The snowcat growls in retreat, shakes itself free of the drift, then roars for another charge, burying itself again before pivoting across the steep slope-my stomach heaving along with it. The tracks swim in the bottomless white until forward motion ceases; then the cat backs up, roars louder, and charges again.
Each time we lurch out of the drift, I steal another look at empty, steep, rolling mountains tumbling to the white-capped ocean's edge. Wind-scoured, boulder-strewn ridges separate treeless bowls buried in powder. It looks like Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines went on a billion-year orgy and spawned dozens of worthy offspring scattered as far as the eye can see.
Glen Noel, the guide and owner of Blomidon (pronounced Blow-me-down) Cat Skiing grins at my slack-jawed gape. "Too bad you weren't here last week, before the rain. We had lots of snow then."
Apparently, a freak warm rainstorm-in Newfoundland in late February-washed away more than four feet of the snow cover just before we arrived. We are buried windshield-deep in a mere frozen afterthought of the departing storm. A tearing cold wind wrapped around Labrador, picked up moisture from the cold waters of the Labrador Strait, deposited a foot of fresh, and then blew it off the exposed ridges into the bowls, where it accumulated in deep piles.
Newfoundland isn't the first place we Easterners imagine when we think powder skiing. Most of us don't think of the place at all. A 44,000-square-mile island located off the east coast of Canada, Newfoundland is roughly 1,000 miles northeast of Boston (fly that far west and you get to ski the 300-footers of Michigan and Wisconsin).
But western Newfoundland boasts a rare combination of climate and topography that make it unique in Eastern skiing. It's like someone tacked a piece of Alaska's Coast Range above Maine. And Corner Brook, Newfoundland, is ski central for the best powder between the Rockies and the Alps. Topping out at less than 2,500 feet, the mountains aren't giants, but in this maritime climate, the prevailing northwesterly storms dump 10 to 16 feet of snow (that's the base) annually. Just don't expect super dry fluff: It's heavy, coastal snow that falls here. But it sticks well to steep slopes. Here we are in a horrible snow year, and the snow banks along the Trans Canada Highway were still twice or more the height of the car.
Having arrived from New England, where some ski areas were struggling to make enough snow just to keep open, our group is impressed: If the worst-case scenario is powder skiing, imagine what nailing it is like.
When the cat finally claws its way to the top of the first run, I admit to a degree of trepidation as I jump from the cab and wade through waist-deep powder to the back of the cat. This isn't Stowe or Cannon-even on a midweek powder morning.
My competitive-freeskier sons and their hotshot buds immediately choose to drop in on the most challenging lines. But I take one short look at the nightmare of cornices, short couloirs, and cliff bands dropping onto 50-degree slopes, traverse 100 yards from their whoops and laughter, and wuss my way into the powder on gentler rolls that start at 35-40 degrees. Steep enough. There is even easier stuff a few yards away, but no one's interested in that. A mixed group of skiers could play happily together forever on this terrain. When the snow's right, you can ski right down to the surf in places, but this day we cling to the mountaintop bowls.
My first wobbly turns quickly give way to that powder Zen experienced so rarely in the East: the effortless, mindless, soul-filling rhythm of turn, turn, turn. I barely notice when the gentle slope rolls over onto the 45-degree-plus steep stuff on the final drop to the pick-up point. By the end of my first run, I am floating powder turns with the main crew. We'd traveled 1,000 miles east to find the best of the west: Western Newfoundland.
Vertical: 12,000-14,000 feet guaranteed.
Price: C$250/day (about US$165)
Equipment: 10-passenger heated Bombardier Snowcat
Peripherals: The price includes lunch, snacks, and soft drinks. Fat skis are available for rent.
Digs: Marblewood Village (888-868-7635, marblemountain.com) is a comfortable condo complex, an easy walk from the base of Marble Mountain ski area (see Marble Mountain page 2E), less than a 10-minute drive from Corner Brook and about 25 minutes from Blomidon Cat Skiing. Or stay in Corner Brook (cornerbrook.com), where accommodations range from luxury hotels (Glynmill Hotel, 709-634-5181) to first-class resorts (Strawberry Hill Resort, 709-634-0066).
Nightlife: Newfoundlanders know how to party. The winters are long and dark, so they have lots of practice. Restaurants and pubs are abundant, inexpensive, and awash in music- everything from American C&W to rock to local bands playing traditional Newfie music (tip: Friday nights are open-mike jam at Casual Jack's; 709-634-4242).
fly: Hop a plane to Halifax, Nova Scotia and connect on Air Canada (aircanada.ca) to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where you can rent a car and be skiing within an hour. Time it right and you can leave Boston or New York in the morning and ski that afternoon. For low-fare options, check out destina.ca.
Drive: Make an adventure of it and drive to North Sydney, Nova Scotia (roughly 800 miles from Boston on good roads), and take a Marine Atlantic (800-341-7981, marineatlantic.ca) night ferry across to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland (about 2.5 hours from Corner Brook). The ferry has comfortable cabins and arrives at Corner Brook early in the morning, in time to ski. Total round-trip cost for a vehicle, four passengers, and cabin is less than US$350.