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On le petit engine that could

Any conveyance that bills itself as "le P'tit Train du Nord" strikes me as the sort to chug, "I think I can, I think I can . . ." even if it is a grown-up ski train. This one, the Little Train of the North, carries skiers from Montreal to the Laurentians -- to downhill centers, like Mont Tremblant, and cross country trails, some 435 miles of them.

On the last round trip of the past season (the train runs weekends, December to mid- March), my son and I loaded our cross-country skis in the overhead rack and settled onto the yellow wicker seats for a day's outing.

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Tourists, we planned to ride as far as the Ste. Marguerite station and ski on the Whizzard Trail, which is described as intermediate, 15 1/2 miles long. We hoped to do a portion of it, maybe one town to another, and catch the train back that evening.

The Montreal station was thronged with skiers, despite temperatures in the 40 s and a distinct lack of snow in the city. Easily the most flamboyant person at the loading gate was a man in a bright turquoise suit and matching high hat with a sign reading "Chef de Gare." He rolled his eyes like a silent film extra, blew shrilly on a silver whistle (without disturbing his black plastic mustache), and urged, "Fasten your seat belts."

The train was warm. And crowded. Not everyone was going skiing. Across the aisle was a family of four dressed for Sunday dinner at grandma's, or "grand'mere's" considering their exuberant French. Behind us, a grizzled, bearded man stowed snowshoes overhead; maybe even a bear trap.

More passengers boarded at the stations nearest Montreal. There were only patches of snow beside the tracks. We passed backyard woodpiles, a flea market, a pile of canoes. The major-domo in turquoise strutted by, puffing on his whistle and handing out lollipops.

Trying to determine where we were, I asked the conductor if we were on time. He smiled indulgently, "Oh, no, mademoiselle." Even on schedule it would take an hour and 45 minutes to reach our stop.

Stations along the way were all sizes and conditions; they were being refurbised to make them more comfortable, right down to craft boutiques. Most had buses or cars welcoming the skiers; some promised sleighs; others offered a cheering hot drink, and occasionally a songfest and supper at night. That day, the town of Labelle, at the northern end of the run, was having a "maple taffy on snow" festival.

The Ste. Marguerite station was small, red, and boarded shut. We shouldered our skis and trekked down the highway to a cross-country ski center, which turned out to be on a golf course and its surrounding woods. It was warm enough for golf, and the snow was wet and sticky. The fastest-moving skier was a boy being towed by an enthusiastic and muscular German pointer. Which way to the trail?

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Erle Bergh, director of the center, welcomed us with an area map and the bad news: The woods trails were icy ruts and closed. These were unusual conditions for this time of the season, he insisted. Two weeks earlier we might have skied to Val-Morin (about eight miles), but now the trail was closed. In fact, we couldn't get to it. The snow bridges crossing the river to the main trail had melted away.

One of the best known of the Canadian trails is the Maple Leaf, 90 miles long , which was opened by Herman (Jack Rabbit) Johannsen in the '20s. What with skiers jamming the popular ski trains of the '30s, the trail system soon expanded. The Little Train of the North is reminiscent of those trains."Jack Rabbit" himself accompanied the inaugural run, celebrating his 100th birthday. The train takes its name for a folk song, "Le P'tit Train du Nord," made popular by Felix LeClerc, a Quebec singer. The first two ski seasons proved so popular that the train began summer service this year.

On the first run, Erle Bergh told us, about 1,000 skiers came to Val-David prepared to ski some 15 miles to Ste. Marguerite. At 5:30 the train was ready to leave, but the skiers were still enjoying the trails. The public-address system announced "train leaving," and hundreds streaked out of the woods.

We added gloppy wax, looped around the golf course, and struggled up frozen blue ruts during the afternoon. Then we adjourned to the nearby Alpine Inn to wait until the 7:14 train.

Reasoning that it would be a long walk back to Montreal if we missed this last train of the season, we left for the station with minutes to spare. Light from a single streetlamp didn't dquite reach the platform, but there were shadowy forms milling about. It hadn't left without us. It wasn't even there.

Although the day had been too warm for good skiing, it cooled to a proper March evening as we waited.And waited. And listened. Overhead the stars were magnificent. They warmed my heart, while my feet chilled. We waited. We mulled around. We stamped out boots. We listened at the rails. We jogged in place. We hopped up and down. We ran frantically along the platform, flapping our arms to warm up. An hour late is a long time. And then, a whistle! "I think it's coming. I think it's coming." Loud cheers greeted the train.

More stations and more skiers. Everyone was looking for seats. They had come out of the woods all right; the "trapper" reboarded. The French family passed, nodding a cheery hello. The gay blade is turquoise wended his way through, though he looked a littled tired and his mustache had fallen off.

It was 10:30 when we pulled into Montreal, an hour and a half over schedule.


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