We are "under the wood." Sous bois, as they say in French. And my friends' shouts — bending around trunks and muffled by the dense canopy only a metre above our heads — remind me that there's a surprising amount of both space and snow lurking under these twisted birches and stunted conifers.
Should I be surprised? After all, the small, out-of-the-way ski area of Massif du Sud, located on the Maine border directly below the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and several hours east of Montreal, receives almost seven metres of snow a year. And from late January to February it only opens weekends, delivering whatever the week's weather has accumulated. This particular week, for Friday skiers like us, the low crowds and an ancient, plodding quad chair that represents the area's only lift means a day of fresh tracks in 30-40 cm that lasts well into the afternoon. On a cold day (admittedly most here), the lift's excruciatingly long ride isn't for the faint of circulation, but it is a perfect formula for those who love the powdery siren call of eastern trees.
Tree skiing, as Whistlerites well know, offers a different aesthetic than piste or even natural alpine features like bowls and chutes. But eastern tree skiing — lacking the West's fuzzy warmth and palisades of cathedral spires — is altogether different. You're both below the wood and very much in it, a primal state that seems to answer a distant, inner calling. The world of trees is a realm populated by beings whose sentinel nature is their very allure, as if they both conjure experience and bear witness to it. Perhaps they do: recent research has shown that the human genome has some 20,000 genes, while a poplar tree's comprises 45,000. What does it mean when the complexity of the human brain is governed by fewer genes than a block of wood? Clearly wisdom, stoicism and vigilance require a lot of DNA.
For the skier, trees are shelter and refuge from the storm. For the snow that finds its way into them, they act as filter and preservative, minimizing the effects of wind and sun. Natural microclimates also help: a mountain that spends a lot of quality time with its head in the clouds tends to pull down significantly more snow than neighbouring peaks. In the East such places are few and far between, but where they are found, it's the trees and the soft turns to be found beneath them that rule that mountain's personality. And few mountains can boast of a personality as knotty as Massif du Sud's, where an astounding 50 per cent of the place is glades.
Today we're following man-of-the-mountain (i.e. marketing director) Morgan Robitaille and a local hardcore named (of course) Guy — a 60-something skydiver who makes about 500 jumps each summer — through the mountain's labyrinthine woods. These glades are no marketing ploy; instead, they're a patient trust between forest and human. Guy has been here long enough to tell us how he and others waited years until the trees on certain slopes had grown big enough to be gladed out. He does a lot of work on slopes like the "17," a former out-of-bounds area that was being used so much that the resort simply decided to add it on (similarly, there's an "18" waiting in the wings). As we descend the 17 in sections, Guy recalls how he worked on it for fifteen days the previous summer. It's unbelievably spacious — even more so than western alpine glades — and the wood is left on the ground instead of being dragged out, keeping the forest's energy system healthy and intact.
In the few years he's been here, Morgan has done a great job of bringing the resort in line with this ethos, making it eco-friendly and forward thinking. The daylodge food isn't what you'd expect in a backwoods ski operation, the menu featuring items that range from bison burgers to Vietnamese Pho soup. Real estate development around Massif du Sud is both limited and low-key compared to other Quebec ski areas, preserving the homey, pastoral feel of the place. Not to mention preserving the full-on madman mentality that also seems to pervade many tree-skiing areas: the annual mogul race that takes place in March on the 40-degree pitch of "La Suprenante" always draws a huge crowd to watch a combination of thrills, spills and potential carnage.
Massif du Sud's bauplan of upper-mountain tunnels burrowing through boreal brocade before spilling into a lower-mountain hardwood fantasyland is unique, but it's not the only infamous tree-skiing area in Quebec. Massif du Sud's best attraction is that few have heard of it, even those bark-loving aficionados who haunt the granddaddies of Quebec tree-skiing — Mont Ste.-Anne and Le Massif on the north shore of the St. Lawrence east of Quebec City, and the Eastern Townships' Mont Sutton.
Most ski-area glades are friendly enough for most folks, but Quebec's natural trees aren't for everyone: they're the rough bouncers at an exclusive club ready to repel anyone who doesn't belong, and a girded honour guard to welcome those who do. But if you're a powderhound at all, it's a club well worth joining. You can still count yourself an off-piste outlaw, but with eastern resorts' newfound love of glading, these days skiing the woods there is an act full of promise that doesn't always involve ordering up a bark sandwich.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.