the home-cooked meals and the beds for those who were going to stay the weekend and those who got injured or fell sick. The concept of ski club was nurtured and the Penguins, the McGill Red Birds and the Laurentian Club began building their legacies. In the golden age, going “up north” was like coming home.
Perhaps there was no other person that so embodied this vision so much as Jackrabbit Johannsen, the legendary Norwegian who helped tie the dreams of those Laurentian locals with skiers in the city. Working night and day, he blazed a labyrinth of trails and people-based networks that fanned out from the P’tit Train to the chalets and ski areas of the Laurentians.
But with the birth of the car craze, money—big money—got in the way. Franchises burst on the scene and development rapidly pushed north. By the mid-1970s, the new Laurentian mega autoroute, Hwy 15, was paved and the Little Train, the diminutive Autoroute 117 and the ski areas they serviced were abandoned. In one particularly ill-fated decision, Hwy 15 swerved right through a wild area known as Treasure Valley, known for its bucolic beauty. Blindsided, the tourists veered northwest with the times. Here, on the speedier autoroute, fortunes were made. Hwy 15 became the home of empires, while the 117 dwindled into disrepair. The tourists were swept up in the excitement of the corporate bonanza, and they never looked back.
As I edge into the quaint village of Val David, slowing for a couple of cyclists crossing the bike path that has taken over the former rails of the P’tit Train, I have to ponder the new reality. It’s been more than 130 years since the rails brought their first load of passengers. Now, it is cyclists, joggers and families. The word on the street is come winter the town will come alive with a new type of skier, not surprisingly it is the oldest kind there is: the telemarker.
Martin Silverstone looks at me quizzically through a pair of duct-taped glasses perched implausibly on a multiple-broken nose. When not gesticulating, his gnarly working-man hands battle with gravity, pushing those battered lenses back again and again onto his schnozzle. One of the key figures to spearhead this back-to-the-land skier movement for the past decade or so, the charismatic, saltand- pepper-haired Montreal writer and editor knows the region’s geography and people like few other. He has spent his entire life running wild through the local mountainsides.
Meeting me at the foot of Mont Césaire, he invites me for fresh out-of-the-backpack coffee and St. Viateur bagels. We cross Jackrabbit’s legendary Gillespie Trail and walk together toward the rusted, long-abandoned, yellow T-bar that remains half-hidden by the abundant orange hues of the mountain’s fall foliage. “Used to be 35 trails up here.” Marty smiles, fingering his fragile glasses back onto his muzzle again. Then he slurps his coffee down and winks. “Now there are dozens more.”
The mystery is solved as we walk upward. Through Marty’s animated caffeine-induced discussion, we come across a small army of volunteers and friends working on their secret spots on the hillside, handsaws and clippers in hand. Each one of them is managing his own personal trail. “It’s heresy to let anyone know about this,” he states. “Your article will have them lynching me from one of the ancient T-bar towers.”
Uh-oh, I didn’t realize I had to protect my sources, but it is true that a lot of backcountry aficionados are particular about protecting their stashes. Still, Marty and I go way back— old friends who have jumped off a cliff or two together (mostly unintentionally) and, besides, I have promised only to follow the rules. For starters, the trail clearers know not to cut any live trees. Rather, they only move deadfall and dangerous underbrush out of the way to protect the skiers. While the lines go from beginner to suicide, the goal for each of the volunteers is the same—a real family skiing experience that pushes their personal limits and increases their and others’ access to the great wild north. As for the price of skiing, it’s not costing anyone a cent. To get in on it, all you need is a little pre-season sweat and grime along with a frosty wintertime skin up.
As we reach the peak, I focus back on tireless Marty, who hasn’t stopped talking since we met. “It only gets better,” he says overlooking the golden panorama. “Every year more trees grow back, and that just makes the lines tighter, more exciting.” And then he gets serious. Looking south over the valley, he says this year may be the most interesting of recent history. After years of speculation by developers who had seen the area as prime for real estate, locals successfully lobbied the neighbouring municipalities to expropriate the area this past April into the giant, 500-hectare Parc régional Dufresne, which is being billed as one of the premier places in Quebec for the backcountry experience.
But the threat is far from over. Just south, in the town of Prévost, developers are pushing to take over the hillsides there, too. The stakes are high, with hundreds of hectares of land and innumerable trails in the balance. No doubt Marty and his army of workers will find their way out there, too.
When asked why he dedicates so much effort to keep these old ski areas open to the public, he shrugs in his nonchalant way. “It’s all about seeing the forest for the trees.” Then he looks at me with his eyes shining and says, “And skiing some of the best fall lines of eastern Canada.”
