Posted November 26th, 2008
The mountain, Nicol-Albert, viewed from the route up Mont 780, in the Chic-Choc Mountains. The international extension of the Appalachian Trail tags its summit, and the snowcat route to the lodge passes directly beneath its slopes. Photo by Peter Bronski.
Let’s be honest. New England can have a reputation for icy skiing. Anyone who grew up skiing in the east knows that’s true. And so is another rule: the farther northeast you go, the better the powder gets. This is no secret to backcountry skiers, who’ve schussed the slides of the Adirondacks, glades of Vermont, and bare summit cones and open bowls of New Hampshire for years.
Take the “go northeast” rule to its extreme, and you’ll come to the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec. It’s there that you’ll find the Chic-Choc Mountains (pronounced “shick shock”). I’d heard rumors about the Chic-Chocs, mythical tales of powder like the Rockies, tons of vertical, glacially-carved bowls above treeline, and terrific glades below. With a reputation like that, I had to see it—and ski it—for myself.
Which is how I ended up on a small charter plane flying from Montreal to Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, a small town along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. From there I transferred to a snowcat in the nearby town of Cap Chat for an almost two-hour ride up into the heart of the Chic-Choc Mountains. My ultimate destination was the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge (CCL), a luxury, eco-friendly, wilderness lodge deep in the mountains.
The $6 million lodge was built and is managed by SEPAQ, Quebec’s provincial equivalent of a national park system. The first guests arrived December 26, 2005, making this 2008/2009 season just the fourth winter of operation. The lodge and its environs remain an undiscovered secret. Despite SEPAQ’s desire to attract an international clientele (especially from eastern North America)—and having the accommodations and terrain to do so—more than 90 percent of the lodge’s guests are from Quebec (I was the only non-Quebecois, non-French speaker on the snowcat).
CCL sits within the Matane Wildlife Reserve, and the 60 square kilometers immediately surrounding the lodge have been set aside for passive recreation and wildlife viewing. The Reserve, in turn, is adjacent to another protected area set aside for a herd of 200 caribou. And that property, in its turn, is adjacent to the Parc de la Gaspesie. The point is, the lodge is set amid some stunning scenery that SEPAQ intends to keep that way.
As we climbed into the mountains, we crossed the international extension of the Appalachian Trail. Then we saw three moose, and soon, a fourth. Matane, it turned out, is home to the highest moose concentration in Quebec… nearly five per square kilometer. The name Chic-Choc means “impenetrable wall” in the native Micmac language, and as we snaked our way through tight valleys, craning our necks to look skyward at the summits, I began to get a sense for why those mountains earned that name.
At last we arrived at the lodge, where its small family of guides and caretakers waited to greet us. Inside was as you might expect from such a lodge—a wood-burning fireplace stood at the center of a great room, while panoramic windows looked out on two high summits—Monts Collins and Matawees. The entire lodge had a complete lack of television, telephone, radio, and internet (save for one communication station in the guide’s office used for emergencies). The lodge did have, on the other hand, a wonderful excess of relaxation, wilderness solitude, and outdoor recreation opportunity. And the experience is intimate, catering to a maximum of 32 guests at a time (we quickly became like family, eating meals together at long tables and adventuring outdoors in groups).
An uncharacteristic warm spell with rain one week before my arrival in late February 2008 left an ice crust that hadn’t yet been sufficiently buried or bonded to by 10cm of recent snow. As a result, the next day we opted to snowshoe instead of backcountry ski, setting our sights on Mont Coleman, a picturesque peak that partially dominates the view from the lodge.
That night, we retreated to the comfort of the lodge, a hot meal of regional cuisine (pan-seared sea scallops, venison ossobuco, and “pouding chomeur”), and a glass of red wine. Normally accustomed to winter camping, hut systems, and other rustic accommodations, I quickly decided that I could get used to CCL-style adventure.
Overnight and throughout the next day, the snow gods blessed us with over a foot of fresh powder. Then, on the fourth day of my five-day visit, I experienced the epic skiing I had hoped and come for. The snowcat delivered us to the base of Mont Frere du Nicol-Albert, where six of us spilled out, clicked into our skis, and began skinning up the peak. Each run down its northeast face yielded 1,000 feet of vertical at a consistent 30-degree pitch through open glades. The powder flowed over my chest as I hooted and hollered my way down. We did four laps in all, totaling more than 4,000 vertical feet of some of the best skiing I’ve had in the East.
Soon, my trip was coming to a close. I would be leaving behind the relaxing, comfortable rhythm of ski, eat hot food, drink wine, sleep in warm bed, repeat.
I returned to Colorado, though, feeling as though I hadn’t experienced the Chic-Chocs and CCL to their fullest. As a solo traveler and journalist, I felt bound to stick with the guided excursions, both for the sake of writing about that experience, and also for my own safety. But the independent, self-sufficient backcountry skier in me saw infinitely more opportunity for exploration and adventure with a group of friends who could break away from the structured trips (I fully plan on convincing those friends to venture back to CCL with me).
Even so, CCL and the Chic-Chocs offered up an experience that could inspire any backcountry skier, whether solo, with a partner, or with a group. The “impenetrable wall” of those mountains isn’t quite as difficult to access as it once was, thanks to the lodge. And if you call yourself a backcountry skier, you owe it to yourself to experience CCL and the Chic-Chocs.
IF YOU GO
The Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge (www.sepaq.com/chc/en/accueil.html)
operates December 26 through April 13. The snowcat takes guests to and from the lodge on Mondays and Fridays (meaning you can schedule Fri-Mon, Mon-Fri, or Mon-Mon/Fri-Fri trips). Chartered flights are available from Montreal. Otherwise, the reception office in Cap Chat is nine hours by car from Montreal. If you’re driving, you can bring your own gear. Because of weight and space constraints on the flight, guests aren’t permitted to bring skis (CCL provides skis, boots, skins, poles, and avalanche beacon free of charge to all guests). Lastly, room rates are $298-$310 per person per night for adults, double occupancy, excluding taxes.