Owl’s Head: An Intermediate Alternative

Mansonville (QC), Canada – In 1960, Canadian construction magnate
Fred Korman had a vision to develop a ski resort on Owl’s Head, a shark tooth-shaped
monadnock on the shores of Lac Memphremagog in Québec, a few short
miles north of the Vermont border. He purchased and developed the land, and
by 1965 two chairlifts carried skiers to the first ribbons of white alpine
ski trails on the mountain.


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Owl’s Head trail map
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Today, the skiing on 750 acres of land is enabled by two high-speed detachable
quad chairlifts and five double chairs – enough lift capacity to service 10,000
skiers and riders per hour. At 540 meters or 1772 feet, Owl’s Head’s vertical
drop is tied with nearby Mont Orford for the highest in Québec’s Eastern
Townships, and also tied for the third highest in the Province.

While it’s easy to imagine that the mountain’s name arises from its
contour, the true reason is far more interesting.  The Abenaki natives,
who for generations inhabited this beautiful area, named the mountain in
honor of their departed great chief, “Owl.”  They believed that the
mountain’s outline resembled the great chief’s profile as he lay in a state
of repose.

Owl’s Head has a reputation as the family resort of Québec’s Eastern
Townships. Up to 125,000 skiers and riders enjoy its pistes annually, and with
numbers like that you’re nearly assured of elbow room. Our visit occurred on
a January Friday, and we felt like we had the place to ourselves all day. 
The Townships are known as a weekend “cottage community” for Montréalers,
and many such homesites speckle the western shores of Memphremagog.  The
region lies plus or minus one hour from the Montréal metropolitan area,
and the drive to Owl’s Head itself is an easy 90-minute weekend escape for that
city’s dwellers.  Likewise, access from the major northeastern U.S. metro
areas is surprisingly quick and easy, via interstates 91 and 93.  The drive
time from Boston is well under four hours.

(photo courtesy Owl's Head Resort)
Owl’s Head (photo
courtesy Owl’s Head Resort)

A partially-frozen Lac Memphremagog forms the backdrop for "The Wall" on the Colorado trail (photo Marc Guido)
A partially-frozen
Lac Memphremagog forms the backdrop for “The Wall” on the Colorado trail
(photo Marc Guido)

The novice double and summit detachable quad rise from Owl's Head's base lodge (photo Marc Guido)
The novice double
and summit detachable quad rise from Owl’s Head’s base lodge (photo Marc

The view from Lily's Leap includes Lac Memphremagog stretching into the U.S. (photo courtesy Owl's Head Resort)
The view from Lily’s
Leap includes Lac Memphremagog stretching into the U.S. (photo courtesy
Owl’s Head Resort)

The reading room at the appartement hôtel (photo Marc Guido)
The reading room at
the appartement hôtel (photo Marc Guido)

The auberge sits atop the Owl's Head base lodge (photo Marc Guido)
The auberge sits atop the Owl’s Head base lodge (photo Marc Guido)

Although Owl’s Head has some runs with a pitch, everything is groomed nightly.
No trail is earmarked as a dedicated bump run. It’s perhaps for this reason
that Owl’s Head has a reputation as a mountain without significant challenge.
It’s not lacking in steeps, however, as the narrow Grand Allée reaches
47 degrees and “The Wall” on the Colorado trail reaches 43 degrees. “It’ll separate
the men from the boys,” cautioned Ski School Director Frank Simms. While groomed,
the terrain maintains the natural contour of the hill – all of the dips, rolls
and dives remain to be enjoyed.  One marked sous-bois (glade) parallels
the summit chairlift, and a half-pipe and terrain park are both available for
interested snowboarders and adventurous new-school skiers.

Simms has been at Owl’s Head since its inception. A graceful skier with animated
eyes and engaging stories of the early days of Québecois skiing, he served
as the perfect ambassador to lead us about the mountain. Owl’s Head is famous
for its views of Lac Memphremagog stretching off to the horizon, but unfortunately
for us the weather did not cooperate during our visit. We were reluctant to
complain, however, for after a dismal start to the 1999/2000 ski season, snow
had finally arrived. Given a choice between views and new snow, we’ll take freshies
any time!

Snowmaking raged on the Kamikaze trail as we ascended the summit detachable
quad.  Owl’s Head was somewhat late in entering the snowmaking game
in 1983, but pipes now access 85% of the skiable terrain. The 26-mile-long
Lac Memphremagog has to be the ultimate snowmaking reservoir.  Simms
clearly enjoyed retelling the tale of the snowmaking system designer’s
shock when he first laid eyes on the “pond.”

