Merci Beaucoup

Mike Berard
Holiday 2013

“I can take you there, but you can’t write about it,” says Dave, looking over a tree-choked mountainside blanketed in 15 inches of fresh. “I dipped down there this morning,” he adds, “you can almost see my skin-track under that cliff.” He points with his pole, a bent one emblazoned with the logo of a ski shop over 2,200 miles to the west. The raw, rugged aluminum shines through scratched, colorful paint. It’s a fitting metaphor for where we are.

Dave grew up around here in the Eastern Townships, southeast of cosmopolitan Montreal. The mountains here are rough, barely developed, unspectacular. But dig deeper, and you’ll get deeper.

At Owl’s Head, I had witnessed how those willing to risk offpiste core shots and whiplike branches were rewarded for the effort. A generous Mont Orford local showed me a “tourist trap” he’d sculpted in the trees to divert traffic onto a lesser run, leaving types like us free to duck left around a thick maple and open up on a stash of legitimate faceshots. At Le Massif de Charlevoix, I met up with a trio of Quebec Citybased skiers who’d spent time out West but returned home to the empty lift lines of their childhood. A 20-minute boot pack delivered us to a steep pitch of over-the-knee blower pow that evoked the Kootenays.

My perceptions of Eastern skiing dissipated into a fine cloud. This was the East that bred men like Dave, prepared them for the pilgrimage West, let them go and then pulled them back. Quebec is a powerful siren, and deep, unexpected powder her most alluring song.

Dave and I met after an early morning of powder skiing. Dressed in faded GORE-TEX and a dark beard, he reacted cautiously – as many Quebecers do – when I was introduced as a “friend from Whistler.”

“Why are you here?” Dave asked, after telling me he’d spent a few seasons skiing in Rossland and Fernie.

“Work,” I answered, as I watched fat flakes cascading down. “Plus, it looks like I made the right decision.”

He laughed and asked if I brought my skins. I told him that I didn’t expect it to be that good.

“That’s what everyone thinks,” he chuckled, as he led me out of the lodge and into a snowstorm.

Twenty minutes later, we stand at the bottom of a deep boot pack that leads us out of bounds to a wind-sculpted landscape of dense foliage. It’s silent. Still, Dave looks nervous.

“We shouldn’t be here,” he says, peering over my shoulder for the ski patrollers.

“I beg to differ,” I answer.

We climb through overhanging branches. I wander behind, not because it’s difficult hiking, but because it’s beautiful. The maple, elm and birch ramparts are mostly impenetrable; I look for the spaces that will allow passage. The space between is the reason I came. To find a new way to look at things. To see skiing in a new light, or rather, an old light – free of aggressive lift lines and the jockeying for position that surrounds their openings. Everyone asks me what I’m doing here; why I’m not in Whistler or Tremblant. The answer: I’ve been there. I have not been here. On this boot pack. At this time. With these people.

We pass several openings to the forest, all secret access, all incredible skiing. Dave describes each one (“rocky at top, but dogleg right; opens up wide” and “icy entrance, good chance of rocks, four deep turns”). We arrive at the chosen path.

“You go first,” he says. “Go where there’s no tracks.” I smile. “Merci beaucoup.” I avoid a rock on the traverse and point down the fall line into the couloir. Ahead of me lies 300 feet of great powder skiing. Not “great for Quebec” or “great for the East” – just (fucking) great. I bank four or five turns on the walls of the run, aim for a 5-foot pillow and boost onto an apron of powder that spreads wide into towering aspens. The next few turns are faceshots before I pop out through thick trees onto a groomed run. Two parents teach their child to snowplow. A few tourists lazily schuss past. I turn and wait for Dave. He emerges smiling with a snow-plastered face. What he sees on my face is an answer to the question I’ve been asked throughout this trip.

What am I doing here? Loving it.

About the Author

Mike Berard is a Whistler, B.C.-based writer, photographer and editor of Coast Mountain Culture Magazine. He is an enthusiast of all things Quebecois.