The Rock - Ski Mag

The Rock

Travel
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Fish

THE PHOTOS LOOKED LIKE THEY'D BEEN SHOT WITH A LENS retrieved from a latrine. Images that ran in Skiing, Powder, and countless newspapers. They showed hooded skiers under gray skies, the snow falling upward. Forced smiles on their faces, snowplowing blind through a province perpetually down on its luck and better known for its poverty. Photos from a vault labeled Worst Day Ever. But the accompanying stories made it sound mostly un-terrible, even the one in the Globe and Mail, Canada's preferred national newspaper and favorite 50-cent narcoleptic. If the Globe and Mail can make a story even remotely interesting it's probably epic.

So I go. Now I'm setting my watch forward for North America's only half-hour time zone, my fingers greasy from bites of deep-fried tongue of cod, supposedly a local delicacy and very near edible.

I came here because the rumor among skiers said Newfoundland is home to huge coastal mountains that suck storms off the Atlantic to the east and Alberta Clippers from the west. The best skiing, they said, was at Blomidon Cat Skiing, an outfit founded by a rogue operator named Glenn Noel.

Blomidon sits just outside Corner Brook, perched where rolling hills tumble into a sliver of a harbor through which Captain Cook sailed in 1767. It's a pretty town dominated by a pulp mill, which is near the hospital, which is near the cemetery.

I find Glenn's yellow sign above the beach village of Benoit's Cove, near a fish-packing plant and a church called Our Lady Star of the Sea. But there's no sign of Glenn. All I see are a snowcat that's gurgling diesel noises and several clients milling around in ski boots. Metal-on-metal smashing noises come from under the cat.

"You can park your cairr anywhere, says a disembodied voice beneath the cat. Though the western Newfoundland accent is less pronounced than the Irish-settler-derived brogue in St. John's, roughly 400 miles away, Glenn pronounces "car like it almost rhymes with "hair.

Glenn shoots a sinewy hand out and asks for a torque wrench. The hand fastens a steel tread to the track as the voice tells me they occasionally "snap off. Finished, Glenn, 52, shimmies out from under the cat in a pair of green chainsaw chaps, a Helly Hansen fleece from the '90s, and knee-high rubber boots. He smiles from under a perfectly trimmed black mustache and wire-rim glasses, wipes his hands on his pants, and shakes my hand.

Then he excuses himself to head into the cat shack. Glenn plunders a shelf choked with wrenches, a fire extinguisher, and Danish cookie tins. He digs through metal parts but emerges with waivers, lightly grease-stained. I sign one, crossing out the end of "signed this __ day of __, 19__ and update it for this century.

Glenn looks uneasy. "You're the guy who's done some guiding, right? he asks, looking at me. I peer over my shoulder to make sure he's not talking to someone else. He isn't. Weeks before, when I'd called Glenn to set things up, he asked if I'd ever cat-skied. I told him I'd worked as a tail guide at a cat-ski company in BC for a winter. This was a mistake.

"So do you feel like guiding? he asks. Before my lips can form the word "no, I'm handed a radio. I'm now a guide. I think about the clients sharing the cat, Newfoundland's 24 avalanche deaths since the turn of the century, and my unfamiliarity with the snowpack. I'm also thinking about maritime storms that materialize not so much to oppress but to show off. I also haven't a clue where we're going.

Glenn is short-staffed. His lead guide, his Uncle Keith, whose day job is dentistry, is in St. John's. And tomorrow Dean, a full-time commercial mackerel and herring fisherman and part-time cat driver, has to take a mandatory first-aid course before he can board the first fishing boat of spring. By default, I am Blomidon's newest assistant guide. I'll be bringing up the rear and making sure guests are accounted for.

Glenn hops in thdriver's seat and floors it. We chug along for 20 minutes…until two skiers beside me are suddenly bucked out of their seats. A guy with four-day-old stubble yelps at an octave well into girlish territory. I'm thrown to the floor and something bumpy is under me, possibly a person. We've drifted off the road and it feels like we're going to roll.

The cat could be at the top of a 2,000-foot face littered with boulders for all we know. The windows are fogged with condensation and it's hard to tell. There's just enough time to think about dying in a snowcat: an orgy of broken glass, twisted metal, and diesel flambé.

Then everything stops. The back door of the cat flies open. It's Glenn. "Damn road, he says. The road gave way slightly and the cat sits at an uncomfortable but perfectly safe list. Glenn reassures us that it's nearly impossible to roll a cat, though I still feel the urge to inspect my pants for traces of shit.

