My day began with a bad hotel breakfast in the city. Runny eggs, tasteless pancakes, and pulverized fruit. I got into my car and drove east to the mountains, just a 45-minute drive from downtown Quebec City. The St. Lawrence River on my right; its chop was frozen in the surface like glassed swells.
The Best Things to do in Mont Sainte Anne
When I arrived at Mont-Sainte-Anne, I didn’t feel the minus twenty Celsius the way I had in the city. The sun was strong in the sky. The gondola took me to the peak and even there things were tolerable. The mountain responded well to the plummeted temperatures; trails were well groomed and the snow in the glades hadn’t iced up. And when the wind came, it was a useful mode of transport; it blew hard to the west and I used it to propel me along the ridge to where a panorama of the city presented starkly, just a puzzle piece in the black and white world below that had been dwarfed by the expanse of snow and the cold of the St. Lawrence.
Thanks to that bad breakfast and no desire to lose time on the slopes for sub-par ski-lodge lunch, I powered on with a few handfuls of nuts and dried cranberries. But of course that doesn’t have the same sustainable qualities as bread-bowl chili. On my run down La Pichard, I came across a cabin in the woods. Inside the little window were maple syrup treats and an old man watching the snowboarders and skiers take their runs. In front of the mid-mountain cabin stood three troughs packed with snow; brown lines stained the surface.
I approached the window and after some explanation, took an extra wide popsicle stick and watched as a younger man with a plastic pitcher laid a wide line of maple syrup over the snow in the trough. We stood as the syrup hardened and, when given permission, I placed my stick at one end of the amber line. “Wait another moment,” the man explained, having gotten the consistency of maple syrup in winter down to a science. “Okay, now you can roll it.”
The syrup had hardened into a gooey taffy. I rolled the stick so that the syrup balled up on the end and glistened like a little hive.
The syrup had given me all of the energy that I needed for the next adventure, just seven kilometers from Mont-Sainte-Anne’s chairlift to the cross-country ski park that the mountain owned. With 200 kilometers of trail, this network of skiable terrain was the longest in Canada. Skating among the evergreens, over the undulating hills that were as ferocious and exuberant and wide as the ones seen on the Olympics, I was reminded much of the world’s greatest sports stage when a group of burly men in thermal tights raced past me, leaving me in their powder.
The trails were empty of wildlife, even though the forests were home to black bears and moose, a family of which had blocked off an intermediate path last winter, stationing themselves on the trail for days. Alongside the trail were cabins for breaks, which skiers could use for camping in the woods. The four benches inside folded down into double beds.
By the end of the trail, I was drenched in sweat and still unfed. But the meal would have to wait for I was just next door to Le Nordique, a Scandinavian spa.
When I entered, I was prescribed a treatment by the proprietor. He explained that I was supposed to spend ten minutes in the sauna or steam room. Next I was to plunge myself into icy waters, either the near-freezing pool awaiting in the below-twenty dusk or the lake, a farther walk through the snow. “You should dunk to your head, but at the very least, have the cold waters touch your neck,” he instructed. “And before repeating your time in the steam or sauna, you need to take a ten-minute rest, doing nothing, for the therapy to work. Save the hot tub for the end.”
I had no problems with the heat element, for I had just spent all morning and afternoon feeling the bite of Quebec’s coldest winter week. But after a quarter of an hour in the steam room, stepping out into the snow was sort of refreshing, though I felt the gravity of my next task. The pole curving into the pool and the first step were iced over, and a frosty waterfall plunged into the chilly waters. The adjacent hot tub, where women chatted, looked much more inviting. But there was no time to contemplate. If I waited, the air temperature would turn me off, so I stepped into the cold waters, dunked my head, and ran out like a rooster escaping a slaughter house, that, up to this point, had spent its entire life on a farm thinking its only purpose was to masterfully crow.
I followed the snowy path to the relaxation yurt . Inside, peaceful tribal music played, a gas cast iron stove blazed, and a tree with no leaves grew toward the circular sun roof, which displayed the sky. I laid back in one of the lounge chair rockers and studied the beams of the roof that met at the skylight like sun rays. I figured that between the cold plunge and ten minutes reserved for mindlessness, the latter would be more difficult. After all, I had done the polar bear dip on a Super Bowl Sunday in Long Beach and I was quite frankly unaccustomed to letting time just pass. My mind forever wanders. But here in the yurt, with a cold epidermis, a warm core, and a tingling being, I just tipped back in the rocker and lost track of the world.