Mountain Chronicle It's Not The Upper U.S.

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life

Is Canada really a foreign country? Traveling up north to ski is so seamless it's like being in another American state-but with U.S. cultural reality just slightly askew.

For example, they spell "center," "centre." And the road signs between Calgary and the ski resort at Lake Louise say you can drive 100. "Wow, I can drive 100!" But, of course, that's kilometers (62 mph). And you look down, and the speedometer on your rented Ford Taurus is calibrated in "klicks," too.

Everything is ever so subtly off, like a very realistic dream that is, nonetheless, a dream. It's the way English-speaking Canadians-and I am talking here about Canada outside Quebec, which, despite what the rest of the country might like to believe, really is a foreign land-add "eh" to the ends of their sentences. As in: "What a hoser, eh?" referring to the guy who just snaked your powder line in Louise's Paradise Bowl.

"Eh" is both a question and an affirmation-an attempt to connect further with the listener, born, perhaps, of Canadians' naturally un-assuming personalities. This same skier who had his line snaked would never in a million years shout his displeasure at the offending party. In fact, I'm quite certain it was a Canadian who first told me the joke: "You know how to spell Canada, don't you? C-A, N-A, D-A, eh?"

Another difference is the way Canadians pronounce the words "out" and "about." The sound is softer than the oft-parodied "oot" and "aboot." I find the shading actually closer to "oat" and "aboat." Listen to Peter Jennings sometime on ABC World News Tonight. Or to Neil Young or William Shatner or Jim Carrey or Michael J. Fox or Jason Priestley or Pamela Anderson or Alanis Morissette or the Cowboy Junkies-Canadians all.

Their currency is, like ours, in dollars. Only they pronounce the word "dole-ers," as if theirs were named for a certain failed U.S. presidential candidate. Sometimes, when the topic is exchange-rate disparity (currently about $1 U.S.=$1.30 CDN), you'll hear a flash of the self-deprecating Canadian humor. "You get a lot more, eh, with your American dole-ers than we do with our Canadian peso."

The Queen still plays a role here. Canada is, for better or worse, a member of the British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth's likeness, along with that of the caribou, graces the coins of the realm, which, by the way, jingle a little differently in the pocket; they have a tinkling, bell-like quality. And when I spent a day flying with Purcell Heliskiing out of Golden, B.C., I signed a waiver stating that should I encounter unpleasantness of any sort, I promised not to hold Her Majesty responsible.

Most of the time, though, you'd never know you'd left the bosom of the USA. On a northern sojourn last winter I stayed at two divinely comfy places, Deer Lodge and Emerald Lake Lodge, where I dined as well as anyone in Aspen, hot-tubbed like the pros at Squaw Valley and fell into bed powder-tired to the accompaniment of a few minutes of American television. Or was it? Jeopardy with Alex Trebek? Yep, he's Canadian, too.

But the smokescreen of sameness blew away one night when my hosts offered "forbidden" cigars in the lounge. Cubans. Legally imported and smoked with a shyly assertive "Take that!" to the foreign-policy dictums of the dominant political power to the south.

Canadians crave distinction from and parity with their only neighbors. For example, whenever the Space Shuttle is mentioned on the news, it is always, "The American Space Shuttle with the Canadian-built robot arm blasted off today." Hockey used to be a clear point of pride. But now, of course, there are former Canadian teams playing in Colorado and (horrors!) Phoenix. Voices quiver when discussing the "betrayal" of Wayne Gretzky.

There is an endearing, quite un-American innocence playing out on the northern side of the border. A fellow I'd just met held the door for me at a universal-yellow Subway franchise and asked, as we went in for sandwiches, "Do you have Suubway in the States?"

Charlie Locke, the man who owns Lake Louise, is no innocent, but he evinces a shambling, very Canadian modesty. He "got lucky," as he tells it, making millions of dollars in cattle and oil on the Alberta plains. Now, as the owner of the second largest ski area in Canada, Locke still checks tickets, cleans tables in the cafeteria and interviews guests on the chairlifts. With mischievous blue eyes and a belly that strains the buttons on his Norwegian sweater, he tells a couple from Ohio that he is the area's "chief inspector."

Locke is also an exemplar of Canadian values. He once kicked Alberto Tomba off the hill in the middle of a World Cup race after an incident in which Tomba knocked a woman down as he muscled through a liftline. Locke offered to let him back on the mountain if he'd apologize. Tomba refused-and didn't race. Legally, things are also a little different north of the border. And that's good news for good skiers. The ski mountains there have no boundary ropes. Canada's tort law is closer to that of the alpine nations of Europe than to the litigious U.S. system. Louise's director of sales, Sandy Best, pointed out to me, our eyes sweeping greedily from one radical, rocky ridge to another, that "at Lake Louise, you can ski what you see." The term "adventure skiing" acquires a new/old sheen when you are responsible, eh, for your own decisions.

Perhaps you saw the wry Molson Golden ads that were aired during last year's NHL playoffs. Two wool-bearing Canucks poke fun at American beer commercials and the beautiful people who inhabit them. We may be rubes, the ads say, but we drink real, unaffected, kick-ass Canadian beer. "Beauty, eh," reads the cardboard sign one of the protagonists holds. Beauty, indeed.