Cross-Country Canada | We Took on the 160km Ski Marathon in Backcountry Quebec
Finding pleasure and pain, following in the footsteps of the legendary Jackrabbit Smith
For the past 50 years the Canadian Ski Marathon has been a rite of passage for the nation's cross-country skiers. Held every February, it has followed a 160km route from just outside Canada’s capital to its second largest city, enticing skiers of all ages and abilities, myself included.
The gently rolling Laurentian mountains – some of the oldest in the world – are perfect for the sport. But it wasn't until Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johannsen arrived in 1899 that cross-country skiing took off. The Norwegian machinery salesman skied as a hobby and was given his nickname by Cree tribesmen, who were amazed at his speed across the snow. As well as opening up trails in Eastern Canada, Jackrabbit helped found the marathon in 1967, last taking part in 1986, aged 110.
"My technique is reasonable, but my muscles and joints are complaining"
While I aspire to Jackrabbit's fitness and longevity, my problem is lack of training. So the day I fly in to Ottawa, I go skiing on the 200km of trails in Gatineau Park.
After a steady climb, with the wind whipping up swirls of snow that pass in front of us like ghosts, we turn to enjoy the long glide back towards the bright lights of the capital, just 2.5km away.
The next day, we start from the quaint village of Old Chelsea, further up the park, which stretches 50 km towards the Laurentians, where even wolves roam. Again we ski along one of the 'parkways' – roads covered in snow that are closed to traffic in winter. But the 60kph speed limit signs mock my aspirations. I am closer to 6kph – far too slow to complete the marathon.
My technique is reasonable, but my muscles and joints are complaining – and that is in good conditions, which the following day most surely does not provide. The snow is falling hard and I am grateful for the park's many refuges, which skiers and snowshoers can stay in overnight. But still I cling on to my marathon ambitions like the dead leaves cling to the beech trees around me.
We have to drive to the start. For the first time in half a century, the marathon has abandoned the 80km leg between Ottawa and the midpoint of Montebello to start near the downhill resort of Mont Tremblant, with the organisers promising an even more beautiful itinerary through forests and across golf courses, around farmsteads and over frozen lakes.
Arriving a day in advance, my muscles are grateful for a morning of more familiar downhill skiing, followed by a massage at the nearby Scandinave spa, where pipes of the indigenous tribes' music and a dip in the frozen Diable river prepare me for my initiation into this wintry landscape.
The marathon offers challenges to everyone, from fit to portly, from the youngest (aged six) to the oldest (aged 83), whose jerseys are a patchwork of badges from marathons past. Jackrabbit would be proud.
Most skiers aim to complete just a few of the ten 16km stages. So just a fraction of the 1,600 participants are at the start gate at 8am, where a loudspeaker calls us forward in batches. Given the word, we scuttle off, before finding a more natural pace, gliding through the open countryside.
The landscape is ever changing. Mostly we weave through wild woods, sometimes passing under arches of silver birch bent double by the snow. At one point we enter a forest of pine, whose trunks rise up like the columns of a cathedral above us, the canopy appearing like a vaulted roof. The girl in front stops to take a photo.
Soon we are beside the Rouge river, keeping pace with its fast flowing water as we follow an old railway line south, crossing the river on an iron girder bridge. Two pairs of 'tram tracks' have been cut into the snow for our skis, so I chat to other participants as I overtake them or they overtake me.
“Oh, you are on ‘escales’,", says the Francophone girl who stopped to take the picture. She had heard my squeaky skis close in on her.
The marathon, like most long-distance events, is done in 'classic' style, rather than the faster, but energy-sapping, skate-skiing technique. The difficulty with the classic style is stopping your rear ski slipping back each time you throw yourself forwards on to the front ski. To help, classic skis have under the camber either a fishscale effect moulded in to the base (like mine), or furry skins (newly popular), or wax.
Waxed skis are by far the most efficient, but the wax must be reapplied regularly and are graded according to the temperature. So when we arrive at the first checkpoint, the most serious people are furiously rewaxing their skis, while I head for the dried fruit, honey-water and chocolate-covered raisins dished out by volunteers, before starting on the long stretch from St Rémi d’Amherst to Arundel.
The organisers picked this northerly itinerary, closer to Jackrabbit's original trails, as urban sprawl and farm closures around Ottawa made it harder for them to create a pleasant trail. Even here, I notice the changing rural landscape. After crossing a wide lake, I pass a rusting beachside swing that speaks of more carefree times. And I ski around collapsed barns, lying empty as farms that have passed down generations are faced with low food prices and climate change.
I too am suffering from the march of time, and know I won't manage the full course that day. So I catch the bright yellow school bus waiting at the next check point to the Château Montebello.
Laying eyes on this Narnia-like wooden castle lifts my spirits. It was built in 1930 and is the world's biggest log 'cabin' with 211 bedrooms. On galleries around a massive fireplace, the castle's elfish residents - the children taking part in the marathon – are playing board games, while I head straight to the magnificent dining hall, soon – very soon – to be followed by bed.
