Mont-Édouard: Venturing Into the Great Unknown

by Marc Guido

l’Anse-St. Jean (QC), Canada – I’ve never
quite understood the attraction to ice fishing. Sitting on a giant ice cube,
freezing your posterior and staring at a hole while holding a string and waiting
for something to happen just doesn’t seem like fun to me. Sure, some of those
ice-fishing huts are lavishly appointed with heaters, television sets and
couches, but why transport your living room to the middle of a frozen lake?
I’ll buy my fresh fish at the local seafood market, thank you very much.

n

Ice fishing shanties dot the Saguenay Fjord. (photo: Marc Guido)

Ice fishing shanties dot the Saguenay Fjord.
(photo: Marc Guido)

Maybe there are elements to ice fishing that I simply haven’t
figured out yet, for we were the only skiers staying at the sold-out Gîtes
du Fjord, tucked along the banks of the spectacular Saguenay Fjord in the
tiny northeastern Québec village of l’Anse-St.-Jean. The offshore ice was
speckled with hundreds of fishing shanties painted brightly in hues of red,
blue, yellow and green, along with the occasional full-sized pickup truck.
Snowmobiles ferried fishermen and supplies back and forth from the shoreline.

And seemingly half of those fishermen were filling the Gîtes
du Fjord.

EMINENTLY WILD

The Saguenay Fjord is a deep aquatic arm that stretches a hundred
and twenty-five miles northwest from the St. Lawrence River past Chicoutimi
to Lac St.-Jean. Mountains lead right up to the banks of the river before
they plunge in vast granite walls to deep below the river’s frozen surface
that’s plied by 850-foot ocean-going freighters bringing bauxite ore to a
deep-sea port in La Baie. The unique topography is due to the Saguenay’s
status as a geographic fault. Tides rise and fall in the salt water that’s
inhabited by whales in summer. It’s a very unique, very picturesque and eminently
wild place.

The same adjectives could be used to describe Mont-Édouard,
set back a few kilometers from the banks of the fjord south of l’Anse-St.-Jean.
The mountain’s ski and snowboard trails spill and tumble down its ledgey mountain
face like an out-of-control mining cart. At only 12 years of age, this ski
area’s just a young’un, and thanks to a nearly non-existent marketing budget
very few folks know of its existence even within the province of Québec.
The resort barely sees 35,000 skier visits per year, and closes for Wednesdays
and Thursdays during January and February. Summit panoramas stretch across
the fjord to the seemingly endless lines of mountains beyond, all the way
to the horizon. The mountain’s dearth of traffic combines with its exposure,
northerly latitude, and ample natural snowfall for exceptional snow preservation.

The region’s bed base is minimal, and it’s a healthy drive from
virtually any significant population center (the nearest is Québec City, nearly
150 highway miles to the southwest). The condos at Gîtes du Fjord are cozy
and comfortable with full kitchens, and many include a fireplace. All have
beautiful views across the fjord. Several other auberges (inns) and
bed-and-breakfasts exist in town, and a few pillows are located right at the
mountain in the form of Le Refuge Condominiums, but that’s really about it.

This remote anonymity is what actually drew our attention to
Mont-Édouard. There’s something to be said for the excitement of venturing
into the great unknown, and this ski area delivered. The phrase “gem in the
rough” seems overused these days, but hardly any other seems so apropos to
Mont-Édouard.

GOLDEN SILENCE

The morning dawned crisp and clear. Pulling back the blinds
to take in the view of the fjord, the fishermen were already busy staring
at their holes in the ice.

l'Anse-St.-Jean (photo: Marc Guido)

l’Anse-St.-Jean (photo: Marc Guido)

Mont-Édouard (Photo: Marc Guido)

Mont-Édouard (Photo: Marc Guido)

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.

La Passe des roches. (Photo: Mont-Édouard)

La Passe des roches. (Photo: Mont-Édouard)

Ripping up La Tableau. (Photo: Marc Guido)

Ripping up La Tableau. (Photo: Marc Guido)

A fixed grip quad chair accesses Mont-Édouard's summit. (photo: Marc Guido)

A fixed grip quad chair accesses
Mont-Édouard’s summit.
(photo: Marc Guido)

The spooky stillness in the village of l’Anse-St.-Jean was punctuated
only by the occasional staccato bark of a roaming dog as we climbed past a
granite church, a covered bridge, and white clapboard farmhouses en route
to the slopes. The silence draped a world from a simpler era, a world at
peace. Rounding a corner, we were nearly startled as Mont-Édouard suddenly
sprang into view in its full majesty.

