Changes in the wind

On February 18 I visited Mont Tremblant, where artificial snowmakers pumped plumes of snow over world-famous downhill ski runs. In the village, and at the nearby Chappelle St. Bernard where the machines don’t operate, the drifts of snow were only about half a metre deep.

At the back of the sheltering chapel, three lonely tombstones mark the memory of the Ryan family who had the vision to start Mont Tremblant as a downhill skiing centre. Today, pine trees and a little white picket fence surround their final resting place. The incessant sound of music from the village, created to keep visitors happy, barely filters through.

As I tramped around, exploring the chapel and the explosion of condos and “European Village” that is the Mont Tremblant of today, I reflected on change. We human beings are a peculiar, wonderful species: we envision goals, and then set about to achieve them.

Now this is not a bad thing -- but how do we know when our “vision” gets out of kilter? Mont Tremblant is now being developed by the international company IntraWest, which has similarly developed Whistler in British Columbia. Both ski resorts are among the best in the world.

So it was that last week, while returning from Toronto, Eric and I drove back home via Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Our return route took us past the villages of Meaford, Thornbury -- and Collingwood.

Now, Collingwood was where I spent my very first Christmas in Canada. It was 1958 and my family had just emigrated to Toronto from England. It’s a vivid memory: two English children and their parents tying boards to their feet and whooshing downhill. (In England, we were lucky if we got even a whisper of snow on the ground: we “tobogganed” on pieces of cardboard in the slush!)

I remember my brother skiing well, myself puddling along in his wake, and my mother and father falling. A lot. They soon decided it wasn’t their thing and opted for snowshoes.

The owners of Collingwood, or more specifically, Blue Mountain Lodge where we stayed, were like the Ryans of Mont Tremblant. They had a grand vision: they knew that their mountain could be developed into a downhill ski operation to service the expanding Toronto and Hamilton market.

So, as we drove past the turnoff to Blue Mountain Lodge last Friday, we decided to pull off at the Collingwood tourism booth, to find out what is going on in the year 2000.

Surprise, surprise. IntraWest has purchased the Lodge and, by the year 2005, promise that Collingwood will be a major downhill ski destination. Just like Whistler and Mont Tremblant.

We decided not to head up the road to view the Lodge. Call me old-fashioned: I wasn’t quite prepared to relinquish my memory of the little Blue Mountain ski lodge I cherish.

And as we drove along Highway 24 East, we caught brief snapshot views of Georgian Bay amid the clusters of condominium developments. Everywhere, it seemed, large billboards encouraged us to buy apartments that would be just perfect for avid skiers in winter, and boating enthusiasts come summer. Some particularly obnoxious gigantic banners proclaimed “Become Privileged,” urging passers-by to drop in, buy or rent a condo, and get special rates for accommodations, golf course fees, dinners. The necessities of leisure life.

As we drove past the walled subdivision developments, Eric remarked that every buyer would purchase not only a house, but also a very small patch of lawn. Inevitably, the local hardware store will do well, as will other local business people who will sell gas and oil to each of the hundreds of people who will want to mow their little piece of paradise. It gave us cause to reflect on human beings and our incessant impact on our earth.

It’s a thought that also occurred to my 85 year-old mother as I drove her to our Steele Line farm for a visit last week. As we whisked past the development of ugly box homes on the western outskirts of Aylmer, she observed how people change the land by notions of what success actually means.

Single-family homes are a North American cultural obsession. We define our status in society not only by our jobs, but by the property that we own. Single-family homes with their piece of lawn equals success and achievement.

And, as we build over our farmland, rip apart our woodlands, drain our wetlands and obscure the views that nurture us all, are we really doing what is wise for our earth?

Oh, I’m no different. I have my little piece of paradise. Just like you.

But sometimes, don’t you wonder where we’re all going to end up?

I can’t help thinking of that Joni Mitchell song, in which she sings, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

Don’t fool yourself into thinking it won’t happen here. It already is, as any Pontiac resident can see while driving west of Aylmer. The signs are up: residents are severing their land, dissecting old farms into manageable plots of land to service our need for single-family homes. As you drive by, you can almost hear the buzz of the lawnmowers, hear the sea-dos on the Ottawa River.

It’s only a matter of time before those wonderful vistas of the Ottawa River are obscured by subdivisions.

Oh, but we’re protected by Agricultural Zoning, you say? Sure. Just like that land on which a strip mall was erected along Highway 148 near Luskville.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is my personal belief. And whether we’re removing a forest to create agricultural land or to create a subdivision, we are erasing habitat for wildlife.

Does it matter if we preserve habitat? Personally, I think so. We can carve out our Mont Tremblants and accept the fact that IntraWest will develop a piece of land into a stellar tourism product. But what of the surrounding infrastructure of roads, of country property that then becomes too valuable “just for farming.”

Changes are often for the better, often for the worse. It’s a juggling game. One thing is for sure: as our Pontiac develops in the 21st Century, we’ll have to grapple with increasing change.

Katharine Fletcher mows her large lawns near Quyon, Québec. Contact her at