Flight to the east: Riding Québec's eastern townships 

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN - The sun casts shadows in the enchanted glades of Sutton.
  • Photo by tobias c. van Veen
  • The sun casts shadows in the enchanted glades of Sutton.
 

Like its lakes, Whistler is seasonally stocked with transplanted Easterners having fled the flatlands and blizzards for the genuine goods of the high alpine — but it is a rare case indeed that a Westerner flies east to ride on wheels or planks in the rolling hills. Nonetheless, this was to be my fate: a perennial return to Québec, where I once spent seven years in the purgatory of graduate school, so as to ride once again in the small eastern hills that surround Montreal. With this travel guide, I prepare those of you in the Sea to Sky for the perhaps inevitable return "back east" — or at least those seeking careers beyond the construction and outdoor industries, as well as a dose of dirty and unfiltered arts, culture, and music mixed with some decently affordable living.

So, I'll stick with all the good news.

Riding in all seasons and by all means is plentiful throughout the region. In the depths of a Québecois winter, powder-hunting options abound, from Tremblant's Village bling in the Laurentians — kind of like a simulacrum of Whistler, which is already a Disneyfied copy of some platonic alpine village — to the dry and light powder dumps of Mont St-Anne and Le Massif just north of Québec City. Setting aside these more distant (and expensive) options, 30 minutes outside of Montreal lies the dual-mountain combo of Monts Avila and St-Sauveur, the park-and-pipe mecca for the urban newschooler crowd and a decent bite of tree and bump skiing to boot. I've had the pleasure of being stuck here during winter blizzards that shuttered the highway, leaving a few stragglers and the lifties to ride wave after wave of crystalline pow.

Seeking longer lines, it's time to go farther east, old man, where straightlines can hit 30 seconds to the base and where the shimmering lights of suburbia are not to be seen. As you drive east on Autoroute 10 from the city, you hit the region known as the Eastern Townships. Closest to Montreal is Mont-Bromont, about a one-hour, screaming drive out through the flatlands, where the hills arise like cabbages, dotted with crosses.

Bromont — which as far as I know stands for "mountain of bros" — gets the job done with its comprehensive night skiing, some trees, bumps, and features to pluck around in, and eight chairs covering seven versants ("sides"). Throw in a cheap Sweetpass deal offering summer mountain biking, waterpark access and winter skiing, with plenty of on-hill lodging at the Chateau Bromont and a burgeoning market for condo development and rental, and you've got a decent party-and-pleasure pad for nightly and weekend getaways. The old village is lined up with fine dining restaurants well worth exploring, and around the corner is the exquisite thermotherapy of Spa Balnea. On hill, the youthful blooded will appreciate the Nuit Blanche parties, with the lifts turning late and DJs keeping dancefloors busy at the base. Those well over the hill will appreciate the numerous family-friendly zones, with plenty of introductory terrain and packaged feeding for the groms.

During the summer, Bromont features some of the region's only lift-served downhill mountain biking, as well as a series of community-cut cross-country trails on its (officially) closed backside. Along with its comfortably newbie trails, Bromont's downhill riding has some surprisingly gnarly sections, featuring both traditional roots-and-rocks skidfests as well as some newer flows with well-maintained berms and rolling kicks. As primarily a XC rider, I found the DH terrain enough of a rocking affair to get my blood racing, and there were virtually no line-ups or crowds to speak of, with plenty of time to sample the trails at leisure — or at speed. Certainly the terrain can be steep enough: the Canadian Downhill Championships were once held here, even if the trail is now all but decommissioned (you can try it if you ask nice, apparently).

Driving farther east reveals two destinations of note: Mont-Orford, in the national park of the same name, and the charms of Mont-Sutton. Beyond both lies the national park of Mont-Mégantic, which is well-worth exploring for its superior snowpack on a multi-day getaway, but only for nordic skiing and snowshoeing, as there is no downhill area.

Orford is a worthy visit in winter for its quiet downhill runs and treed terrain — particularly the bushwacking to be had off the Double Alfred chair — as well as the enclosed luxury of riding in its Hybrid Gondola to the 850-metre summit. Beyond the ski hill, the Park itself is renowned for its nordic and snowshoe trails that criss-cross the terrain, including a 16-kilo-metre return loop to the summit and back for the stompers and over 50 kilometres of groomed nordic skiing — don't let the mild terrain fool you, trying to keep pace on long nordic planks in subzero temperatures whilst soaking in athletic sweat is a whole new level of sensational suffering, one that requires substantial de-icing in front of toasty fires and the warming of fleshy appendages with scandously dark liquor (preferrably a Unibroue Fin du Monde or Dieux de Ciel malt).

Orford's summer can be just as sweet: bordering the Appalachian Mountains, over 80km of trails abound in all directions for explorations of the unfolding but still challenging terrain, including the reservation-only Des Crêtes backpacking trail. Two pristine lakes offer canoeing and kayaking, and Orford has a craggy selection of sport and mixed single pitch rock climbing.

Come winter though, it's to Mount Sutton that the powder hound is drawn, and for good reason — its trails are hand-cut and crafted to form dozens of winding paths and junctions through exquisite stands of eastern alder and maple. With 45 per cent treed terrain, the atmosphere is like Lothlórien forest without all the elves and a whole lot more slightly-tipsy Québecois, riding from one fireplaced chalêt to the next (there's four). Wandering paths cut for riders of all abilities, as well as a number of decent bowling-alley descents for the vertically-starved, makes Sutton a must for Québec-bound riders. In fact, more than any other mountain, anywhere, I would recommend riders new to tree-skiing to try Mt Sutton; for the well-seasoned, you're in for a boutique experience indeed. Its long, ridge-like hill, built like a mini-Mount Baker, appears to contain something of its own microclimate, sucking in storms that deliver some of the best blower dumps in the northeast. The backside of Sutton's ridge also features hike-access slackcountry — with stashes to be had — and altogether the refreshingly non-commercial vibe and rancher architecture positioning Sutton at the heart of skiing in the northeast.

For more on Mount Sutton, visit mountsutton.com. Bromont can be bro'ed at SkiBromont.com, Orford at Orford.com and the Parks at Sepaq.com. Soak in the spa at Balnea.ca. General region info can be had at QuebecOriginal.com.

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