Le Massif remains steadfastly Quebecois even as it takes on more typical ski-area trappings.
I suppose it's not entirely accurate to call Michel Bisson a skier, since in the three days I spent with him and his cohorts at Le Massif, Quebec, I hardly saw his skis touch snow. "Aviator" is a term that would definitely work, but as this is a region of steep northern hardwood glades, perhaps "treetop flier" comes closest. As I watched him launch off a ledge and fly a good 40, 50 yards at least, before touching down between tightly spaced birch trees, I thought, Mon dieu, ca c'est le ski extreme!
By night, Michel is a mild-mannered bartender at the raucous base-lodge pub, Le Chouenneux. By day, he's a member of an elite squadron of skier-pilots who treat the slopes of Le Massif as runways. He and the others -- Benoit Frigon, Marc Archambault, Emmanuel Demers, and Martin Breton -- make up what I came to think of as the Quebec Air Force. They take to the frigid skies above the St. Lawrence River at a dizzying pace.
It's fitting that this Quebec Air Force (QAF), with its dashing sense of style and grace, be based at Le Massif, itself a stylish and graceful mountain. Located an hour north of Quebec City, where the ice-choked St. Lawrence widens to Amazonian dimensions, Le Massif is a picturesque gem of a ski resort. Blessed with the biggest vertical drop (2,526 feet) and highest average annual snowfall (256 inches) of any Canadian ski area east of the Rockies, Le Massif is situated in Charlevoix, a region of such stunning natural beauty and ecological significance that it was designated a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve.
Le Massif has taken special pains to protect the natural surroundings and the region's French culture. In a model of restraint, the resort decided to forego the grand hotels, slopeside condos, and base-facility architecture so characteristic of modern ski areas. Instead, there is a small French-flavored hamlet, Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois, at the base of the mountain that hosts all après-ski activities. The nearby village of Baie-Saint-Paul, founded in 1678 and one of the oldest towns in Quebec, adds Old World charm.
It's a sparkling but very cold February day, and I'm out on maneuvers with the QAF in the sous bois,the thick birch and conifer glades that tumble down the northeastern side of the mountain. It's 15 below zero, and the snow in the woods is thick, dry, and fluffy. And though yet another in a season-long string of massive nor'easters is scheduled to dump in a couple of days, right now a bright but feeble sun shines down from a flawless, blue sky.
Suddenly, Benoit comes crashing through the trees, sending snow flying as he deftly blocks the laden branches like a boxer parrying his opponent's blows -- bam-bam-bam. Not for an instant does he slow down. Instead, he snakes his skis left-right-left between small saplings and large, peeling trunks, ripping the double black as though it's a wide-open field. A professional cameraman for adventure ski and mountain bike films, Benoit often wears a head-cam when he bashes through the woods. Watching the footage on screen can make you want to cover your eyes and reach for a barf bag.
When I catch Benoit at the bottom of the run, his blue eyes are burning and there's a mile-wide grin creasing his face. "C'est bien, non?"he asks, laughing. "Yes," I reply, "it's great. But don't go and get yourself killed on my account, s'il te plait."
Rest assured that you need not be a QAF member to ski at Le Massif. You need not even be Quebecois. The slopes here cover the spectrum from gentle cruisers to fast intermediates, from rip-snorting bumps to the sous bois. And since the current exchange rate is so favorable to Americans, skiing here is a bargain. A full-day lift ticket costs C$35, or less than $25 American. The package deals are even better. Sixty U.S. dollars will get you lodging, dinner, breeakfast, and a full-day lift ticket.
Just a few years ago, the only lift ticket you could purchase at Le Massif was for a school bus -- there were no chairlifts. From its opening in 1970 until 1992, skiers were bussed to the top of the mountain. Le Massif is on a massive headland rising straight out of the river. The road from Quebec City comes over the top of the cliff, plunges down a very steep grade, and then runs along the edge of the St. Lawrence through Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois to the base area. Skiing with a guide and riding the bus, guests made four or five runs during the course of a day. Some people really miss the bus, I'm told, because each ride back to the top was a chance to party. Ah well, in 1992 progress arrived and a double chair and detachable quad were installed, new trails were cut, and snowmaking equipment was set up on the lower part of the mountain.
Now, just 10 years after the first chairlifts were installed, Le Massif is modernizing once again. The mountain was chosen as the site for Canada's new National Alpine Ski Training Center, which will include a downhill racecourse designed by Bernhard Russi, the legendary Swiss Olympic downhill gold medalist. A new day lodge is being built at the summit, skiable acreage is expanding by one third with up to 10 new trails, and new lifts are being installed to serve the new terrain on the Cap Maillard summit. All of this could be on line as early as December.
On my last day at Le Massif, I explore parts of the mountain I didn't get to with the QAF, and my more moderate pace allows me to fully appreciate the spectacular setting and the French ambience. The next day, driving home through the Maine woods in a howling blizzard, I recall Le Massif's slogan: Tout ce qu'on dit sur nous est vrai!(Everything you hear about us is true!)
INFO: Le Massif, Quebec
Getting there:By car, Le Massif is one hour north of Quebec City and 3.5 hours north of Montreal.