"Skipping the first two sections, I board a bus to meet my nemesis"
There I realise there is no way I can complete the second day. But there is one new challenge open to me. This is not my first attempt on the marathon, nor even my second, when I did manage all five sections on the first day. Each time, however, I have studiously avoided the treacherous third stage of day two, where the trail climbs 250 metres only to plunge 150 metres in the space of two kilometres.
So skipping the next day's first two sections, I board a bus to meet my nemesis, and join the ant-like stream of skiers climbing up a steep slope under a milky sky.
A skier speeds past me, his frozen beard a shock of white, his head torch still burning from a 6am start. He is the fastest of the 'coureurs des bois', the ‘runners of the woods' who take their nickname of the 17th century fur traders. They have slept under the stars and are carrying their sleeping bags and mats on their backs, unlike the rest of us who have entrusted our luggage to buses and stay in dorms or hotels.
The marathon is not just about endurance and fitness, however, but skill too. While the Laurentians aren't as steep as younger ranges like the Alps and Pyrenees, the downhills are technically challenging – particularly on skinny skis.
Turning involves a tricky mix of micro adjustments and snowplough attempts. Going too fast at the bottom of one downhill I only just clear the narrowest of snow bridges across a stream.
“I wish had my snowboard now," sighs a young man ahead of me at the top of a particularly steep section, unclipping his skis to walk down. I manage most of the downhills, though my heart beats wildly, often I think I'm a gonner, and at times I can only stop myself by skiing into deep snow 'off-piste'.
Finally, I make it to the checkpoint, completing the section that always eluded me. The local children, who volunteer as wardens, cheer us on even as they sing and dance a little jig to keep warm.
I now must complete the next section by 2pm, after which our way will be barred, as the organisers want to ensure nobody is left stranded on the mountain.
I up my pace, under the watchful eye of the bunny in the backpack of the girl in front of me. He studies me intently from the 132km marker, over frozen swamps where reeds poke out of the ice, until we arrive with ten minutes to spare at the final checkpoint.
Many skiers have commented on the near perfect conditions so far. But the forecast was for freezing rain at 2pm and, like clockwork, the first drops freeze on my visor as the marshals are scanning my bib.
"I expected to be ready to chuck in my skinny skis at this point, but I'm well and truly hooked"
At first, the trees shelter us from the worst of it, but soon I hear cracks from my ski clothes when I move my shoulders, and my mittens are a mosaic of ice.
On the plus side, the gentle descents through the forest have been turned into virtually frictionless trails, and we shoot down them like bobsleds on an icy track, our one struggle being to see where they are taking us. Only an exposed short final stretch straight into the wind slows me down. So I tuck in the slipstream of a big coureur de bois with an even bigger rucksack and – to cheers from the marshals – arrive at the finish. And this time I am more than happy to let the Sesame Street bus carry me back towards Gatineau.
I fully expected to be ready to chuck in my skinny skis at this point, but I am now well and truly hooked, trying the free trail on the Sir John A.Macdonald Parkway along the Ottawa river, then back in the Gatineau Park on a beautifully warm and sunny afternoon.
Since I was soon to be heading back across the Atlantic, I wanted to try a seaside trail before flying back. The downhill resort of Le Massif, which has the highest vertical drop in Canada east of the Rockies, is known for vertiginous pistes, which stop just metres short of the ice floes of the St Lawrence. Less well-known are the series of cross-country trails at the top of the mountain, which also offer sea views.
Canadians call this stretch of salt water, measuring 22km across, a river. But then they also called the seven-seat Dodge Caravan we hired a ‘compact’ car – car hire being a necessity in a country this size. So I'm happy to view the St Lawrence as the first stretch of the Atlantic Ocean.
The other things Canadians play down is the cold. At minus 17C, with a fierce wind blowing, this was no time for the faint-hearted to be downhill skiing. But on the cross-country trails between the pines we soon warmed up. Huffing and puffing up to the refuge at the top of Mont Liguori, we were grateful for the screen of protective trees which denied us our view, until we finally made it to the lookout.
And there, looking across the frozen sea back to the old country, I was finally ready to check in my skis and head home.
Colin is editor of Ski+board, the magazine of the Ski Club of Great Britain. He flew courtesy of Air Canada, which offers returns from Heathrow to Montreal from £408 and to Ottawa from £394 (including tax).
Colin stayed as a guest of Tremblant at the Fairmont, which charges from C$150 per person per night room-only based on two sharing plus taxes, and also visited the Scandinave spa. For more on the region see laurentians.com. He also stayed courtesy of Tourisme Outaouais at the Chateau Montebello, which charges from C$113 per person per night room-only based on two sharing plus taxes.
Activities and Guides
In Le Massif he explored the Sentier des Caps trails.