by Chris Dehnel

Across the border, a skier’s paradise

March 4, 2009

O Canada ...

O Owl’s Head ...

When a mountain forces skiers and riders to stop in their tracks and say “wow” out loud to no one in particular, the experience is destined to be a good one.  And that was the case during the first two runs the first weekend in March.

On a blue cruiser named Upward Trail, Lake Memphremagog was visible in all its splendor and the views made the terrain, which was very good, take a back seat.  On a black diamond trail named Lake View, one seemed to be dropping right into the water at every steep pitch. It’s arguably the mountain’s signature trail, only because the view one gets on all 45 is accentuated just a little more.

Owl’s Head sits in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, barely 10 miles across the Vermont border on the massive lake that is located in both the state and province. Its 1,772-foot vertical drop seems to sprout from the shoreline right to the clouds. Nine lifts service everything from steeps to gentle cruisers to tight tree runs.

Looking North up Lake MemphremagogOwl’s Head opened as a snowsports resort for the 1965-66 season. Owner Fred Korman, an electrician from nearby Mansonville, started to develop the place as a hobby. He teamed up with local Olympic skier Bob Richardson to cut out the first trails of the mountain. The mountain opened to the public on Dec. 18, 1965, with two chairlifts, one T-bar and six trails.

The hobby became a business.  Between 1985 and 1989, Korman spent more than $20 million on infrastructure.  As part of that capital plan, TheApartment-Hotel was built and the base lodge was renovated.  The main high-speed quad was installed and new trails were cut.  By 1990 Owl’s Head had an uphill capacity of 8,200 per hour and 27 trails.

The uphill capacity is now 14,400 skiers and riders per hour, and the lift system includes three high-speed quad chairs.

The Korman family still owns and operates Owl’s Head after 43 years and the resort welcomes Americans like relatives. One enters the lodge to a smile, a bonjour, and a hello — usually in that order —from the closest staff member, and that is repeated throughout the day during breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, to the apres-ski revelry at the bar and restaurant.

It all complements one of the easiest drives to the north country, up Interstate 91 to the border crossing, then a short drive up Quebec Route 55 to the village of Magog.  It’s less than 280 miles from Manchester.

Magog is the pulse of the Eastern Townships and the pulse of Magog is the many bed & breakfast establishments scattered throughout town.  Yes, there are hotels, but the B&Bs throw out the welcome mat with French-Canadian charm combined with the privacy (each room has its own bath) and amenities Americans prefer.

Take A Tout Venant, for example. It’s a big orange Victorian house that sits on a rise just off the main drag. There, Vicky and Luc St.-Jacques will welcome visitors into their home, fuel them up in the morning (the crepes are Luc’s specialty), ski with them during the day, and then talk about everything from hockey (they even miss the Whalers) to the exchange rate, to architecture (ask Luc about the ugly lakeside concrete condo complex) well into the evening in the third-floor loft.  The B&B also offers full massage service.

If A Tout Venant is full, Luc and Vicky will gladly refer you to a colleague’s B&B either down the road in Magog or even in nearby Orford through the Magog-Orford B&B Association.

Owl’s Head is not hesitant to spread the wealth either and will understand if visitors want to hit Mont Orford with its 1,933 feet of vertical and some serious black diamonds, Sutton with its glades, and Bromont with its family atmosphere.

Magog has a McDonald’s, but the roads from the center of town to any of the mountains are known for their fine restaurants like that at Aux Jardins Champetres. There, the chef will treat diners to entrees with local products from wild game to trout.  And the wines at Cep d’Argent are no shamrock shakes. The mellow reds made from hybrid grapes developed to prosper in the harsh Quebec climate and the tasty port are certainly worth sampling.

One must practically be subjected to Chinese water torture to get a bad experience in the region. That’s because the hospitality and the food are first-rate.

And the skiing and riding are as good as it gets, offered by people who love winter.  For example, the trail at Owl’s Head named after Fred Korman isn’t some wimpy flat traverse, but a steep double black that dares one to blast down it.  Lilly’s Leap, named after Fred’s wife, Lillian, offers some of the best summit views.  The trails are a tribute to the Korman’s hands-on management style and fit their respective personalities perfectly.

After entertaining a contingent from the Eastern Ski Writers Association at dinner Saturday, Lilly was talking with a journalist.  He was holding the Zippy Freestyle Mini Luge in his hand and was about to take it out onto the mountain in the moonlight.  Earlier in the day, he had crashed it into the lodge after narrowly missing the ski and snowboard racks.  “Are you really going to take that thing out there again?” she asked.  “Are you asking me not to?” the journalist replied.  Many owners would freak out, thinking about the calls from the lawyers.  Mrs. Korman just shrugged.  “As long as you are having fun ...”

Fun. It’s the Townships. It’s Magog. It’s Owl’s Head.  Even the bird in the logo is wearing goggles.  Enough said.

Chris Dehnel is an associate editor at the Journal Inquirer in Hartford Conn. and the immediate past-president of the Eastern Ski Writers Association.

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