Here are some of the names of the ski areas to have closed their doors across Canada. Help Ski Canada remember them and others by sending in your stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
British Columbia 108 Ranch Resort, 100 Mile House * Arrowsmith Mt. Recreation, Port Alberni * Azu Ski Village, Mackenzie (now Powder King Mountain Resort) * Diamond Head Chalets, Squamish * Forbidden Plateau, Courtenay * Fort St. James Ski Club Fort St. John * Ski Club Golden Ski Hill (became Whitetooth and now Kicking Horse) * Grandview Ski Acres, Kamloops * Kitsumkalum Ski Area, Terrace (lifts moved to Shames Mountain) * Kokanee Alpine Skiing, Winlaw * Lardeau Valley Ski Club, Meadow Creek * Last Mountain Ski Resort, Westbank (now Crystal Mountain) * Lumby & District Ski Association, Lytton * Ski Club Mica Creek * Ski Club Morning Mountain Ski Area, Nelson * Mount Hayes Recreation Area, Prince Rupert * Radium Recreation Rainbow Ski Village, Whistler * Sicamous Ski Club Silver Tip Development, Chilliwack * Ski Loos, McBride * Sky Glider Recreation, Vancouver * Snow Birds Lift Society, Nanaimo * Sunshine Valley Development, Vancouver * Tillicum Valley, Vernon * Timberland Ski Club, Williams Lake *Tod Mountain, Kamloops (now Sun Peaks Resort) *Valhalla Mountain Touring, New Denver *White Recreation, Vancouver * Yelohed Recreation Area, Prince George
Alberta Cypress Skiers Association, Medicine Hat (now Hidden Valley) * Darwell Ski Hill, Penhold * Fortress Mountain Resort, Calgary (Kananaskis) * Lake Eden Resort, Edmonton * Pigeon Mountain, Canmore
Saskatchewan Minatinas Ski Resort, Domrey
Manitoba Birch Ski Area, Winnipeg * Snow Valley, Roseisle
Ontario Big Thunder, Thunder Bay (first ski jump in Canada) * Britannia, Lake of Bays * Candy Mountain, Thunder Bay * Carlington Ski Hill, Ottawa * Cedar Grove, Huntsville * Chedoke, Hamilton * Curlew, Huntsville * Dacre Heights, Renfrew * Dome, Ottawa * Don Valley Ski Club, Toronto * High Park, Toronto (where the Toronto Ski Club started) * Honey Pot, Toronto * King Valley, King City * King’s Forest, Hamilton * Limber Lost, Huntsville * Mt. Antoine, Mattawa * Mt. McKay, Thunder Bay * Muskoka Sands, Gravenhurst * Old Smokey, Beaver Valley * Omemee Ski Club, Bethany * Pinnacle, Alton * Rainbow Ridge, Bracebridge * Rockcliffe, Ottawa Ski and Snowboard Ranch, * Bethany (originally called Bethany Ski Club and then Kawartha Peaks) * Summit, Toronto * Sunridge, Huntsville * Tally-ho Winter Park, Huntsville * Talisman Mountain Resort, Kimberley * Valley Schuss, Hockley Valley
Quebec Beaver Lake Ski Tow, Montréal * Big Hill 50, Laurentians Centre de Ski Lac Carling, * Pine Hill Centre de ski, St-Georges * Chaudière-Appalaches Centre de ski, Val d’Or * Abitibi-Témiscamingue Hill 68, Laurentians (now part of St. Sauveur) * Hill 69, Laurentians (now part of St. Sauveur) * Hill 70, Laurentians (now part of St. Sauveur) * Hill 71, Laurentians (now part of St. Sauveur) * Hill 72, Laurentians (now part of St. Sauveur) * Mont Alouette, Laurentians * Mont Castor, Laurentians * Mont Césaire , Laurentians * Mont Christie, Laurentians * Mont Pontbriand, Rawdon * Mont Sainte-Agathe * Mont Sauvage, Laurentians * Mont Snow, Rawdon * St. Jerome, Laurentians * Station touristique La Crapaudière, Chaudière-Appalaches * Sun Valley, Laurentians * Université de Montréal Ski Tow, Montréal * Vallée Taconique, Gaspésie * Gray Rocks, Mont-Tremblant
Nova Scotia Cape Smokey (now Keltic Lodge)Tags: Big Hill 50, closed hills, closed runs, family-run hills, four star resorts, Jackrabbit Johannsen, Laurentian backcountry, Laurentians, locals, loss of ski areas, Montreal, P’tit Train du Nord, Q.C., QC, Québec, Val David