"Now, says Glenn, "who's up for a snack?

I'd skied with three other cat operations. Each was a polished, nearly sanitized adventure in British Columbia, arguably the world's finest place to do such a thing. I grew up skiing in BC and Alberta but I'd also spent four days skiing in the East. Each was a misery. It lead me to this conclusion: Skiing in the East is fine, but only if you grew up there. You can romanticize your childhood all you like but everyone knows it's not The West. Which is why Westerners like me will never ski in the East unless forced to. Hawaiian surfers aren't exactly lining up to surf the Jersey Shore, either.

But Newfoundland isn't quite East. By geography, sure, but it's not Quebec or Maine or Vermont. The province is home to rum-soaked kitchen parties, homogenous DNA, and the ritual kissing of dead cod. Factor in a moose population density that nearly equals the human population of Canada, and Newfoundland is an island of parody. Newfoundlanders have long been the butt of Canadian jokes, mostly the ones that begin with "Did you hear the one about the Newfie who.…

Locally known as The Rock for its terra extremely firma, Newfoundland is also a culture of opposites. While the world worries about leading an organic and fair-trade existence, a troll through any supermarket in Newfoundland reveals a catalog of suicide foods—salt herring, salt fish trimmings, salt turbot, salt cod, salt cod napes, salt cod tails, salt cod tongues, and pure pork fatback. And while the Canadian government has taken advantage of Newfoundland, first for her once abundant cod fishery (closed by the federal government in 1992) and now her offshore oil, Newfoundlanders—who have every reason to hate Canada—fly more Canadian flags than anyone and usually vote for the centrists of the federal Liberal Party. When Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation, it became the first and only independent nation in world history to voluntarily surrender her sovereignty—and announced it on April Fool's Day 1949. And while the rest of the world eats lunch, Newfoundlanders call their midday meal "dinner.

[pagebreak]

Even down is up. The Rock is the world's only locale where the mantle, the subcutaneous goo of the earth, is exposed. This pumpkin-colored miracle of geology stabs through the ash-colored basalt of the North American Plate in inverted salad bowls of iron. The result is the Blomidon mountain range, which towers 2,800 feet above the Atlantic ice floes at its feet.

Our first run is 2,000 feet of terrible. Hardpacked and 25 degrees steep, tops. "Don't worry, it'll be cairrrveable, says Glenn. He leads us down the styrofoam pitch, chairging it like knee-deep powder.

We ski the cairrrveable and convairge at a creek bed. Glenn invites us to click out of our skis and posthole through knee-deep snow to a brook. "You're standing on a fault line, says Glenn, pointing toward the brook. To the right the black peaks are basalt, part of the North American Plate. To the left, the orange peaks are mantle rock—peridotite—which Glenn calls "pretty tight, sending himself into paroxysms. He recovers from laughing at his own joke and elaborates. "Any orange rock you see here came from 70 kilometers below the surface. In nearby Gros Morne National Park, similar formations are a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

As Blomidon's newest employee, I figured I should probably learn the company history. Seems Glenn took up skiing at age 28 while he was working as a full-time building contractor. He got hooked. So hooked that in the spring of 1994, when Marble Mountain (Glenn's home ski hill) shut down for the season, Glenn refused to stop skiing.

Though he'd never been cat-skiing before, and has yet to ski with another cat operation, Glenn thought it was perfectly reasonable to purchase a snowcat and teach himself how to drive. Eager to stimulate the stalled economy, the government handed Glenn a modest grant and a land tenure. Shortly after, the local telephone company put a miniature snowcat up for auction, a machine Glenn calls a "ski-dozer. Suddenly, he had a business.

Glenn guessed how a day of cat-skiing should run. He taught himself how to guide and market his business. Building snow roads proved tricky. When the ski-dozer bogged down, Glenn had a breakthrough idea: He put it in reverse and found he got better traction. Glenn drove backward for a month and summited the largest peak in his territory in February 1995.

Word spread. Guests raved about deep snow and 2,200-foot descents with views of the Atlantic. Glenn broke even in his first year. "The cat wouldn't move unless I had four paying guests, he says, "or if the skiing was really good, policies that continue to this day. With money he'd saved from his contractor's income, along with a Newfoundland government loan, he sank $90,000 into a full-size cat and prepared for what he thought would be a busy second winter. But Newfoundland was hit with unusually warm temperatures and guests stayed away. Blomidon's third winter approached tropical by local standards. Accustomed to back-to-back centuries of bad luck, Newfoundlaners have mastered working with their lot—Glenn survived on his contractor's income.

