ONE BY ONE, we slide on our bums down icy boulders into the belly of a cave at Metcalfe Rock, a towering limestone outcrop in the Niagara Escarpment near Collingwood, Ont., two hours northwest of Toronto. Looking like a motley mining crew with our helmets and headlamps, we — my husband Michael, our son Christian, 15, our youngest daughter Manon, 5, and myself — gingerly follow our guide, Jim Samis, for fear of slipping in the dim crevice. Catherine, our 13-year-old who is not keen on tight spaces, waits for us outside.
As we descend a little farther, hands feeling for a grip along frost-covered walls, I see Samis, who works for Collingwoodbased Free Spirit Tours, turn sideways to get through a narrow gap. I stop dead in my tracks and blurt out, “I’m claustrophobic.” He urges me on. “Just around the corner and you’ll see light,” he says, reassuringly. “Take a deep breath and just enjoy.”
The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.… Manon is right behind me and a little fearful so I inhale and try hard to conceal my anxiety. Sure enough, we’re only metres away from an opening in the cave, where we peek our heads out and blink in the brilliant mid-afternoon sunlight.
Now that we’ve conquered this brief introduction to spelunking, Samis is eager to take us into another cave, which lies below our feet. My apprehension grows. He shows me the cave’s opening concealed by a snow-covered boulder, then its tight exit, which he jokingly calls the “birth canal.”
“No way,” I say. Samis tells me I’ll do just fine, but no amount of coaxing convinces me to enter the tunnel. Coincidentally, today is Michael’s birthday as well as mine, but neither of us wishes to be “reborn” through this canal. Manon and Catherine are content to stay with us while Christian and photographer Robert Poulton, who is documenting our family’s adventure, take up the challenge.
After about 15 minutes of silence, we hear Samis’ voice rise from the underground and he emerges from the birth canal, caked in snow, squeezing out one arm at a time. “It’s a boy!” shouts Michael. Then Christian crawls out, with a big smile on his face. “It’s sick,” he says in teenspeak for the ultimate experience. “Mom, you would have died in there.” I’m glad I stuck to my guns and stayed put.
Poulton’s journey through the birth canal isn’t quite so effortless. As he surfaces from the cave, his 6-foot-3 frame gets wedged. “I don’t like this,” he says, and he’s not joking. I take his camera and Michael grabs his hands to pull him out, while Samis goes back into the cave to help from behind. Within a few minutes, Poulton is freed. Deciding we’ve had enough excitement for the day, we strap on our snowshoes and head back to our room at Blue Mountain Resort, stopping by a gurgling spring-fed stream for a cup of Samis’ steaming apple cider.
The winter caving tour will live on in our family’s vacation lore long after other details fade away. Yet it wasn’t the first activity that came to mind when we booked our stay at nearby Blue Mountain, Canada’s third busiest ski resort (after Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and Mont-Tremblant in Quebec). The resort attracts an average of 720,000 downhill skiers a year — many of whom flock in from the Toronto region — to its 36 ski and snowboard trails along a four-kilometre- wide stretch of the Niagara Escarpment. But when your children range in age from 5 to 15, variety, not to mention compromise, are key to surviving a getaway en famille. At Blue Mountain and in the surrounding hills on the edge of Georgian Bay, we discovered there are plenty of winter activities to keep everyone happy.
UNLIKE MANY SKI-SAVVY FAMILIES — and there are lots of them lined up for the chairlift during this March Break — we have never skied downhill together. Michael and I haven’t hit the slopes in at least 20 years and Manon has never donned a pair of skis. As former members of their school’s recreational ski club, only Christian and Catherine haven’t lost the feel of plowing through powder.
After a chaotic hour of fitting everyone with rental equipment, during which Manon has a near meltdown after trying to jam her feet into the clunky boots, we’re ready for some alpine fun. Michael, Christian and Catherine head for the chairlift while I take Manon to the beginners’ hill for her first ski lesson.
Manon keeps a tight grip on my hand as Alan Shiels, a retired ski instructor who helps out at Blue Mountain during busy holiday periods, greets us at the bottom of the Easy Rider run. Shiels learned to ski at Blue Mountain after emigrating from his native England in 1960 and became a part-time ski instructor in 1996. An amiable man with a gentle manner, Shiels draws on his 33 years as a schoolteacher to put his reluctant student at ease as he shows her the rudiments of the “pizza,” otherwise known as the snowplow, and the “French fry,” or parallel skiing. By the end of her 90-minute lesson, Manon is going down the hill holding onto Shiels’ ski pole and chiming in “Five!” whenever he asks her how many toppings she has on her pizza. Shiels assures me that if she continues to practice, she’ll be able to ski without any help by the end of the day.
