Nordic Pilgrimage: Embracing Mont-Sainte-Anne’s Massive Trail System

The massive basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, half an hour east of Québec City on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, is the second oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in North America. Nearly one million visitors come to the town every year to renew their faith at a shrine dedicated to the grandmother of Jesus. Miracles have been happening here for more than 350 years, say believers. Pillars inside the basilica’s front entrance are adorned with crutches left behind by people whose ailments have been cured.

 

Photo courtesy of Mont-Sainte-Anne

words :: Dan Rubinstein

Lit up against the black sky, the basilica looks impressive, but I’m drawn to the hills that rise behind the town. Mont-Sainte-Anne boasts 71 runs and a 625-metre vertical drop, but my pilgrimage stretches a few minutes farther up the road. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies runs both the Mont-Sainte-Anne alpine slopes and North America’s largest nordic ski centre—200 kilometres of trails that receive an average annual snowfall of around four metres, which makes for a long and heavenly nordic season.

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And though there’s no shortage of steep, curving descents on the network of paths through the forest on the flank of the Laurentians, world-class grooming and wide corridors mean there’s little chance I’ll end up on crutches at this mecca.

 

 

“We’re not just for elite skiers—it’s for everybody,” I’m told by the director of the ski centre, Pierre Vezina, who meets me in a main chalet where nordic skiers of any ability will immediately feel comfortable: woodburning fireplace, picnic tables, cafeteria, spacious waxing room, and walls covered with dozens of photos. Olympians such as hometown hero Alex Harvey train here, and Vezina skied these trails as a member of Canada’s national team in the 1970s. He became a volunteer ski patroller in 1976, as the fledgling network was expanding toward its current mileage, and has been running the centre for the past 30 years.

One of the trails is closed today: one of the resident moose has been spotted in the area and she’s about to calf. “What can we do?” Pierre Vezina shrugs. “It’s their home too.”

Trails are groomed daily, starting at 5am, to ensure they’re are as fresh as possible when the sun comes up. The crisp tracks and silky corduroy attract a mixed crowd of more than 40,000 every winter: youth and adult racing clubs; visitors from Ontario, the Maritimes and northeastern United States; and locals who’ve been coming for decades, like Vezina’s 80-year-old father-in-law, who’ll have his morning coffee, talk to friends, knock off 15km, and repeat the routine the next day.

 

Cabane à sucre. Photo courtesy of Mont-Sainte-Anne

Vezina and I leave the chalet and take green trail 38, a rolling single-track in the woods. After half an hour, he turns back—the centre is hosting a race tomorrow and there’s work to do. I pull out my trail map and, faced with the glorious prospect of three days of solo skiing in perfect conditions, start planning the largest possible loop.

Killer trails at Mont-Sainte-Anne include black 24, which climbs and climbs a subalpine hillside and, from one of the centre’s half-dozen propane-heated backcountry cabins, offers views of the icy St. Lawrence. Swooshing down, I understand why Vezina emphasized the centre’s accessibility—the angles are steep and the turns tight, but with perfect control, the biggest challenge during the descents is the wind in my face.

The next morning I pop into the chalet to say hello to Vezina and I learn that one of the trails is closed today: one of the resident moose has been spotted in the area and she’s about to calf. “What can we do?” he shrugs.

 

Renaud Gagnon photo.

 

“It’s their home too.” The race is underway, but as Vezina had promised, despite the couple hundred people at the heart of the trail network, once you ski two kilometres away it feels like you have the forest to yourself.

A light snow drifts down from fluffy clouds playing hide and seek with the sun. Then a snow squall blows in, with winds and powdery accumulation that slow my progress. And then just as quickly as it arrived, the snow stops and the winds die down, and the vistas once again are dominated by blue sky and green pine.

Eight hours and 60-odd kilometres later, sunburnt and heavy-legged, I head back to the Château Mont-Sainte-Anne at the base of the alpine slopes for a soak in the outdoor hot tub. Then I drive down to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and park near the basilica. My destination this evening, in a sense, is a sacred place: Microbrasserie des Beaux Prés. The brewpub has 15 house-made beers on tap, including a light and hoppy pale ale named after the Mestachibo Trail, which ascends a waterfall-rich canyon with help from a pair of suspension bridges. Perhaps a summer pilgrimage, and a pint on the patio overlooking the St. Lawrence, is in order too.

 

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