Canada's Laurentians: quaint towns, maple syrup, omelettes, and lots of skiing

Gilles Goyer was a 12-year-old Boy Scout on a wilderness survival training trek when he first met Herman Smith-Johannsen. "I'll never forget him, because as he walked through the woods, you never heard his feet touch the ground," said Mr. Goyer, now in his 30s. He is marketing director of the Association Touristique des Laurentides, the governmental agency for the province of Quebec that promotes tourism in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.

Herman Smith-Johannsen is a Norwegian- born Canadian citizen who is indirectly responsible for the development of cross-country skiing in the region. M r. Johannsen will be 105 years old this June and still skis. He became known as "Okumakun Wapoos" (Jack Rabbit) to the Cree Indians, whom he befriended back in the 1920s, because he moved on skis with such speed and grace over the hilly, forested Quebec terrain.

"Daddy was one of the first to come up to the Laurentians from Montreal on weekends to go cross-country skiing for his own pleasure," said Jack Rabbit's daughter, Peggy Austin, who with her husband, Peter, manufactures ski wax products in St. Jovite, 90 miles north of Montreal. "When the depression ruined my father's business [sales agent of heavy machinery to the logging industry and railroad], he moved up north and became a consultant and ski engineer, designing and developing cross-country trails," said Mrs. Austin. She estimates that her father had laid down at least 1,000 miles of trails during the late 1920s and 30 s.

The original Maple Leaf Trail, cut by Mr. Smith-Johanssen, extended from Shawbridge, through the hills and valleys, to Mt. tremblant, which was 60 miles, but today is covered by paved roads. Cross-country skiing was in its heyday back then primarily because of Jack Rabbit Johannsen. According to his daughter , Mr. Johannsen. According to his daughter, Mr. Johannsen always felt that such skiing should remain a pure sport, untainted by commercialism.

Shortly, though, the popularity of cross- country skiing began to wane and alpine soon started to overshadow the purists, when the very first mechanical ski lift was designed in 1928 by Alan Foster in the Laurentians. Taking some pulleys and switch blocks from an automobile engine, he assembled a rope tow, which paved the way for establishing downhill ski resorts and marking the Laurentians as one of the world's first ski areas.

After World War I, the Laurentians gradually developed as a playground for Montrealers, first as a summer retreat, when Gray Rocks Inn was opened by George Wheeler in 1906 on Lake Ouimet, four miles from Mt. Tremblant. Today the 450 -room facility is part of a 2,000-acre complex with its own slope, three double chair lifts, and two T- bars.

"We were the first to pioneer the ski lift, the first to use snowmaking machines, the first to organize ski instruction, and the first to develop the ski-week concept as a holiday package," proudly explained Real Charette, who could pass for Fred Astaire's second. Mr. Charette has been director of the inn's famous Snow Eagle Ski School since 1948 and also is manager of public relations for the resort.

Snowmaking machinery is a common sound heard during those clear, star-studded , quiet nights in the Laurentians which cover an area approximately 3,750 square miles (250 miles north-south, and 150 miles east- west). The average ski season begins in late November through early May, with a choice of over 300 slopes, the longest situated on Mt. Tremblant, with a vertical drop of 2,131 feet.

Straddling Route 117 are many little towns and villages with soothing names: St. Adele, Montcalm, Bellefeuille, Esterel, Val des Lacs. "Each village has its own characteristic and usually its own bakery, too, or it may share a common one with the next town," said Danielle Tremblay, a resident of Piedmont, who buys her baked goods in St. Sauveur des Monts.

French cuisine and apres ski socializing typifies the Laurentians. A French-Canadian meal might very well include beans cooked in maple syrup or maple-smoked ham or sausage -- even syrup-covered omelets and syrup-poached eggs. The sap from the maple tree generally begins to flow in early spring, lasting only for a month or five weeks.

"When you speak of skiing the Laurentians, people associate the area with Montreal, just as people think of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco," said Mrs. Austin. But geographically, the Laurentians chain (Les Laurentides) also extend to Quebec City, the capital of the province. The mountains in this region lie closer to the St. Lawrence River. The ski resorts situated in this extension are fewer than those north of Montreal, but are closer to a major city , Quebec.

Just 25 miles east of Quebec City is Monte St. Anne, which is the largest and newest (seven years old) ski center, often hosting World Cup championships. It is a designated provincial park, owned and operated by the government, with 150 miles of cross-country ski trails. Both the French and Italian Olympic teams recently trained here.

The avid ski enthusiast usually goes to the Laurentians north of Montreal and remains up there for his or her ski week. All the resorts have their own weekly rates, and accommodations vary. At Gray Rocks, for example, the cost ranges from $286 to $479 per person for seven full days and six nights, three meals per day, unlimited ski lifts, and daily ski instruction. Mt. Tremblant has exactly the same package; its rates are $302 to $478 (for brochure, send to the Association Touristiques des Laurentides, 1000 rue Labelle, Suite 200, St.-Jerome J7Z5N6.

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