A few weeks ago it was spring break at the college I work at. Spring break is a time when you go south, seeking warmth and sun, a respite from the northern cold, especially in a winter like this one. When you plan to wear your bathing suit as much as possible, get a tan (or more likely sunburn), and perhaps sit on the beach sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it. Unless you are me, and decide to head NORTH for spring break, north to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, at about 49 degrees latitude, to a forecasted high of 10 degrees for the entire week. We were headed to the Gaspe peninsula in the Canadian province of Quebec for a week of back country skiing in and around the Parc de la Gaspesie, a provincial park nestled in the heart of the Chic Choc mountain range. In light of the cold and snow and general rigor of this winter, deliberately heading to the north country seemed outright fool hardy. But head north we did.
The drive is not a simple one. It can take over 8 hours to reach the Gaspe from the coast of Maine where I live. We are lucky to have a friend in Presque Isle, so we bookended our trip with overnights in northern Maine’s cultural capital (they have the best Mardens in the state there). From PI you cross the border (and into the Atlantic time zone), in Van Buren where Acadian French is spoken at least as commonly if not more so than English. You then drive across the northwest tip of New Brunswick, through desolate Irving paper company land. The road is straight and fast and full of logging trucks, make sure your tank is full before heading out. At the other end of this stretch of desolation is Campbelton, a large-ish town on the Baie des Chaleurs, the body of water you must cross to get into Quebec proper (New Brunswick is a bilingual province—the only officially bilingual province in Canada—and northern New Brunswick is predominantly French speaking).
The Baie makes up the southern border of the Gaspe peninsula, its northern marine border is the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Crossing the bridge puts you oddly back into the eastern time zone.
We went to the Gaspe to back country ski, which means “earning your turns”. There are no lifts, you have to ski up (or pack your skis up) to ski back down. For us that means free heel bindings that allow you to tour, like overgrown cross country skis. I have telemark skis and boots, my husband recently made the switch from tele skis to an alpine touring skiing set up (essentially alpine skis with bindings that switch from fixed heel to free heel). To go up slopes and trails on your skis you put climbing skins on the bottom, long skinny pieces of fabric that are furry on one side and sticky on the other. The sticky side sticks to the bottom of your skis, the furry side allows you to slide forward (all the fur faces in one direction) and grips the snow to keep you from sliding backward. Up you go. In many parts of the lower 48, these back country approach trails, called skin tracks, switch back up slopes, see-sawing their way up the mountain. In the densely forested northeast, our skin tracks are often straight up, and thus steep, so you really really earn your turns.
I have been skiing since I was in high school, and telemark skiing for nearly 17 years, but in all that time I haven’t done much back country skiing. I’ve done some ski touring, going hut to hut in the Parc de la Gaspesie, but in those instances the trip was more about the journey and less about the turns. This trip was the first that was focused entirely on getting up to get down, every day. I have to admit, the first couple of days were really hard. Skiing can be hard. Winter is hard. Winter is especially hard when you are feeling done with winter, and it’s spring break and you are wondering why it is you went north instead of south? The first couple of days I felt like I was constantly doing battle with my ski boots, my ski pants, my skins, my goggles. Everything felt constrictive, and much more difficult than I wanted it to be. Every piece of equipment was a battle, and it made me angry. I grouched a lot. Compounding my grouchiness was my pain, I have bad feet (or perhaps bad boots, or both).
For as long as I have been telemark skiing, I’ve experienced excruciating foot pain while skiing (some days worse than others). Generally the more challenging the conditions, the worse the pain. (For some reason I keep skiing, and I realized recently this is because I forget the pain, much like the mothers I know say they forget the pain of childbirth). The first full day of skiing I was in tears because I wanted so badly for it to be fun, and it wasn’t. It hurt, it was hard, it was cold and really windy. I cried because, as so many women will understand, I wanted so badly to be good at back country skiing, because my husband was good at it, and I wanted to be able for us to do it together. I wanted it to be fun and I wanted to want to do it. That first run on the first day, I didn’t, and all the emotional baggage that skiing with your significant other can open up was yard saled all over the ski slope on Champ-des-Mars. This is all pressure I put on myself mind you, my partner is nothing if not kind and patient and happy to watch me develop as a skier. I managed pull it together and have fun for the rest of the day, still grouchy, but not crying anymore (side note: on one of the runs this day I literally skied over a ruffed grouse buried in the snow—they will dig in and let themselves get covered when it snows—this one was in the snow minding her own business and I skied over her tail—she burst out of the snow, as shocked as I was about the whole incident). The next morning was the same, cold, strong wind, and with a remote ski destination. I was nervous which amplified every negative feeling, but we went ahead anyway to a mountain called Mont Vallieres de Saint Real. It was a new ski spot for both of us, and not knowing what to expect, I blew all of my energy on the approach to the first summit, where, it turns out, you don’t get to ski from. Overwhelmed, and a little stymied from misinterpreting the map, we went back down the skin track sort of dejected, feeling like we had failed at back country skiing.
