Le Valinouët: The Final Frontier

Chicoutimi (QC), Canada – We pushed through
Québec City during the evening rush hour, heading north. Way north.

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Le Valinouët (photo courtesy Le Valinouët)

Le Valinouët (photo courtesy Le Valinouët)

By all measures, 2001-2002 had been a very disappointing winter season in
the Northeast. Long before the snowfall failed to arrive, though, First Tracks!!
Online Contributing Writer Leigh Daboll and I were making plans for a swing
through Québec’s Saguenay – Lac St.-Jean region, intrigued by a pair of resorts
little known even in their own province: Le Valinouët and Mont-Édouard. We
were certain that their mystery would yield a great adventure.

Our only planning error, if it could be termed
that, was in anticipating the conditions. Instead of the dreaded frigid February
cold at this northerly latitude, the mercury clung surprisingly close to the
freezing mark. South of us in New England, each successive storm seemed to
deliver an ugly mix of rain and snow. This far north, however, the precipitation
had been falling entirely as snow for the whole season, while temperatures
remained surprisingly comfortable. Good planning, indeed.

Snowflakes began to fill the air seemingly right
on cue as we sped past Stoneham, the last point of civilization along the
120 miles of two-lane Route 175 that separates Québec from the northern city
of Chicoutimi. Just beyond Stoneham, a large gate sits poised to close the
road during times of inclement weather. Aside from the occasional emergency
pay phone every 20 miles or so and several summer campsites, absolutely nothing
lines the highway as it steadily climbs due north from Québec City through
the mountains of the Réserve Faunique des Laurentides. The snowfall
grew in intensity with each foot of elevation gained, and by the time we reached
the midway point of our grand traverse through nowhere, the road was thick
with a fresh coating of white.

Descending into the city of Chicoutimi was akin
to arriving at an oasis in the desert. Surprisingly large (population 250,000
if the adjacent towns of Jonquière and La Baie are included), Chicoutimi offers
all manner of services thanks to the Saguenay—Lac St.-Jean area’s claim to
fame: it’s home to North America’s largest aluminum smelter.

These days, however, employment at the region’s
aluminum operations is on the decline thanks to modernization, and accordingly
so is the area population. Economically speaking, Chicoutimi is in many ways
now a great place to be from. You’ll find little if any English spoken this
far north in Québec, despite the size of the city’s population and the presence
of a 3,000-student university. Any prospective Anglophone visitors should
not be concerned about such trivialities, however, as nearly all of the area’s
affable residents are gracious and accommodating in trying to overcome the
language barrier.

Entering the city, Route 175 had been transformed
from a forest highway into a city boulevard lined with all manner of chain
restaurants, hotels, and fast food joints. Our eyes, accustomed to the utter
darkness of the Réserve, squinted as they adjusted to the bright streetlights
and commercial signs. We dropped into Chicoutimi’s compact downtown core
lining the Saguenay River, arriving at the city’s namesake hotel.

The large Hôtel Chicoutimi was eerily spartan
and surprisingly devoid of overnight guests. In existence for the past century,
the hotel was a warm, dry and clean refuge from the elements outside, although
some portions of the building and its 100 rooms were more currently renovated
than others. We again stepped outside into the steadily falling snow to walk
the few blocks to a nearby cybercafé, catch up on some email, and return to
our room for a good night’s sleep. We’d need it, for the morning was sure
to bring a powder day at Le Valinouët.

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE WORLD

Le Valinouët lies across the Saguenay River and
some 28 miles north of Chicoutimi at the dead end of the road in the middle
of the Monts-Valin mountains, quite literally at the edge of civilization.
Lakes, fire roads and Inuit villages are all that separates the ski area from
the Arctic Circle 1,200 miles further north. The snow banks lining the road
grew exponentially with each passing mile as we drew closer and closer to
the 18 year-old resort. The road progressed past farms and tiny villages
that gradually gave way to forest and the occasional logging clear-cut. Eventually,
the asphalt gave way as well. By the time we pulled into the resort’s parking
lot, Leigh and I were witnessing some of the best snow conditions that we’d
seen all winter.

On average, Le Valinouët tallies 236 inches of
snowfall annually. With numbers like those and its northern locale, the resort
proudly touts skiing on 100% natural snow, and operations sometimes begin
in November and occasionally continue well into May, although early December
to the end of April is more the norm.

More of a regional ski hill than a destination
resort, the privately owned cottages and condominiums of Chicoutimi’s ski
enthusiasts dotting the base area constitute the only housing at the mountain.
Saguenay—Lac St.-Jean area residents make 90% of Le Valinouët’s average of
67,000 annual skier visits, and the remaining 10% come from elsewhere in Québec.
Needless to say, folks from outside of the province are a rare animal around
here. As the local population dwindles, the resort is focusing its marketing
dollars exclusively on the Québec City market.

“We’re going for the Québec customers,” resort general manager Serge Perron
explained. “The problem is lodging here. Our goal over the next year or
so is to provide more accommodations in the area. We want to build 50 to
60 1-1/2 condos. We’d like to have an annex here for more accommodations,
and possibly provide dormitory-type lodging. We’re trying to get government
grants to accomplish this, and this is why we’ve advertised in Québec City
– to attract some government grants.”

As is the case with many recently-developed Québec
ski areas, personnel organized after early financial troubles, and the resort
has been managed as a cooperative since 1995. Twenty local individuals presently
make up the co-op that has invested CDN $350,000 over the past two years in
grooming equipment and a terrain park and halfpipe.

Click here to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window

Click image to open a full-size trail map
in a new browser window

Powder day! (Skier: Marc Guido  Photo: Leigh Daboll)

Powder day! (Skier: Marc Guido; Photo: Leigh Daboll)

Skier: Leigh Daboll  Photo: Marc Guido)

Skier: Leigh Daboll; Photo: Marc Guido)

Playing on the ledges of #4. (Skier: Marc Guido; Photo: Leigh Daboll)

Playing on the ledges of #4.
(Skier: Marc Guido; Photo: Leigh Daboll)

Tandem chairlifts – a triple and a fixed-grip
quad – ascend the slopes directly in front of a surprisingly grand base lodge
to access trails named only by their numbers, and a T-bar carries beginners
to their own trio of gentle learning runs off to one side. A separate yet
connected sector of skiing developed 6 years after the original mountain lies
on a second summit to the northwest – appropriately known as the Versant
Nord-Ouest
– that is serviced by its own fixed grip quad chair that only
runs on weekends and holidays. Strangely, it’s only here that trails have
been granted their own unique names. The resort’s cross-country and snowshoe
trails are all that connect the two mountain bases.

Perron gave himself a challenge: to find someone
who spoke English to accompany us for the day. His success took the form
of Raymond Strokowski, a personable former Alcan engineer who years earlier
had lived in Ontario. Strokowski was not a mountain employee, just a regular
pass holder, something indicative of the dearth of English spoken in these
far northern reaches of Québec.

The snow continued to fall at varying intensities
as the three of us boarded the quad. At 1,148 vertical feet, Le Valinouët
is modest in size. Likewise, none of the mountain’s 25 slopes and trails
will place that sickening pit of fear into the stomach of any advanced skier
or rider. What Le Valinouët does offer, though, is a charming, natural ski
hill for the adventurous traveler when conditions further south are less than
ideal.

PENTE À BOSSES

Strokowski just didn’t understand.

During the first lift ride, our assigned host
tried to get a feel for what we wanted to experience. It had snowed all night,
and it was still snowing – what’s not to like? Leigh and I explained that
on a day like this, the less groomed, the better.

“Oh, I see … the number 5, the number 6, the number 7 and the number 8 are
all great mogul trails!”

“Not necessarily moguls,” Leigh clarified as we reached the summit, explaining
again our quest to find untracked snow.

Standing atop the hill, Strokowski approached
the subject again as if the earlier conversation never took place. “So,”
he asked, “are you ready to ski some moguls?”

Leigh and I looked at each other, shrugged our
shoulders, and followed him down the fall line to generous bumps on the trail
#7. In Strokowski’s defense, they were a soft, fluffy delight in the new
snow. Lacking any freeze/thaw cycles that create a rock-hard base underneath
the new snow, the moguls gave way with each direct assault. The most peculiar
sensation of all was the total silence that replaced the usual scratching
noise that accompanies skiing eastern trough lines. They were perhaps the
most blissful moguls that I’ve ever experienced – east or west.