Simms was also happy to discuss his Ski School programs.  Besides the
typical ski weeks for vacationers and the standard group and private lessons,
they offer a nine-week program which covers nine consecutive Saturdays and Sundays,
from January into March.  Designed for never-evers as well as seasoned
snow sliders aged 6 to 13, these programs set the student up with the same instructor
week after week.  $125 CDN will purchase the lesson portion of the program,
and the Kid’s Club offers a similar curriculum for ages 3 to 5.  The latter
sells for $180 CDN because they keep the instructor to student ratio at 4:1,
and each instructor has at least one apprentice instructor with them at all
times. (All prices mentioned are 1999/2000 season rates.)

Ascending from the very edge of the Memphremagog lakeshore, Owl’s Head’s newest
detachable quad was relocated from Breckenridge during the summer of 1999. At
a line speed of 615 feet per minute, it’s perhaps best to refer to this Doppelmayr
as “detachable” rather than the marketing-friendly moniker of “high-speed.”
It replaces the former Orange double chair, and while that lift remains in its
place for the 1999/2000 season, future plans call for a relocation, possibly
to the steep bowl descending eastward from the summit toward the lake. 
Other development plans call for the widening of the Sugarbush trail, along
with the addition of gladed terrain near its end, and finishing the Lakeview
and Couloir trails with snowmaking.

We found enough to keep us occupied on this day, despite the limited terrain
offerings courtesy of La Nina.  Centennial was a blistering high-speed
cruise.  Lily’s Leap, Ski Canada Magazine’s mention for best views
in Québec, wound its way down the eastern summit with entertaining switchback
turns.  To take advantage of the full vertical drop, one has to continue
below Lily’s Leap to the new detachable quad, which brings one back up roughly
halfway and just above the elevation of the “base” lodge.  While the groomers
were fast, we delighted in thick, heavy,  wind-crusted chowder on Colorado. 
Simms was right – the upper part of Colorado definitely has some pitch. 
Did I mention that the chowder was heavy??  Heavy enough to rip the binding
heelpiece from one of our companion’s skis, and after 30 fruitless minutes of
digging and searching he trotted off on a long walk to the base lodge. 
Alas, we were unable to sample such delights as Grand Allée and le
due to the dearth of early-season snowfall.  Kamikaze was
also on the “off-limits” list, although the arsenal blazing from top to bottom
assured us that the run was soon to open.

Owl’s Head has a significant on-mountain bed base for a resort of its size,
yet the uphill capacity far outstrips the available accommodations. An appartement
provides 36 units ranging in size from one to three bedrooms,
an auberge (inn) is built above the base lodge and contains 20 basic
hotel rooms, and privately-owned condominiums and townhouses dot the lower flanks
of the mountain. Roughly a dozen small B&B’s provide the only off-mountain
accommodations this side of Magog (30 minutes away), and the resort maintains
a list to aid the vacationer in locating these properties. Package options are
also available.

Various off-season activities are available at the resort.  In 1992, Owl’s
Head constructed an 18-hole golf course at its base, and a Québecois
French-language golfing magazine just recently named it the best resort golf
course in the Province. Other off-season amenities include a lakeside marina
open to the public with dockside water and shore power, and tennis courts.

Owl’s Head participates in the Ski East marketing relationship with nearby
Bromont, Mont Orford and Mont Sutton. Multi-day tickets of 4 consecutive days
or more offer full interchangability with the other resorts, and the “4X4” is
a coupon book redeemable for one day ticket at each of the resorts, good for
any day of the season. The “4X4” may be purchased at any of the resorts or at
a Sports Experts store in Québec for $84.44 CDN plus tax for adults and
students, $66 CDN plus tax for children ages 6 to 13.  Jay Peak, Vermont
is also a mere 20 minutes across the border, although it appears nearly close
enough to reach out and touch.

Anglophones need not be apprehensive about visiting this part of Québec. 
Pockets of the English language remain embedded in the landscape of the Eastern
Townships, dating back over 200 years to the American Revolutionary War when
British Loyalists fled the colonies to the nearest Crown land.  Today,
Owl’s Head’s home of Mansonville remains one of these enclaves.  The village
of Mansonville itself is a quiet stop along route 243, but hosts surprises such
as Owl’s Bread, a bistro and bakery where the croissants chocolat, truffles
and cheeses are a must-have.  Delightful sandwiches and meals are served
in the adjoining dining room.  Restaurant Petite Europe, just north of
town, is a haven of eastern European cuisine, where the braised goose liver
comes highly recommended.

Owl’s Head is a find.  Intermediates will find it to be an exciting alternative
to the pricey, first-tier resorts, while more adventurous skiers may take advantage
of the Ski East program to create an engaging ski week along with the other
nearby resorts.  In any event, it’s much closer to home than you think.

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