By RICHARD WHELAN
Duchesnay: Après-Ski on the Rocks
One of Québec City’s nicest cross country centers just got a lot prettier. A big spring snow is falling as we step out of Duchesnay’s three-story cross country lodge. It’s the kind of snow the Québécois call la neige des sucres (a maple sugar snow) because the huge flakes often fall in the spring, when the maple sap starts to flow. We strap on our skate skis and glide out onto the long, flat start area. The light rains of the last few days have made for a hard snow base, but the large flakes are dry and an inch deep, so the glide is slow. Still, there’s no use pushing too hard, because there’s plenty of exercise ahead, with one doozy of a non-stop climb on the return leg. And if we’re too whipped at the end, we won’t have enough energy to climb into the hot tub.
Once we’re out of the start area, the skate trail begins to rise and fall gently through the hardwood forest. We take our time, warming up slowly, anticipating the pleasure just around the corner.
That’s because when the first kilometer is behind you at Duchesnay, the trail opens into a skate skiers’ Nirvana — forest roads so wide that the track setter has to do the trail twice to groom them. That is, skate trails three ski-lengths wide. Which adds up to six meters, or, if you prefer, a hair short of 20 feet. Just imagine the impression of width that creates, and there are no snow banks or shrubs to catch your skis on. And there is lots of room on those long easy downhills to glide, glide and glide some more.
At Duchesnay (pronounced Dü-she-nAY), skiing also is about stopping — stopping to take in the splendid forest and its magnificent maples, stopping to relax on the porch at the log cabins sprinkled around the reserve, stopping to watch the children feed the black capped chickadees out of your
hands, stopping to warm up by a wood stove when it’s cold, and stopping to sleep at the preserve so you can be on the trails first thing the next morning.
When you sleep over at Duchesnay, you have to make some choices. Do you spend the night in a log cabin? Do you forget about roughing it and stay in one of the big wood lodges? Or do you go for the exotic and choose the Ice Hotel?
Yes, Duchesnay now is home to the world’s second Ice Hotel, following the lead of its famous Swedish predecessor. True Nordic lovers that we are, my girlfriend and I opt for the ice bed and the deer skin covers.
But, first stop after our ski is the outdoor hot tub!! Dash through the snow and the cold air, whip off the bath robe, and hop in. Now this is niiiiiiiiiiice. As the warm water massages our tired bodies, my girlfriend tells me (more than once) that I’m just the nicest guy on earth (for the next hour at least). I make a mental note under the heading “hot tub.” And other visitors to the Ice Hotel obviously think we’re cute or odd or foolish (especially when I role in the snow to cool down). Anyway, they keep taking our picture. We smile for the camera (noblesse oblige) and then slip back down into forgetfulness. Isn’t life grand!
After the hot tub, we’re off to the Absolut Bar for our glass of vodka. I choose Kurant, my girlfriend Mandrin, which we sip urbanely out of our ice-crafted shot glasses. We chat amiably with the other guests. They’ve come from Korea, the States, English Canada, China, France, and other places.. Everyone admires the huge arch shaped ice-block windows illuminated by the setting sun. We wander around the hotel looking at the huge ice sculptures: fish, bears, Amerindians, Inuits in kayaks, and even the Statue of Liberty. There are snow carvings in the walls and a kaleidoscopic candelabra hanging from the ceiling. There’s a chapel for marriages, and the ice angel on the
altar is quite naturally heavenly. In fact, almost everything in the hotel, including our room, is carved out of ice and snow.
After a nice supper in one of the lodges, we begin to nod off. Hey, we’re cross-country skiers, not downhillers. And a hot tub and cocktail can be so hard on a body. So at 9 p.m. we start thinking about hitting the sack (literally). Our minus 30° C (-22° F) sleeping bags are plenty warm for our room, which stays at a constant minus 3° C (27° F). We hop up onto the three-inch mattress on top of the illuminated ice bed, smooth out the deerskins, slide into our sleeping bags and zip them up nice and tight. And then we fall fast asleep. We wake the next morning to the voice of our bellboy asking us if we’d like to take our hot chocolate and coffee! “Ahhh, service”, I say quietly. “Do come in James.”
After a four-course buffet –which is why we exercise, isn’t it?– it’s off to the diagonal trails. Luck of the Irish, it’s a beeeautiful St. Patrick’s Day. And wouldn’t you know it, I have a green jacket! The sky holds nothing but blue. The temperature is rising quickly. What started out as a blue wax day has quickly warmed up to red. “Please don’t go to klister,” I pray. Luckily, the trees hear my prayer and cast enough shade to keep the day “red” and the trails hard and fast.
We head off around trail 10, la Vallonnée, the second longest loop (15..3 km) at Duchesnay. All told, the centre has a linear total of 57 km of ski trails, 150 km cumulative. At every log cabin, the porches are filled with Québécois bathing in the first spring sun of the year. We find an empty bench and pull out some bread, salami and cheese. After lunch and a bit too much sun for my Irish skin, we start making our way back. Small pockets of conifers dot the deciduous forest. We can see Lac Saint-Joseph poking through the trees a few hundred metres below us. The trails are really fast so we double pole a lot on the flats and break a bit on the longer downhills. It’s a beautiful day to be a skier.
IF YOU GO:
First built as a forestry school back in 1934, Duchesnay is now an eco-tourism center just a 20-minute drive from Québec City. In addition to cross-county skiing, winter activities include dogsledding, ice-skating and tobogganing. If you’re looking for something traditional, you can visit the sugar shack. Snowmobilers also have access to the center’s facilities. In summer, Duchesnay is open for hiking, rock climbing, archery, kayaking, and other activities.
Phone numbers and addresses: