Story by Ofelia Legaspi
CHARLEVOIX, QUEBEC — We have come to Le Massif de Charlevoix to do winter. I want to skip sledding. To me, it’s the equivalent of eating shellfish: too much effort, too little reward. But once I get on the sled, gravity makes me eat my words. I descend in this gorgeous biosphere reserve of eastern Quebec at 40 terrifying kilometres per hour. I wait for the bottom. Ten minutes later, I am still falling.
I must hold the world record for most face-plants in a 30-minute period. The third one comes at a sharp turn called virage du pêcheur. One minute you’re gliding peacefully down a mountain with a serene vista of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent, the next minute the lovely horizon is violently reoriented by 90 degrees. Virage du pêcheur — “Fisherman’s Turn.” Now, I get it. Now that my sled has found a time warp that transports me from the hilltop to the hairpin turn below in two seconds flat. Now that I am extricating myself from this net like a fish. I get it.
I doubted this wooden contraption, this funny-looking one swooshing down this menacing terrain that included crazy cliffs and ghoulish skeletal forests. When I first saw it, I thought it looked like a toy, colourful and innocuous. I later learn it is a carefully picked model — an Austrian rodel made of strong laminated ash frame lined at the bottom with Teflon glides. It was even made by an Austrian, one Marcus Peter who now owns a carving business in Quebec called Mastersculptures.
You ride the rodel like a kayak and lean in toward your obstacle to avoid it. Counter-intuitive, I know, and that increases the fear factor of the sport. Oh, look, trees: lean toward them. Put your body weight on the same side as that scary-looking boulder.
Le Massif’s sledding activity is the first of its kind in North America. It’s very popular in Europe, though, and quite different from our version, which is sliding down bunny hills in plastic toboggans for a few seconds of bliss.
Mont Liguori is one beautiful mound of earth from which to descend. Meeting it at the bottom is the haphazardly frozen St. Lawrence River, its currents written in the irregularly shaped ice floes, halted from draining into one of the world’s biggest estuaries. Mont Liguori is part of Le Massif, a late-1970’s ski resort that had an uphill battle for commercial development. It didn’t get chairlifts until 1992 and didn’t get a road and FIS-standard downhill trail until 2001. But the next year, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier bought Le Massif and now it is a fine ski resort, home to the highest vertical drop east of the Rockies, beating the famous Mont Tremblant. It’s also home to the award-winning La Ferme, an architectural dream of a hotel.
Winter Joy in Charlevoix
When we arrived, La Belle Province hit us with that famed microclimate: ideal for snow conditions but not-so-ideal for unprepared Torontonians who like to describe bikers braving milder urban winters as “intrepid.” Forgetting to factor in our altitude and the wind chill involved in our speedy sport of choice, the cold, in no time, penetrated my winter arsenal like acupuncture needles. See, you need the speed to gather enough momentum to push you through flatter terrains. There are a couple of prolonged flat spots where you need to hike for five minutes but these are a blessing: you warm up significantly. There is also a much-needed midpoint break marked by a fire-warmed cabin and offerings of chicken soup and hot cocoa.
They warned us about hairpin turns. They even tried to be adorable with their names. En anglais, they mean, here you lose your cap; here, your mittens; here, your headscarf. When each death turn loomed, I had a Pavlovian response to live but with zero follow-through. I did everything wrong under the sun: under-prepare, over-prepare, slow down too little, slow down too late, forget to slow down at all. Needless to say, I ate snow that day.
But don’t get me wrong. The sled is actually instinctive. Your body knows what to do once it learns to be fearless. If you panic less, you become more capable of calculating turns and executing smooth, decisive movements.
Still, seven picturesque kilometres of this mountain course is long enough to make a seasoned driver out of any road maniac. By the second half of the course, I was even making fast and flawless turns, my partly crystallized hair flying behind me and my trusty rodel swooshing past other riders through those voluptuous Laurentian curves.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CHARLEVOIX
Activities You Can Enjoy:
- Sledding for two and a one-night stay at Hotel La Ferme (including continental breakfast) starts at $349. Click here for details.
- Snowshoeing at le Boisé du quai forest costs $10 per day for snowshoe rental at Hôtel La Ferme. Click here to learn more.
- Snowmobiling at Baie-Saint-Paul costs $179 for four hours for those who want to drive or $45 for four hours for those who want to ride as passengers. Click here for more info.
- Skiing or snowboarding at Le Massif costs $75 for 18- to 64-year-olds; $54 for 13- to 17-year olds; $37 for 7- to 12-year-olds. Details are here.