Quebec's trembling mountain
It's cold. Really cold. Although warm inside layers of cashmere and impossibly thick long johns, it still numbs the tips of my gloved fingers as I grip the curved back of the sled. With a searing, flesh-numbing wind in my face, I'm balancing on one wooden runner with more than a little trepidation. Next to me is Matthew, a hale and hearty musher. He grins. All is well with the two teams of eight dogs, which are towing my wife and two teenage daughters at speed and with ease across a frozen lake near the ski resort of Mont Tremblant.
If you want to do more than ski, Mont Tremblant in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains is where you should head for, perhaps, the coldest family holiday you will ever have. Just dress accordingly and be aware the average February temperature here is -18 degrees Celsius, which, amazingly, doesn't kill teenage girls or their softy parents. For 12 consecutive years it has been voted the best ski-in-ski-out resort in north-eastern America. It is easy to see why: with an average snowfall of 380cm, the long season stretches from November to April and the skiing on 94 runs suits all standards. You can also skate on the lake, climb a frozen waterfall in crampons or even go snow-tubing, that is to say gliding down a floodlit slope on an inner-tube. But it is the more rustic simpler pursuits that remind that this was once true backwoodsman's country.
No one was living here permanently until the early 17th century when a few remnants of the Algonkin Indian tribe settled on the lake shores, where they fished and hunted black bear, moose, deer, wolf, fox and beaver. In the 1870s, French colonists came to farm and cut lumber while fur traders, gold prospectors and missionaries endured the extreme winters, getting around on snowshoes or with dog teams.
But while strapping on a pair of snowshoes and trudging through the fir and spruce forests is now a popular away-from-the-pistes activity, it's not half as much fun as careering about in the forest on a dog sled. In the Great North, dog sleds were once the only winter transport so if you have a sense of history, you'll be reaching for your beaver-pelt hat and thinking you're Davy Crockett. When we find Matthew's camp in a whiteout, we only just make out the shape of his snow-embalmed yurt with smoke rising from a central stove pipe jutting from the roof. Forty-five dogs are barking their heads off in welcome. Each is chained up outside in the snow in noisy teams that find small places to hide from the elements nature has magnificently equipped them to withstand. They actually love people, especially children, but no matter how cold it gets they are never allowed inside the yurt because they would overheat.
Urged to take refuge in his seasonal home, we are instantly consumed by the sweating fug from a huge wood-burning stove so take off hats and coats straight away. Around the circular walls we hunker down on straw bales as welcome mugs of hot chocolate are handed round. Matthew told us about his dogs. Silver to dark grey in colouring, they could be mini-wolves. They are Nordic-Husky crosses: cheerful, powerful and incredibly hardy, they are bred for their stamina and can run all day long so are well able to cope with the three two-hour trips they must endure with at the busiest times.
They spend the summer further east on Magdalene Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, where, after a break, they begin fitness training again along the coast behind a quad bike. When they arrive in the snow in December they are ready for the season that begins in the Christmas holidays. A dog can join a team at six months old but it will not be pushed hard until it is 18 months. "Pulling has to be fun for them if you're to keep them sweet and work them hard. You want them to come back thinking 'wow - that was terrific', so they don't lose their enthusiasm," he says.
Lizard and Filu are his favourites and the front pair. "Filu means 'little wolf'. He has a special scream I always recognise and he's my best lead dog," he says. Behind them are two more pairs then Kumak and Storm nearest to the sled. Falling snow deadens the air. When we get going along almost indiscernible forest trails the silence is broken by the swish of the sled and panting and barking of the dogs. In the more challenging sections, snow has drifted, covering the trail and as you often give trees a passing thump, those in the passenger seats must keep their elbows tucked in.
Although you can just sit tight, wrapped snugly in a scarlet blanket, you get the chance to try driving the sled. In truth, there is not that much to it. You use voice commands to go forward and to go left and right but these dogs, you need to remember, only speak French. If you want to slow down, which you need to do constantly in tricky terrain, you rely on a highly-effective foot brake, a cleaver-sized piece of steel between the runners, which you press or stamp on. Just like a car, when you stop you must remember to apply the handbrake. In this case it is a dangerous-looking anchor on a piece of rope that you press into the snow with the heel of your boot. What happens if you forget to apply it? Matthew laughs: "You'll be running all the way home."
It was an Indian legend that gave Mont Tremblant - the Trembling Mountain - its name. The Algonkin called it Manitou-Ewitchi-Saga, after the Indian god of the wilderness who, when angry, would send rocks crashing down the mountainside. In 1938 the area was still an empty wilderness only visited by gritty cross-country skiers when Joe Ryan, a gold prospector from Philadelphia, landed in a small plane on the frozen Lake Tremblant at the foot of the mountain. He was mesmerised. When he came back the next time, he felled trees, carved out the runs on the north and south sides and cleared an area at the foot of the peak. Here he created a ski village in the style of the farmhouses of the first French settlers that came from Normandy and Brittany. He built white-painted clapboard houses with overhanging eaves and brightly painted gables, several of which are still in use today.
The village has grown, but not much, and is all pedestrianised so you scarcely need your car once you have checked in. All the runs on the south side converge on the steep and narrow snow-covered streets so, if you stay in one of high-end hotels, you can ski-in and ski-out and a choice of restaurants that includes French, Mexican, Swiss and Japanese are no more than a five- minutes' walk. My wife is a skier but the rest of us were complete novices so we booked one-to-one private ski tuition with an instructor, Bill. He works wonders in just two hours. So giddily confident are we that he suggests we take the lift next morning and come down the 5km-long Nansen trail, which is one of the best runs for beginners.
But first we need to eat because you need extra-central heating in such environs. The restaurants that become our joint-favourites are French and five minutes walk from the Westin: at L'Avalance on two small wooden floors of a traditional farmhouse, the oysters are good while at the Les Artistes, the pink pan-seared slithers of caribou are exquisite. Next morning we set the alarm and join eager skiers intent on making first tracks. The gondola makes it to the 1,150m summit at 8am where we stumble into in a startlingly beautiful wonderland of rime ice with conifers laden with heavy snow. Putting on our skis, I pull out a scrunched-up piste map and look for the start of the trail. As we do so, gently falling snow begins to muffle the voices of the girls who are itching to head down the upper slopes and through the fluffy powder.
I make them wait for just a moment. The landscape is majestically empty: not rugged and craggy but rounded and softened by time, all covered in snow-shrouded forest. "C'mon dad, forget the view - let's ski," yells my youngest. Shaking their heads, she and her sister are grinning from ear to ear. Jonny Beardsall travelled with Tremblant (www.tremblant.ca) and Crystal Ski (www.crystalski.co.uk). A two-bedroom condo, sleeping four, at Le Westin Resort & Spa costs from US$354 (Dh1,302) per night
Published: January 2, 2010 04:00 AM