One morning, Glenn was driving a cat load of guests on his main access road. As he approached a large brook, he noticed the wooden bridge he'd built the summer before was gone, chainsawed into the stream. He had no choice but to turn the cat around.

Clearly, whoever had sabotaged the bridge didn't want Glenn operating there. Though he grew up 10-minutes from his terrain, Glenn believes that locals saw him as an outsider. Maybe they thought he didn't have the right to earn on their turf, pounded a few beers, and took matters into their own hands.

The vandalism would be a blessing. That day, an employee of the Newfoundland Department of Forestry happened to be a paying guest. He reported the sabotage to the department, which eventually handed Glenn $50,000 to build a better road on private land with even faster access to his terrain.

Still, Glenn squirms when talking about it. "Good luck finding out who did it, he says. "There are plenty who don't want me here. Ask around.

So I do. It's been said that if you don't drink vodka, you can't do business in Russia. In Newfoundland, the same can be said of rum. Newfoundlanders have drunk rum since the 17th century, when they first ripped off the West Indies, trading heavily salted cod for it. Tonight I've been doing business for hours: It is Saint Patrick's Day on an island of Irish descendants. I head to an Irish pub with an Irish band. The pub is full and the band is playing a song with a chorus of "We'll rant and we'll roar/like true Newfoundlanders/We'll rant and we'll roar/on deck and belooooow!

The entire bar is singing along while two dozen girls are dancing something a lot less jig than jiggle. I catch myself starinthe left, the orange peaks are mantle rock—peridotite—which Glenn calls "pretty tight, sending himself into paroxysms. He recovers from laughing at his own joke and elaborates. "Any orange rock you see here came from 70 kilometers below the surface. In nearby Gros Morne National Park, similar formations are a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

As Blomidon's newest employee, I figured I should probably learn the company history. Seems Glenn took up skiing at age 28 while he was working as a full-time building contractor. He got hooked. So hooked that in the spring of 1994, when Marble Mountain (Glenn's home ski hill) shut down for the season, Glenn refused to stop skiing.

Though he'd never been cat-skiing before, and has yet to ski with another cat operation, Glenn thought it was perfectly reasonable to purchase a snowcat and teach himself how to drive. Eager to stimulate the stalled economy, the government handed Glenn a modest grant and a land tenure. Shortly after, the local telephone company put a miniature snowcat up for auction, a machine Glenn calls a "ski-dozer. Suddenly, he had a business.

Glenn guessed how a day of cat-skiing should run. He taught himself how to guide and market his business. Building snow roads proved tricky. When the ski-dozer bogged down, Glenn had a breakthrough idea: He put it in reverse and found he got better traction. Glenn drove backward for a month and summited the largest peak in his territory in February 1995.

Word spread. Guests raved about deep snow and 2,200-foot descents with views of the Atlantic. Glenn broke even in his first year. "The cat wouldn't move unless I had four paying guests, he says, "or if the skiing was really good, policies that continue to this day. With money he'd saved from his contractor's income, along with a Newfoundland government loan, he sank $90,000 into a full-size cat and prepared for what he thought would be a busy second winter. But Newfoundland was hit with unusually warm temperatures and guests stayed away. Blomidon's third winter approached tropical by local standards. Accustomed to back-to-back centuries of bad luck, Newfoundlaners have mastered working with their lot—Glenn survived on his contractor's income.

One morning, Glenn was driving a cat load of guests on his main access road. As he approached a large brook, he noticed the wooden bridge he'd built the summer before was gone, chainsawed into the stream. He had no choice but to turn the cat around.

Clearly, whoever had sabotaged the bridge didn't want Glenn operating there. Though he grew up 10-minutes from his terrain, Glenn believes that locals saw him as an outsider. Maybe they thought he didn't have the right to earn on their turf, pounded a few beers, and took matters into their own hands.

The vandalism would be a blessing. That day, an employee of the Newfoundland Department of Forestry happened to be a paying guest. He reported the sabotage to the department, which eventually handed Glenn $50,000 to build a better road on private land with even faster access to his terrain.

