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In Quebec, deep snow, European dazzle, and sled dogs

The writer and his  family on Mount Tremblant in Quebec

Brian Irwin for The Boston Globe

The writer and his family on Mount Tremblant in Quebec.

MONT-TREMBLANT, Quebec — In 1938 sports writer Lowell Thomas sat in the dining room at the Grey Rocks Inn planning his ascent of Mont-Tremblant in the heart of the Laurentian Mountains. Joe Ryan, a young playboy who recently had inherited millions of dollars, overheard him. The two met and shortly thereafter undertook an expedition to ascend the mountain.

They fashioned seal skins to the bottoms of their skis and made the summit before day’s end. Ryan was struck by the beauty of the area and the terrain. He had a vision to develop Tremblant into a world-class ski area and within a few years Mont-Tremblant resort was born.

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Mont-Tremblant thrived through the 1980s, but its popularity necessitated a facelift. In 1991 Intrawest purchased Tremblant and within three years began to transform the base village into what would become one of the most revered ski towns in eastern North America with opulent boutiques and cobblestone plazas modeled after such places as Megève in the French Alps.

My family and I boarded the Cabriolet, an open pedestrian gondola that swept us over rooftops and winding alleys to the base of the mountain. The lifts weren’t open yet, so we boarded the gondola to the summit, a benefit of the First Tracks program. Accompanied by Annick Marseille, a young skier who grew up skiing locally, we glided to the summit and headed down Alpine, a broad trail that cascades toward the south side of the mountain. We stopped occasionally to soak up the views and hear about the rich history of the resort.

“There used to be a train that brought visitors to Tremblant from Montreal,” Marseille said. “Now it’s gone but its path is used as a cross-country ski trail. Tremblant has come a long way since those days.”

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Mont-Tremblant is a broad mountain, stately and impressive, with a vertical drop of 2,116 feet and 95 trails. Our brood found every type of terrain, from wide sheets of freshly groomed corduroy to 40-degree drops. Wooded glades border the resort’s edges and a few terrain parks for freestyle skiing are nestled amid the slopes.

Our four children, ages 6-11, pegged their favorite amenity as La Source, an indoor water park is in the center of town, complete with a rope swing, an artificial cliff from which to jump, and outdoor Jacuzzis. While the children splashed, we soaked and planned our evening meal as pedestrians made their way from shops to an art gallery, from the town cinema to the many spas.

After the restaurants close the town center throbs with music and partying young adults. At the foot of the hill, adjacent to the pubs and brewery is Smoke’s Poutineria, a shack that sells poutine, a classic Quebecois snack of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Smoke’s kicks into high gear after last call.

On our last day we elected to travel 30 minutes north to go dogsledding. At Expedition Wolf, a family business of more than 20 years, 250 sled dogs howled and thrashed on their chains, itching to run. All but the few rescue dogs were bred here and carry Inuit names.

After harnessing the dogs to four sleds, we set out for two hours of riding weaving trails through the forest. The snow sparkled under the bright sun as the dogs blasted forward in eerie unison. I was assigned to drive my sled. My wife rode in a plush sleeping bag until her turn came. Even the children piloted their sleds, with the assistance of a guide. The wind was brisk as we slid down hills, the sled’s speed controlled by a steel-studded sheet of rubber that dragged behind. Step on this brake and the sled slows, ride the rails of the sled and the dogs operate in turbo.

At the end of our four days in the Laurentians the children had mastered a dozen words in French and were chirping merci beaucoup for services rendered. As we approached the US border the customs agent asked us to wind down the window to see our children. They all held up their souvenir stuffed sled dogs, each one named for one of the dogs on their own team. Passports were passed, a nod was granted, and we pulled out of Canada.

Brian Irwin can be reached at irwin08.bi@gmail.com.
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