East to the Townships
“Well,” I said to my four-year-old son, Cormac, “you have to.”
“Then I’m going to stay in the car.”
We drove from Toronto to Quebec’s Eastern Townships: my wife, Grazyna; my 10-year-old daughter, Justine; and my son, Cormac. Our ?rst family ski vacation had been in the Townships, at Owl’s Head, when my daughter was ?ve. She raced down the hill like Steve Podborski in a bright-red helmet singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” during the Christmas break. At the time I had a brand-new pair of more or less high-end K2s. On the ?rst day, I saw a run with a rope across the top with a sign marked “Closed.” It looked snow-?lled and steep and fun. I went under the rope and tore the base off my skis on a rock on the fourth turn.
And now we were back in the Townships with a four-year-old and a 10-year-old.
On the two occasions I’d taken Cormac skiing, he was worried about bears, wolves, falling, avalanches and getting lost. All this at an Ontario resort with a 100-metre vertical. I’d put him between my legs and guided him down the hill in a gentle, swerving, chiropractically gruelling snowplow, while he kept up a running commentary on the dangers of winter and outdoor sports. When I took him on the rope tow, he pointed to the steel cable and asked me if it was electri?ed.
So we came to the Townships with a certain amount of trepidation.
Owl’s Head has retained its family-resort feel, an unpretentious, accessible place with some of the most spectacular views in the East. From the top, you can see Jay Peak in Vermont. I skied Kamikazee, which had been, I think, the culprit that had taken my base. Now it was under a comfortable layer of powder. I tried Lakeview, Colorado and Korman’s Dive, named for the resort’s owners. There is an ease and grace at Owl’s Head that reminds me of skiing 30 years ago.
The next day, we tried Orford, a half-hour drive away. There’s a concerted attempt at making skiing fun for children and novices. The local management presented me with a surprising statistic: only 15 per cent of the people who try skiing ever go a second time. In an effort to increase that number, there’s a beginner hill that has a thousand feet of Magic Carpet, the least intimidating way of getting up a mountain. There’s a gentle incline and even a small mogul ? eld on which to learn. There’s also a unique (for North America anyway) hybrid lift of two six-seat chairs followed by a gondola on the same cable. On windy or cold days, the more fragile can wait for the covered gondola. On sunny days and in spring, you can take the chair.
One of the perennial truths about skiing in Quebec during March break is that you run into half of Toronto, also making their escape. We saw our paediatrician in the Sutton IGA, we ran into former colleagues of my wife’s on the hill, as well as a current colleague of mine and various neighbours. We had a large condo and had people over for drinks after skiing. It meant going into Sutton to one of my favourite places, La Rumeur Affame, which has the pleasant wood floors and high ceiling of a 19th-century dry goods store and a dazzling, eclectic array of pâtés and local cheeses, as well as great croissants, bread and pies. I picked up some pheasant and pistachio pâté, and a selection of cheeses, among them a local goat cheese with a dusting of ash, and a pile of red wine.
Our dinner gang had reached a critical mass that included a dozen kids and several adults, an awkward size for most restaurants. We’d noticed a hotel sign on the road to Sutton that advertised a Thursday-night pig roast. Inside, there were long banquet tables, perfect for corralling the kids at one end to torture one another, while the adults huddled at the other end. I could hear my son insisting with some authority that there were, in fact, polar bears in the area. There was, as advertised, a massive — head included —slightly medieval-looking pig. It was delicious.
The next morning we skied at Sutton, and both kids took lessons. Cormac was in a class taught by a hip teenager, Pierre-Olivier. This was a big plus. We left the two of them, Cormac’s inquiries about wolves and ?ash ?oods hovering in the air.
My daughter, Justine, and I took the afternoon off and went to d’Arbes en Arbes, an obstacle course set in the trees just down the mountain from the Sutton ski hill. It’s like those Marine training courses, only without the psychotic drill sergeants, and with an environmentally progressive agenda. No nails were put into the trees and no heavy equipment was brought into the forest to assemble the impressively complex course. The course includes zip lines (where one hangs on to a pulley and goes zipping along a taut steel cable), tightropes, nets and other challenges, all set between ?ve and 20 metres off the ground. But it’s less intimidating than you’d think. Justine insisted on being ?rst, after it was determined that she (barely) reached the minimum height requirement to go on the course. You have two carabiners and so are always anchored to something. Still, it’s a thrill. Justine loved it and wanted to come back during the summer when there’s the impression of going through a green tunnel formed by the leaves.
The next day we were back at Sutton and Justine’s class spent the morning getting ready for a race. It was a very of?cial-looking course, with electronic timing and an elevated starting chute. While we were waiting for her class to assemble, Cormac streaked unannounced through the course, shouldering the gates, zipping along like a three-foot version of La Bomba. At the bottom, he announced that he was a very good racer, had always been a very good racer. This was news. Under the guidance of Pierre-Olivier, he had gone from a timid, reluctant skier to a World Cup threat in the space of two days.
It was snowing by the time Justine’s race began. She was in the middle of the largish group and by the time she got to the starting gate, the course had become a bit icy. She came charging out of the chute, moving beautifully through the gates. In the end, she ?nished in 2nd place, 10/1,000s of a second behind the winner, a split second that would haunt us for the rest of the trip.
It snowed that night and into the next day. The welcome powder piled up and I went to the top with Cormac. He didn’t want to stop for lunch. It was up and down for hours. Late afternoon, he charged down and came to a dramatic stop by the ski racks in front of the lodge. It was 3:15 and the wind was picking up. It was snowing and I was cold.
“Let’s go in for hot chocolate,” I said.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m going in.”
“I can go up by myself.” He skied down to the lift. I followed him. We made four more runs until, mercifully, the lift attendant told us gently that they were closing.
“It’s going to open again in the morning,” I told Cormac.
“I’ll wait,” he said.Tags: Eastern Townships, family ski vacation, kids skiing, Orford, Owl's Head, Québec, Sutton