Skiing has never really been the sport of the masses, but the rising cost of hitting the slopes combined with the declining expendable income of the middle class has contributed to a decline in the number of skiers climbing aboard the lifts at North American resorts in recent years. Yet as glitzy resorts have struggled, backcountry skiing has been on the rise. With $100 a day lift tickets and $8.50 poutines served in soggy cardboard, it’s hard to blame anyone who is clamoring to earn their turns. It might be the only way they can actually afford to keep at a sport they grew up with.
Not only is backcountry skiing better for your fitness level and your pocketbook, it boasts an authenticity that’s been lost in the carefully controlled development of big-business resorts that measure success in skier numbers and profitability rather than good times had and skills developed.
An increased number of skiers and boarders in the backcountry doesn’t come without attendant problems. Newbies can easily find themselves lost — or worse — if they don’t prepare properly. This is a particularly big problem in the west, where massive snowfalls and even bigger vertical drops prevail.
Canada’s east coast is a different animal altogether. Backcountry skiing opportunities are fewer – and decidedly less ready for their ski-porn close-up – but they’re also more accessible for newcomers to the sport. On my trip into Gros Morne’s backcountry last March, I was able to just strap standard downhill skis to my back and hike in to the Trout River Bowl over the Tablelands rocky terrain. I could have brought a pricey touring set-up, but it wouldn’t have done me any good.
When I head onto the Eardley Escarpment near Ottawa, I usually strap my skis to my backpack and snowshoe up. It allows me to climb a steeper line more easily than alpine touring gear does, and it’s a fraction of the cost.
The eastern half of the country is hardly going to knock western Canada from the pinnacle of the backcountry skiing universe, but if you know where to look, you can find pristine powder and spectacular scenery uninterrupted by the endless whirr of lifts whisking skiers back uphill and the generally obnoxious demeanour of some resort clientele. Here are a few of my favourite east coast backcountry ski spots. Not all of them are in Canada, but those that aren’t are close by.
1. Gros Morne, Newfoundland
With snow-draped fjords that let you ski to the sea, spacious glades and wide open alpine bowls, Gros Morne offers some of the best backcountry skiing on the eastern half of the continent. The treeless Tablelands region recalls the high alpine terrain of the Rockies or Alps, but with an ocean view. The Parks Canada-maintained Southwest Gulch backcountry ski hut serves as an excellent base camp to explore the area’s steep and deep terrain.
If you’re looking for something gentler, the Baker’s Brook Hut might be more your speed. Located near Rocky Harbour, this hut takes in some of Newfoundland’s finest scenery and offers up good wildlife viewing opportunities. Still, experts need not fret, the Baker’s Brook Hut offers up the chance to explore the steep walled fjord that shares its name.
Both huts accommodate up to 12 people. Come ready to chop wood. The amenities in the Gros Morne backcountry are basic, but the axe is supplied. Be sure to come prepared in Gros Morne. Though not especially common, avalanches are a real possibility here.
2. Chic-Chocs Mountains, Quebec
The Chic-Chocs are some of Eastern Canada’s most dramatic mountains, and they’re battered by snowstorm after snowstorm from October right up until April. Even when the rest of New England and Quebec are wanting for the white stuff, you can count on the fact that it’s piled up high in the Gaspé Peninsula. So why has the region never seen much in the way of ski resort development? It comes down to economics. The nearest cities of any size — Quebec City and Fredericton — aren’t that close, aren’t that large and both have other ski areas that are more accessible.
Never one to miss an opportunity to invest in tourism, the Quebec government has established a network of backcountry ski trails in the provincially run Gaspésie National Park. With five distinct backcountry ski areas, 15 huts, localized avalanche forecasting and backcountry ski equipment rentals, this is probably the East Coast’s most developed backcountry skiing area and is an excellent place to get acquainted with the sport.
3. Big Jay, Vermont
Just four kilometres south of the Quebec border, this might be North America’s most underrated skiing region. Why? It’s the snow.
Most westerners scoff at the idea that anywhere east of the Rockies can even compete in terms of snow, but they’d probably be surprised if they actually bothered to drop into the trees at Jay Peak and the adjacent Big Jay backcountry area.
In terms of snow quality, the dry, light snow that blows into this area off of the north end of Lake Champlain does a passable impression of the powder that draws skiers from all over the world to the North American West. And yes, I’ve skied the West from British Columbia to New Mexico.
Big Jay lends itself to skinning up, but Jay Peak’s aerial tramway also offers $10 single-ride tickets. From the top of the tram, the deep powder chutes and glades of the adjacent Big Jay backcountry area are an easy 45-minute trek from the peak, accessed through a backcountry gate. Be sure you know where you’re going. The Black Falls Basin on the range’s north side offers deep powder and playful terrain, but you’ll have a five-hour hike back to the road if you end up in there.
4. Katahdin, Maine
Mount Katahdin is technically in Maine, but the mountain looms over much of western New Brunswick like a giant snowbound, mirage. In its craggy, jagged glory, Katahdin could pass for a peak lifted from the western cordillera and plopped down in the middle of the Acadian forest. It is a truly beautiful mountain.
Due to its remoteness and harsh weather, Katahdin has long had some of the most onerous backcountry ski regulations in the world. These rules have been relaxed in recent years, but with a 24 kilometre approach and a long climb to the peak, Katahdin isn’t a backcountry ski outing to take lightly. You definitely want to put some planning into skiing this peak, but most say it’s worth the trouble.
5. Tuonela, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia isn’t known for its skiing, backcountry or otherwise. At sea level, winter in the province is a mostly mild affair where warmish temperatures and frequent rain melt snowfall away quickly. Cape Breton’s Telemark Hill climbs a little higher — 182 meters higher to be exact. A single rope tow with a 122-metre vertical services a broad area where Telemarkers and cross-country skiers can branch out and explore. Tuonela’s stats aren’t going to entice anyone to move east from the Kootenays, but the simple hike-in facilities and low prices of the Ski Tuonela village give Nova Scotians the chance to hold on to the old-school vibe that’s been lost in corporate ski resort development, and that loss is exactly what drove many of us to the backcountry in the first place.