Back at the base, we regrouped with Strokowski.
He turned to both of us. “Ready for more moguls?”

Leigh and I looked at each other again. We started
to say something, but then caught ourselves. Why bother?

Back at the summit, still convinced that bump
skiing was our aim, Strokowski introduced us to “the mountain’s best mogul
skiers” before we all attacked the #4. With a surface consistency identical
to that found on #7, this trail sported a double fall line and several short
ledges to spice things up a bit. Fun, fun, fun.

A CARNIVAL OF MEMORIES

Our mid-February visit coincided with the opening
href="http://www.reseau.qc.ca/carnaval/" target="_blank">Carnaval-Souvenir de
Chicoutimi
, the city’s annual winter carnival since 1961. Rather
than focusing on the current era as most winter carnivals do, the Carnaval-Souvenir
de Chicoutimi
celebrates the region’s colorful and traditional past.
We joined Perron and friends in a toast to a long life with a shot of caribou
– a feisty local concoction of brandy, vodka, sherry and port wine – before
sitting down to a mid-day meal.

At lunch in Le Yeti, Le Valinouët’s cozy
pub, local investment counselor and fellow diner Paul-Daniel Pedneault explained
that each year’s carnival looks back exactly 100 years to replicate the region’s
agriculture, industry and commerce at that time. The celebration showcases
the richness of the region’s ancestry through the life of one main character
chosen from the historical society’s files. Accordingly, we were honored
to be seated for lunch with a dozen Chicoutimi denizens adorned in top hats
and long, flowing dresses to a menu of traditional local delicacies including
several varieties of tortiere (meat pie), roast pork, potatoes and
tarte au sucre (maple sugar pie) for dessert.

The 11-day calendar of festivities includes concerts,
a figure skating performance, plays, historical presentations, sled dog races
and laser shows along with the traditional snow sculptures and children’s
activities. This past season, Le Valinouët offered CDN$ 10 daily lift tickets
for each midweek day of the carnival (US$ 6.48 at the time of this writing).
All told, the Carnaval represents a terrific cross-cultural experience
married with a cost-effective ski getaway for anyone from outside of the region.

Heavy snow fell outside Le Valinouët's base lodge. (photo: Marc Guido)

Heavy snow fell outside Le Valinouët’s base lodge. (photo: Marc Guido)

IF YOU GO …

The Roof: Privately owned condominiums and chalets in the small
Alpine Village adjacent to Le Valinouët’s slopes are available for rent.
Call 418.693.0440 for chalets or 418.696.5150 for condos, or visit the
website for href="http://www.passionquebec.qc.ca/entree/condos.html" target="_blank">Condos
Passion Québec.

Other than that, you’ll be staying in Chicoutimi or its environs, a
28-mile (45 km) drive from the mountain. A hundred rooms in a convenient
downtown location are at the century old href="http://www.hotelchicoutimi.qc.ca/" target="_blank">Hôtel Chicoutimi.
On Rte. 175, a.k.a. boulevard Talbot on the south side of the city,
numerous chain hotels such as the href="http://www.choicehotels.ca/" target="_blank">Comfort Inn and the href="http://www.gouverneur.com/english/chicoutimi/home.html" target="_blank">Hôtel
Gouverneur Chicoutimi line the street. Rooms at the Comfort Inn
include a free continental breakfast, and the Hôtel Gouverneur houses
the Restaurant La Verrière for a dinner buffet or Sunday brunch. You’ll
also find a complimentary continental breakfast at the href="http://www.lasagueneenne.com/" target="_blank">Hôtel La Saguenéenne
just off boulevard Talbot, as well as an indoor pool.

The Eats: Chez George’s Steak House, in downtown Chicoutimi
at 433 rue Racine, offers chicken and pasta dishes in addition to their
traditional beef cuts. Chef Jean-François Tremblay serves steak, seafood
and Québec cuisine at Le Deauville (720 boul. Talbot). Nouveau French
dishes are on the menu in a sophisticated environment at Restaurant
Le Privilège (1623 boul. St.-Jean-Baptiste), and Le Pachon (255 rue
Racine in downtown Chicoutimi) was a 1995 regional award winner for
its local cuisine.

This is a large community, so you’ll find all manner of cheap eats
as well, including many different fast-food options lining boulevard
Talbot. If you’re from outside the province, sampling the unique sauce
that accompanies St.-Hubert’s rotisserie chicken is a tasty and inexpensive
option.