Uphill transport on Mont-Édouard is provided by two fixed-grip
quad chairs – one ascending the mountain’s full 1,476-foot (450 m) vertical
drop, the sixth largest in Québec, and the other rising 705 vertical feet
(215 m) to mid-mountain. Trail exposures span from northeast to west, although
the principal exposure primarily faces north. Cruisers wind around large
ledge outcroppings near the center of the mountain’s summit, while expert
trails and glades take full advantage of those same ledges to tumble and spill
directly down the fall line.

Natural snowfall is prodigious in these parts. Mont-Édouard
racks up an annual average of over 225 inches (550 cm), among the top eight
snow catcher’s mitts in Québec. Our February 2002 visit, however, unfortunately
coincided with a rare freeze/thaw/refreeze cycle that had softened and subsequently
rehardened the recent snowfall. Things weren’t exactly fast and icy, but
we weren’t exactly going to enjoy the deep, fluffy powder that we had hoped
to encounter, either. It was to be one of those infamous “ya shoulda been
here two days ago” days.

The spacious and modern base lodge was nearly as deserted as
the village had been. When a ski area is barely more than a decade old, everything
seems shiny and new, and when the government pays for a good chunk of it everything
seems much larger and more lavish than it needs to be. Like many Québec ski
resorts spawned over the past two decades, Mont-Édouard was largely funded
by the provincial government to spark the fire of a dispirited local economy
that viewed winter tourism as its saving grace. Many of these resorts quickly
fell into dire financial straits only to be taken over by employee cooperatives,
as they lacked the local body count necessary to support such grandiose plans.
Mont-Édouard was not immune to this fate, even in its short life, and the
government won’t be realizing gains from their investment anytime in the immediate
future.

A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT

We somehow managed to drag a sizeable posse onto the hill.
It seemed that everyone for miles around had heard of the English-speaking
journalists scheduled to visit Mont-Édouard. Perhaps we were the first to
do so?

In any event, our group included three First
Tracks!! Online employees, numerous instructors from the resort’s ski
school, and several employees of Habanero, a custom skiwear company from Québec
City. Like us, these skiwear folks were intrigued by the mystery surrounding
Mont-Édouard. Alpine ski, telemark, and snowboard tools were all well represented.

Trails at Mont-Édouard are named only by their number, as they
seem to be at many Québecois hills. We started with a warm-up run on the
La Passe des roches cruiser from the mid-mountain chair, carving blistering
giant slalom arcs down the perfectly groomed corduroy. We were pining for
the summit, though, so we quickly boarded the resort’s other chair for a lift
to the top.

A large warming shelter decorates the mountain’s peak, complete
with fireplace and hot beverages served by the area’s ski patrol. From here,
the options are numerous. Steep gladed chutes of Refuge plunge directly below
the shelter, some barely a ski’s length wide. Mogul runs like La Clusaz and
La Desjardins head back down in the direction of the ascending chairlift.
Gentle wide cruisers such as La Tabatière and La Falaise head out to skier’s
left to skirt the mountain’s flank. A 3.2-km backcountry trail invites telemark
enthusiasts to follow the road less traveled.

It wasn’t long before we were seduced by the mountain’s charms.
While trails like the La Passe des roches have been blasted out of the massif’s
rocky steeps like a highway cut across a mountainside, others take full advantage
of the naturally undulating topography. Maybe it was to save money ordinarily
spent on blasting, or perhaps the design was intentional, but in any event
these runs were uniquely intellectual in their challenge. La Tableau and
the La Desjardins both made you think about where and how you turned. Small
ledge drops seemed to jump at you out of nowhere, somewhat hidden from view
from above.

Guido, one of the Habanero guys, was our Pied Piper. “Enough
chat – LET’S SKI!” he would shout from the top of the mountain whenever he
would grow impatient of 45 seconds of idle banter.

Eventually, our thoughts traveled further afield, and our hosts
were more than happy to oblige. Off we went to Vallée Perdu (Lost
Valley), a private stash located off-piste. Pruned by enthusiastic locals,
the entrance to the gladed run was well hidden, yet opened up into a broad
shot through the northern hardwoods. This is what we’d been looking for,
and our glee increased as did the speed of the birches flying past.

