Powder Freeway East: Mission Québec

Words :: Philip Nathans

There’s a certain magic in ski trips.

You dream about them for weeks ahead, you study the trail maps online, you browse photos of the resorts and watch the weather, hoping for the type of snowstorms that start just after you’ve arrived and hopefully close the highways so you get the place all to yourselves.

When the day arrives, you’re usually up early, leaving in the wee hours, butterflies in your belly, sipping coffee, listening to good tunes on the road, and feeling the anticipation of good things to come. You’re with your peeps, about to shred deep pow. What could be better?

article continues below

The plane ride to BC, however, can indeed be a bit of a buzzkill. So is going through security. Planes rides: Meh. Whatever.

So this year, our usual crew of guys decided to go east. Road trip. Our destination: the fabled eastern champagne powder and steeps at both Le Massif de Charlevoix and then onto Mont-Sainte-Anne. We were pumped. Was Highway 401 a bit of a buzzkill? Sure. The excitement of stopping at Tims for some cardboard-like sandwiches and watery coffee has long ago lost its shine. But whatever. We cranked some tunes, and rolled on east, navigating transport trucks and barreling down what we dubbed the New Powder Freeway, Eastern Edition: the 401.


Sunrise in the idyllic Île d'Orléans region outside of Québec City
Mont-Sainte-Anne, seen from the Île d’Orléans. Photo: Francis Gagnon

Some people complain about cold. They’re like, “Oh man it was so cold in Québec. We had to spend time in the lodge to warm up.” I’m assuming these are the same type of people who complain about heat in the summer, rain in the spring, and maybe that their slippers are too fuzzy. I’m not one of those guys. Cold? Just wear thicker gloves. Cover your face. That type of thing. However, was the cold in the parking lot at Le Massif de Charlevoix so penetrating and sharp that it actually hurt to be outside? Almost. That didn’t stop us however. We had driven 14 hours and we were ready to burn off some Tim Hortons energy.

Le Massif de Charlevoix boasts a vertical drop of 2,526 ft, the highest in Eastern Canada. The winding drive to the summit (yes, the main parking lot off the highway is at the summit of this resort) is a spectacular tour through frosted trees with sweeping views of the surrounding mountainous region. The views from resort itself, down to the mighty Saint Lawrence, are a sight to behold.

Le Massif, in the Charlevoix Region. Photos: Pierre Gouyou-Beauchamps

With a five-year annual snowfall average of 645cm, we were excited of things to come.  Unfortunately, our first lesson in French was to learn the meaning of the phrase, “Pluie Tabernac.” “Pluie” means rain, and I’m sure you can guess what “Tabernac” means.  One of the very best-snowfall early-seasons in recent history (powder, powder, powder and very happy skiers), was all but erased by three days of rain followed by a bone-chilling temperature plunge to -35C.

Le Massif’s fabled sidecountry terrain (Le Sectuer Hors Piste) that we had been so stoked to shred was closed. Instead we found our selves ripping long and satisfying perfect blue corduroy groomers (the type of run where you let ‘er wide open and not worry about a sudden mogul hidden in flat light or a steep spill-over out of nowhere), all the down to the Saint Lawrence. Nothing wrong with that at all. It was fun. But fast means colder still. We were happy to retire to the Hotel and Spa Le Germain Charlevoix in nearby Baie de Saint Paul.


Réserve faunique des Laurentides near ; Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Photos: Deschênes, Steve
‘Shoeing the Charlevoix. Photo: Steve Deschênes

As matter of note, you could simply make this 4-star hotel a destination in and of itself.  A collection of new arty modern buildings nestled onto farmer’s fields in the scenic valley, Le Germaine boasts two world-class restaurants serving exceptional and local fare, an outdoor skating rink (and yes, they let you play shinny on it) and impeccable modern rooms with loads of colour. Then there’s the spa: a Finnish sauna, eucalyptus steam rooms, and outdoor thermal hot pools right at the edge of a sheep and cow pasture (the same pasture that supplies the kitchen). Very cool.


Mont Sainte-Anne near Quebec City. Photos: Gagnon, Francis
Ripping fresh groomers at Mont-Sainte-Anne. Photo: Francis Gagnon

It’s hard not to love the way the way snow accumulates. After that tragic Pluie Tabernac, and in the subsequent cold snap, Mother Nature had been consistently sprinkling a light dusting of snow out the almost clear blue sky. But by the time we arrived at our next stop, Mont-Sainte-Anne, that dusting had accumulated into 15cm. Overnight, every night during our stay, Mother Nature provided an extra 5cm. So the next thing you know, all of that fresh dusted snow has accumulated up in the steeps and in places where it has drifted a bit there can be pockets of glorious deepness. Add to that this simple and wonderful technique my friends and I have developed as powder-hounds: Search out the closed, steep gladed runs (the runs they don’t groom) and be there when the ribbons lift. Sainte-Anne had closed many of these runs due to the rain. So, while the base had fared better than elsewhere, the extra 20–30cm made for some deep snow and on the day we arrived, we were rewarded. The ribbons were lifted, and the glades opened up. Plus it was Wednesday. Most of the other skiers during our stay stuck to the groomed runs, while my friends and I put in thigh-burning laps on pitch perfect deep-snow eastern maple and oak tree glades.

Mont Sainte-Anne near Quebec City. Photos: Gagnon, Francis
Mont-Sainte-Anne overlooking the St. Lawrence. Photos: Francis Gagnon

Mont-Sainte-Anne is a big hill. You feel like you are in the mountains, because, well, the thing is a mountain. The Gondola runs from bottom to top, the views of the Saint Lawrence are spectacular. On clear days, you can actually see all the way to Québec City’s iconic Château Frontenac, and its not inconceivable to say that one could ski all day at Sainte-Anne, then go into Québec City for some distinct French city culture at night.


The fall lines on the gladed runs go on forever. You don’t need big BC mountains to have an incredible powder experience. You just need two things: fall lines, and conditions. At night, after dining at the newly renovated Chateau Mont-Sainte-Anne’s exceptional in-house Bistro Nordik, and savouring exceptional bière from the local Microbrasserie De Beaux, we were indeed satisfied. Our thighs were burnt after three days of gladed goodness and we were ready to head back down the 401. Funny, Tim Hortons always seems to taste a little better when your thighs are burned right out.

Everything you need to know about skiing/snowboarding in Québec is here.