The Fun: OK, folks, this ain’t Vail. However, in a city of
Chicoutimi’s size, you’ll find plenty to do, including mall shopping
at the 50 shops of Galeries Jonquière. We found the cybercafé on rue
Racine to be the perfect place to catch up on email or news in our native
tongue from back home while sipping a cappuccino.

Le Valinouët has its own lift-served
snow tubing park on weekends that’s even open for a second session under
the lights from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturdays. The park is also
available midweek with a group reservation.

Feeling more adventurous? How about
a snowmobile or dog sled tour with Les
Chiens et Gîtes du Grand Nord
, or <gasp!> wintertime whitewater
rafting with href="http://www.cascadeaventure.qc.ca/" target="_blank">Cascade Adventure?
Brrrrr!

The Alternatives: While too far from Québec City to consider
it as a reasonable day trip, Le Valinouët and Mont-Édouard could be
easily combined with that region’s Stoneham and Mont-Ste.-Anne in a
loop to also include Le Massif and Mont Grand-Fonds in the Charlevoix
region.

Getting There: The sprawling Bagotville Air Force Base also
functions as a terminal for commercial flights on Air Canada. Tickets
into two-bit Canadian airports come with a hefty price tag, however,
and it’s therefore far more practical to drive up from Québec City on
Rte. 175.

The Secret: The relative value of the dollar means that American
money goes a long way in Canada. U.S. residents may enjoy CDN$1.54
for every one of their dollars at the time of this writing, meaning
that everything from lift tickets to meals and hotel rooms comes at
a bargain-basement price.

As inviting as it was to linger over coffee to
soothe our full stomachs, the snow outside began again to fall in earnest.
Our table’s location next to a picture window facing the slopes didn’t help
to keep us glued to our seats. We watched through the oversized panes of
glass as the snow increased in intensity. Visibility through the wall of
falling flakes closed down to less than a hundred yards, and it wasn’t long
before we made our way past a corral filled with several dozen snowmobiles
and a shed serving traditional maple sugar on snow to again load Le Valinouët’s
quad chair.

OVERCOMING GUILT

Crowing about the short, untouched, roped-off
ledge drops below the final stretch of the summit quad, our host finally began
to understand. His recognition was thankfully just in time, for on this eighth
straight day of skiing my legs couldn’t take many more moguls.

We however headed across the hill to sample the
Versant Nord-Ouest, home to long blue runs just oozing with natural
character. The terrain on that side of the mountain felt wilder, more remote,
less refined. It was also for the most part much gentler than the terrain
at the ski area’s far eastern end. We seemed to have this hill to ourselves,
often completing an entire run without encountering any other sliders.

En route back to the main lodge, we ducked into
Le Ruisseau to try Le Valinouët’s sole contribution to the world of
glade skiing. More of a narrow chute through the woods than a glade, the
gentle pitch was speckled with adventurous kids and intermediate adults.
The tracked-out line barely held room for one skier or snowboarder at a time.
We popped out of the woods back onto trail #17 somewhat disappointed by the
experience.

Back on the resort’s main face, we continued to
drool at the short, steep shot under the chair with each successive lift ride.
Finally, we could stand it no more. “Don’t worry about it,” Strokowski assured
us. “People drop in there all the time. The patrol doesn’t mind.”

Strokowski’s reassuring words did little to assuage
my guilt as we ducked the orange tape spanning the line’s entrance. The ex-patroller
in me sometimes combines with a Catholic upbringing to tear my soul apart
when I duck a rope. Strokowski’s decision to bypass the line himself helped
even less.

At first, the ample fresh snow was too deep for
movement along the gentle top incline. Midway down, though, the line itself
began to spill downhill in a series of ledges and boulder pillows, perfectly
spaced for successive turns atop each before falling away to the next. Hip-deep
snow kept us in the fall line for a blissful experience usually reserved for
ski videos and brochures. My guilt was now buried like the boulders themselves.
Satisfied beyond belief by the run, we returned again and again until we had
completely tracked up the line – all by ourselves.

It never really stopped snowing for the duration
of our visit to Chicoutimi and Le Valinouët, and that suited both of us just
fine. The resort won’t remain in our rear view mirror for long.

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