Mont-Édouard offers something for everyone, with plenty of elbow
room for all. While all abilities are well represented, experts in particular
will appreciate the natural challenges that the mountain presents.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL CATCH-22

Exhausted by our day, we joined resort marketing director Jeannot
Tremblay to down a few pints of suds in the base lodge bar. Mont-Édouard
seems confused as it tries to figure out what it wants to be when it grows
up.

Lacking a local population of any significance, Mont-Édouard
can’t survive as a day ski and snowboard area. Wintertime unemployment in
the area hovers around the unimaginable 40% mark. With Stoneham, Le Relais,
Mont-Ste.-Anne and Le Massif all within close proximity to Québec City, you
have to give skiers and snowboarders ample reason to drive much further afield
in order to succeed as a weekend destination resort. Ski weekers, on the
other hand, need to either live much closer to the resort than they do to
Mont-Édouard, or have easy and inexpensive air access, and in either event
the resort region needs sufficient density to keep them amused and entertained
for five to seven days. To succeed in any of these endeavors, you need ample
capitalization.

IF YOU GO

The Roof:
We stayed at the
Gîtes
du Fjord
, a charming
collection of condos on the shore of the Saguenay. Many units include
a fireplace. It’s only 10 minutes from the lifts.

The Auberge du Mont-Édouard
(418.272.3359) offers clean and comfortable rooms at a reasonable
price, situated at the foot of the ski area’s access road. The l’Auberge
des Cévennes offers all-inclusive packages, including lift
tickets.

Bed-and-breakfasts in l’Anse-St.Jean
include le Gîte du Capitaine (418.272.4444), le Gîte de
l’Anse-Etre (418.272.1551), la Maison Agapé (440-427-3791),
le Gîte de la montagne (418.272-3388), and la Ferme es Trois
cours d’eau (418.272.2944).

If you’re looking to stay right at
the ski area, your only option is Le Refuge Condos (418.272.2821).

The Eats: There’s not an awful
lot to choose from in town for dinner
.
The dining room at Les Gîtes du Fjord offers solid staples with
a stunning view of the Saguenay.

The Diversions: What diversions?
Seriously, though, the area is the jumping-off point for backcountry
excursions up to 5 days in length through the
Parc
du Saguenay
. That’s
about it, unless you’re into ice fishing or snowmobiling.

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.

The Alternatives: While too
far from Québec City to consider it as a reasonable day trip,
Mont-Édouard
and nearby Le
Valinouët
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.

The frozen Saguenay. (Photo: Marc Guido)

The frozen Saguenay.
(Photo: Marc Guido)

Mont-Édouard, however, presently fails to generate sufficient
revenue to build this density, yet they can’t grow their revenues without
increasing their skier visits and ancillary business. Damned if you do, and
damned if you don’t.

Resort management is presently focusing their limited marketing
attention on the Québec City region, aiming to draw to Mont-Édouard those
skiers and snowboarders from the provincial capital city who crave wild snow.
The hope is that organic growth will eventually germinate to the point that
development may be supported.

Vacation options do exist for those from points further afield,
but Mont-Édouard’s management seemed to show little interest in pursuing them
at this time. Combined with nearby Le Valinouët just north of Chicoutimi,
Mont Édouard could be crafted into a giant looping ski and snowboard road
trip that could potentially include Le Massif, Mont Ste.-Anne and Stoneham.
Carte Blanche, a coordinated marketing effort between the latter three ski
areas, has already achieved a modicum of success after only several years.
The href="http://www.fairmont.com/FA/en/CDA/Home/Hotels/AboutHotel/CDHotelHomePage/0,2993,property%25255Fseq%253D100123,00.html">Fairmont
Manoir Le Richelieu, roughly equidistant between Mont-Édouard and Le Massif
in the St. Lawrence shorefront town of La Malbaie, is a sprawling century-old
resort and casino styled after a French castle that could easily package ski
and snowboard vacations with Mont-Édouard to develop the region to everyone’s
advantage as a winter destination.

Right now, though, Mont-Édouard has codified its plans for the
future in the form of a limited alpine village of chalets and condominium
units surrounding Le Refuge Condos at the base of the lifts. Only two single-family
chalets have been built to date, and with the current number of snowsports
enthusiasts finding their way to Mont-Édouard it’s hard to envision a building
boom taking place. Even if the village never materializes, as long as Mont-Édouard
can keep the lights on it’s just fine just the way it is: an Adventure, with
a capital “A.”