Curiously, this is when the trip turned for me. Suddenly, I wasn’t doing battle with my equipment, I started feeling good. I accepted that I was a beginner (and still am) at back country skiing, that I needed practice, and that I couldn’t expect to be an expert without even trying. I reveled in the sun that was shining. I started listening hard to the few birds I heard along the skin track (including Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays—two favorites of the northern forest), and watching for the few and far between animal tracks in the snow. I talked to the trees like old friends as we moved through the forest. I knew we couldn’t just go back to the hut and brood, so we headed to another location neither of us had been to (Mont Blanche la Montange) and salvaged our day.
One of the most fun things about back country skiing is hut life. We stayed in a road side hut in the area of the Gite de Mont Albert (a swanky hotel nestled in the middle of the park). Our hut had electricity and a wood stove, and slept 8, which meant that we would be sharing it with strangers. A couple of our hut mates were speaking French, but not because they were Quebequois, they had actually traveled from the southwest of France to spend two weeks in the Gaspe. That night we cooked duck for dinner, duck we had raised ourselves, and shared it with our French hut mates. The next night they shared the fois gras they had brought with them from home. Being friendly in the huts has its benefits, even when, or especially when there is a moderate language barrier.
Our fourth day was the highlight. We hemmed and hawed and finally decided to return to the Mont Valliere de Saint Real to give it another go. Knowing what the approach entailed, and what needed to happen after the first summit, made it easier to envision. It was windier than the day before, much windier, and after we reached the summit we had been to the day before, we had to take off our skis to drop down off the back side and access the ridge to approach the more distant valley we wanted to ski in. The ridge was blown clean, and the wind slammed into us threatening to knock us over. It was terrifying and exhilarating and delicious, and everytime I felt fear starting to take shape I repeated “Adventure Adventure Adventure” to myself. We were most definitely having an adventure, the best kind of adventure. We could see a group of four ahead of us, otherwise no one else was out there that day. The ridge rising ahead of me, the wind gusting against me, the sun coming in and out of clouds, it all made me feel the best kind of alive.
We skied the slope, and made our way out the skin track which followed a small drainage all the way back to the road. Along the skin track we saw the fresh tracks of a Canada Lynx, and that alone made the day a highlight not only of the week but of my life.
Our last morning in Canada, I got up and noticed that a moose had walked through the front yard of the hut. The moon had been full the night before and shone brightly all night on Mont Albert across the road. We packed up our car and headed to the Hogs Back for one more morning of skiing before the drive back to Presque Isle. It was a perfect, if cold, day. The sun was shining, the wind was low, the sky was blue. The only problem was me, my mood had shifted again, and there I was, standing at tree line high on a Canadian mountain, crying and angry, not interested in skiing the damn slope at all. I realized even in the moment that I was just tired, that it had been a big week of new experiences and I needed some processing time and some rest, but that didn’t ease my frustration with myself. Everything around me was just as I dream it—clear, pristine, white snow, blue sky, green trees, my favorite conditions (just a tad cold), and there I was having a melt down. Not cool. Back country skiing takes stamina, and to build that stamina you have to do a lot of skiing. I know I will have my head game more dialed the more I do it, but this first time out it was a challenge. Challenge is good though, challenge and adversity puts us in our place, makes us hungry, focuses our desire and gives us perspective. I’m used to things being easy, and challenging things serve to remind me that things are not always easy. I skied down the slope and by the time we got to the bottom part of me wanted to go back up. We’d already agreed to leave after that run, and so with a touch of regret in the pit of my emotionally confused stomach, we skied out to the car.
As we drove away from the Hogs Back, I stared out the window at the southern hem of the northern forest, an expanse of spruce and fir, birch and aspen that stretches around the northern hemisphere in a swath of terrible monotony. I thought about all the nothing that happens out there, all those trees growing slowly and silently, all the stillness only occasionally broken by a small bird, a rodent, a hare or maybe a moose. A whole lot of nothing happens on a daily basis in the northern forest, and my brain wandered among those trees as we drove south, back towards the sun and I realized that I hadn’t thought about work or home at all during the week. My vacation had truly been just that: a real vacation. The trip hadn’t been easy, or restful on my body, but it was restorative for my mind in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Out of the comfort zone, and into the present moment, a moment that demands all of your attention when the task at hand is new and challenging, and fun. Yes. Fun.
The drive home was uneventful, save being stopped at the border for trying to bring a red pepper back into the United States. Mind you, this was a red pepper we had purchased in the United States, brought to Canada, not used, and were simply returning home with it. No dice. Apparently if it had been cut up, we could have brought it back. The border agents at least gave us the option to eat the pepper then and there in the customs office rather than have it thrown out, so we did. The rest of the trip was unremarkable.
This past weekend I skied at Sugarloaf, on one of those crystal clear sunny spring days that can make you weep with thankfulness that you are alive and managed to make it through another winter. For the first time my 3 and a half year old nephew came along, and the introduction of the next generation in our family to skiing is complete, both he and his 8 year old sister (skiing for 3 years now) have the bug. Lift served skiing is easy in exactly the way back country skiing isn’t, but not if you are 3 and are on skis for the first time. Not if you are 8 and learning to parallel turn, not if you are 42 and haven’t sharpened your skis in 10 years. The Gaspe challenged me in a way I haven’t been challenged in a while, and I am already excited to go back. In the mean time, I’ll keep riding the Moosecalator and the Superquad, chasing spring corn and a sun burn, trying the best to meet the challenge of getting my niece and nephew and myself outside as much as possible.