Still, Glenn squirms when talking about it. "Good luck finding out who did it, he says. "There are plenty who don't want me here. Ask around.

So I do. It's been said that if you don't drink vodka, you can't do business in Russia. In Newfoundland, the same can be said of rum. Newfoundlanders have drunk rum since the 17th century, when they first ripped off the West Indies, trading heavily salted cod for it. Tonight I've been doing business for hours: It is Saint Patrick's Day on an island of Irish descendants. I head to an Irish pub with an Irish band. The pub is full and the band is playing a song with a chorus of "We'll rant and we'll roar/like true Newfoundlanders/We'll rant and we'll roar/on deck and belooooow!

The entire bar is singing along while two dozen girls are dancing something a lot less jig than jiggle. I catch myself staring until someone thrusts a full beer in my face. I try to thank the stranger but only slurring comes out. Then I remember that this is an assignment and I should probably hunt for angry people. I put on my Barbara Walters face, only cross-eyed, and ask strangers about the chainsaw incident.

First I meet Martha, a 22-year-old adventure-tourism student at Corner Brook's College of the North Atlantic. She has beautiful, wet brown eyes and wears a green bandana. She's also squarely in the ecoterrorist demographic.

DO YOU SKI HERE? I shout above the band.

"YES.

"AT BLOMIDON?

"NO.

"WHY? IS IT A CESSPOOL OF AN ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER?

"NO.

"WHY?

"I HAVEN'T GOT THE CASH YET.

Strike one. Then I ask a hook-nosed 40-ish guy wearing a shirt with a "Free Newfoundland logo if he knows anything about cat-skiing. He says he had an MRI once but never had a CAT scan. Strike two.

[pagebreak]

I see a guy with a Harley-Davidson shirt and a scar on his lip sitting at a table of empties. He looks incapable of liking anything, let alone Glenn. "So you know Glenn too, he says. "Need a beer? Turns out he's a snowmobiler who sleds in Glenn's terrain. He then spends 10 minutes telling me Glenn's access roads are the keys to the kingdom. Strike three, but I accept the beer in the name of journalism.

Then I ask a bosomy girl in a pink shirt if she knows about Glenn. She does. But she also tells me she's from Labrador and I shouldn't trust her because Labradoreans are "a bunch of lying whores. Then she laughs and walks away. This will take some doing.

A big guy with crowbars for fingers heard I was asking about cat-skiing. He made sure to tell me that he liked Glenn, right before spilling rum on my shoe. I'm trying to leave but Crowbar Fingers has locked me into a mano-a-mano lovefest about Glenn. I make a face like I'm ready to puke all over myself. He releases his backslap grip and tells me that tomorrow my head will feel "like 50 pounds of shit stuffed into a 10-pound bag.

The next afternoon, me and my burst capillaries drive toward Glenn's and see a fire on a roadside beach, where some good ol' boys in overalls are knocking back beers. The wind has shepherded ice floes to the shore. I stop the car, planning on asking these no-way-they-can-be-skiers kind of guys about Glenn. They put a cold bottle of Dominion beer in my hand before I'm issued a hello. They've just finished a day of work at the fish-packing plant a hundred feet away. For some reason these guys—who work with their hands—have lit a fire on the sand with what looks like shredded documents. I ask if they are, in fact, burning documents. They insist that they are, in fact, not burning documents.

Craig, the only guy who's not wearing coveralls, caps his bottle with his thumb and jumps on an ice floe. He walks across a piece of ice about the size of a living-room rug and jumps to another rug-size floe. Now he's four floes and 100 feet from shore.

I'm ordered—nicely—to follow him. I get 80 feet from shore but balk at the final leap. The water is a hair above freezing. Falling in means hypothermia and genital-shattering cold. I head back to the beach, but the wind shifts the plate tectonics of the floes. The five-foot gap is now eight. Somehow I retreat without getting wet. Craig returns to shore a minute later but the wind has enlarged the gaps. He jumps, touches his toe on the final floe, but falls in to midthigh. He doesn't flinch. Wet, he wades back to shore, denim clinging.

He volunteers that he is wearing wool long undies. Then he asks us if I'm wearing long undies. I am not. "Mainlander, says Craig, shaking his head in mock disdain.

Apparently, this is hilarious. The boys open more beers and hand me another. I'm learning it's hard to stay focused in this province. So far, life in Newfoundland seems to be a series of parties punctuated by whatever else is g

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