I grew up in Florida where they say there are three seasons: Hot, Really Hot, and “Oh s*** I need a sweater.” The leaves on the trees outside my window never turned brown or fell to the ground. Going outside was always a 2-step process: first, put on shorts; then, put on shirt. The town I lived in was near the coast and every November the local news would warn us about the arrival of the “snowbirds.” The population would nearly double as droves of sad, pale northerners came to clutter the roads with more bad drivers.
When I was 18, I moved to New York and was forced to buy my first real winter coat. I was appalled that people wore the same piece of clothing every day for four months and never put it in the wash. Even so, it wasn’t long before I joined the ranks of sad, pale northerners yearning to go south, rather than kick around dirty piles of black-slush-street-snow. As an outdoorsy person, I couldn’t possibly understand what winter had to offer.
That was, until I found myself on a plane heading even further north to a magical resort known as Tremblant. For four days I experienced everything from dog sledding and skiing, snowshoeing down a mountain, to plunging my trembling body into the depths of an actual frozen river.
Flying into Mont-Tremblant, I arrived at an oversized cabin called the “airport”, drove over wooden bridges, past frozen rivers, and by cabins that looked extra cozy with the warm glow of their windows reflecting on the snow. When I arrived in the Village of Tremblant it felt like I had entered a small town community. Every amenity was within walking distance, a comfort I hadn’t felt since college. It helped that the buildings looked like they belonged beneath someone’s Christmas tree. A clock tower rose above the main square and a chocolatier arranged truffles in a window down below. I half expected everyone to begin shouting “Bonjour!” as the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack kicked in. Over the years, I have noticed that modern travelers have a propensity to be upset by things that feel contrived or designed specifically for their enjoyment; as if travel that is “too easy” is too boring. After my arrival, as I walked up a small slope to my hotel, I sensed magic in the streets, even if it was cooked up by a few architects.
The following morning, I walked out of my hotel as the cold air filled my lungs and I could sense the energy of people gracefully flying down the mountain to my left. If you would have told me one week ago that I would soon be one of those people, I would have (politely) laughed in your face. I met with an instructor named Guy who was dressed in a bright red jumpsuit – my own personal Santa. After sending me down the bunny hill just once, he suggested we get in the gondola and head all the way up. I was so flattered by his assumption that I was capable of surviving the journey that I somehow forgot the fact that skiing is terrifying. When we walked off the gondola, small red letters flashed through the snowy-fog-wind and informed us that the temperature was –5. Unexpectedly, we were in a cloud and couldn’t see a thing other than the intense gusts of wind that caused snowboarders to almost immediately fall sideways as they attempted to start their descent. I somehow remembered the fact that skiing is terrifying.
As we started heading down, I turned my skis in, keeping me at a speedy 2.5 mph. Guy kept yelling, “Look at me! Not your feet!” as I came up with an internal song called “You are in control” to keep myself distracted from the surrounding chaos. It wasn’t long before three children went flying by, and I was suddenly convinced to bring my skis to a parallel position. The first few turns were a mix of learning (pretend you’re pressing on a dime with the arch of your foot), falling (skis glide even faster down the mountain when they detach from your leg), and smiling (this is kind of terrible but when it’s not terrible it’s absolutely incredible).
Eventually, we were low enough to drop out of the clouds and the sky opened up to reveal the Village, lake, and endless mountains in the distance. My level of control increased exponentially and soon I was filled with excited adrenaline that bordered on ecstasy. I don’t know if it was a relief from the fear and nerves that gripped my stomach only moments before, but as soon as my body understood what to do I couldn’t stop smiling. My bright red Santa descended further away from me, trusting that I could survive on my own, and I picked up a little bit of speed. I veered around corners, down a slightly narrow path with various woodland creatures carved into the trees, and almost confidently descended down a steep stretch of ice. In less than 2 hours I had become a skier. As I landed back in the heart of the village I looked back at the gondola and all I could think was “When can I do this again?” I could feel the Florida in my blood begin to freeze over.
When I looked at the forecast for the next few hours I thought my weather app was broken. The nighttime temperatures dropped to -27 Fahrenheit. I walked outside and every time I lifted my camera to my goggles I would accidentally exhale on the LCD screen and the condensation immediately froze. I felt like Iceman from X-Men.
The best part of each day was the feeling of slowly peeling off every layer until I lay in my bed, body thawing, and immediately passed out from a kind of exhaustion that only the cold can bring. That night was particularly soothing, as I knew the following morning would fulfill a lifelong dream.
As I approached Expedition Wolf, I heard a sea of barks that gradually turned into a roar. Through the trees, hundreds of dogs wagged their tails excitedly, hoping for their turn to run. I learned that there are a total of 250 dogs living in the ‘village,’ 125 of which are rescues. Each one has their own house with their name tacked to a nearby tree. I moved to play with one and then another, lost in an endless stream of canine affection. It was a day I had dreamed about ever since I saw Balto standing proudly in Central Park: I was about to go dogsledding. My first instruction was to retrieve six dogs and attach them to their place on a sled, which I would then be guiding through the woods for a few hours.
Driving a dogsled is quite easy to understand: You lean to one side to give weight on the turns and there’s a rudimentary brake (read: a piece of rubber with spikes on the bottom) that you jump on if you need the dogs to slow down. What I couldn’t understand was how the caretakers somehow knew the names of each dog by sight, even though they all looked like variations on a theme. I learned that Akawa, Akimiski, Kabonga, Kogaluk, Machimanikus, and Yamachich were my faithful and impatient guides on a tour through what seemed to be the inspiration for the movie Frozen. As we wound through the forest passing cabins and fallen trees, I heard primal squeals of joy from my friends on other sleds. Halfway through, we stopped for hot chocolate and maple cookies. At one point, I peeled past my endless layers just so I could pinch myself and make sure I hadn’t passed out from excitement. The dogs were trotting in a joyful row as we softly guided through the snow-covered hills. Eventually, we made it back to the base-camp where we sipped hot soup next to a fire and I laughed at the various wolf-themed décor that dotted the interior.
After four days of adventure, it was finally time to return to New York. My brain was filled with contrasting images of sorrowful slush piles on street corners and happy faces on the Tremblant slopes. My time in Canada shook my worldview like a violent attack on a snow globe. A few hours earlier, as I was driving with one of our guides around the frozen lake, she said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment.” I suddenly felt like despising winter was a choice. There is just as much potential for excitement and joy in the freezing mountains as there is for euphoria in a piña colada on the beaches of Florida.
Now I just need to find out if it is completely unnatural for a snowbird to fly backwards.