I have my doubts, but the next time we tackle the Easy Rider, Manon asks to let go of my pole after only a couple of runs. I comply, then watch her pick up speed with her skis firmly planted in the French fry position. Worried that she’ll lose control or plow into another child, I yell out a demented-sounding “Pizza! Pizza!” to get her to slow down. She keeps going in a straight line and, finally, points her skis in a triangle before coming to a full stop at the bottom of the hill. She turns to me and flashes an impish grin.
THE PURSUIT OF A DREAM and sheer determination are what drove Jozo Weider to found the Blue Mountain ski resort in 1941. The Czech native, who was an innkeeper, mountain guide and ski instructor in the Carpathian Mountains, immigrated to Canada with his wife and young son soon after the Second World War started. Within a few years, he had moved his family to a farm at the foot of Blue Mountain and singlehandedly started to clear ski trails with a saw on the 216-metre slope rising above. The first lift consisted of two sleds towed by a cable and powered by a truck engine.
Weider wanted to build a world-class ski resort, but his untimely death in a car crash in 1971 meant that he wouldn’t see it grow to become one of the country’s premier skiing destinations. His son George took over the operation and the Weider family continues to play a critical role in running the resort, even though it sold a 50-percent interest to Vancouver-based Intrawest (owner of Mont-Tremblant and ski resorts in the United States) in 1999. Perched at the top of a ski trail called Tranquility, I take in a magnificent view of Georgian Bay, the town of Collingwood and the resort and wonder whether Weider envisioned anything like the bustling European-inspired pedestrian village below, where skiers can walk from their hotel to the hill in less than 10 minutes or, après-ski, to trendy restaurants and shops.
Our family’s version of après-ski is going to the “beach,” as Manon describes it, otherwise known as the Plunge! Aquatic Centre, located near a gigantic replica of a Muskoka chair. Its indoor and outdoor pools are open year-round, so we decide to venture outside in our bathing suits. It’s a steel-grey day, about -2°C with a blustery wind — hardly beach weather. As we ease into the pool, we hear the scraping of skis and snowboards on nearby icy slopes. Enveloped in the mist rising from the water, I imagine myself as one of those hardy mid-winter Russian bathers I’ve seen in the pages of National Geographic.
Except that I don’t feel so hardy in the tepid water. Manon’s teeth chatter uncontrollably as she wraps herself around her big sister and we smack a beach ball back and forth to keep warm. Lifeguards, looking chilled despite their black down jackets, cut ghostly figures in the fog as they pace poolside, undoubtedly counting down the minutes until the end of their shift. Around them, young boys in dripping swim trunks clamber up and down the water slides and swing off ropes like it’s mid-July. After about 20 minutes of sub-zero wading, we retreat to the tropical humidity of the indoor pool.
WHEN YOU’RE VACATIONING with three children, it’s almost a given that no two will share a passion for the same activity. While Christian thrives on the rush of downhill skiing, Catherine hits her stride on the 22-kilometre network of cross-country ski trails at Scenic Caves Nordic Centre, a five-minute drive along the Niagara Escarpment from Blue Mountain. “I want crosscountry skis,” she says gleefully, as we glide on the immaculately groomed Easy Peesy, a 2.2-kilometre course under the snowladen boughs of a 200-year-old maple and beech forest. Michael and I take turns pulling up the rear with Manon, who is going through a bit of ski confusion, getting tangled up because the “pizza” position she learned on the hill doesn’t work that well with cross-country skis. But by the end of the trail, she, too, has found her rhythm, red-cheeked and proud.
On the fourth and final night of our stay at Blue Mountain, Christian and I soak up the last moments of our holiday in a hot tub outside The Grand Georgian, our stately hotel modelled after a historic railway lodge. Under a weak moon, we watch skiers and snowboarders on their last few runs of the night, bemoan the fact that the vacation is almost over, and start planning our next one. I’m reminded of Manon’s reaction when we first settled into our two-bedroom suite, complete with a balcony overlooking the village’s cobblestoned events plaza. “This is a great place, Mom,” she exclaimed, in all of her five-year-old wisdom. “We should have come here years ago!” To which her siblings retorted, “You weren’t born years ago.” Ah, that inevitable age gap.… For a few days at least, while we all played in the snow, it didn’t seem quite so important.
Monique Roy-Sole is a senior editor at Canadian Geographic. Photographer Robert Poulton is based in Toronto.