Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Making Tracks

Weekend skiers and professional athletes share the trail in three cross-country marathons

Remarkable people, the 2000 cross-country skiers who traverse a 160-kilometre trail through the untamed hills of western Quebec. Crazy, but remarkable.

Whether they're Olympic-calibre competitors or just enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded enthusiasts, thousands of cross-country skiers take part in organized marathons each year. No matter what their skill level, they're driven by the same Nordic spirit that revels in wild, wintry conditions.

In mid-winter there are three racing and touring marathons in Quebec and northern Vermont. Most have segments that are accessible for the whole family, and they're open to anyone who's willing to face the physical challenge.

Darting through the yard
Kilometre after snowy kilometre, for two days, participants in the annual Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) push along in all weather. Since 1967 the CSM has drawn crowds as the longest loppet in the world. The trail runs between Lachute and Buckingham, Quebec where the Ottawa River Valley cuts along the southern edge of the Laurentian Highlands, and offers unique access to the unknown countryside between Ottawa and Montreal.

Hundreds of skiers assemble at the start, but during the morning the crowd thins out. At times you'll find yourself alone in the forest with only the sound of snowflakes tapping your parka, or pausing by a river that cuts through the ancient bedrock of the Canadian Shield. When you hear the rhythmic sound of ski poles approaching, it's time to move on.

Skiers cut across back roads and through tiny hamlets where rustic farms dot the hills and remote summer cottages are snowed in for the winter. They pass snowmobiles buzzing through backyards and church bells tolling on Sunday morning.

Hundreds of locals volunteer to operate the checkpoints, shovel snow onto road crossings and drive the shuttles, while other residents root the skiers on. You may hear polka music blaring across a lake as you pass a lemonade stand in the forest offering cold drinks and hot coffee for 25 cents. Near Montebello, farmers Jean and Jasmine Mineault have been handing out free cookies and drinks since the marathon began. Such brief but memorable encounters with the people in the area gives you a chance to practice your French and boosts your morale for the rest of the race.

The CSM is a family event but only the true coureurs de bois and professional athletes achieve the feat of skiing all 10 sections of the trail. Last year's participants ranged in age from five to 87 and most tackled only a few of the sections which range from 12 to 24 kilometres. Touring skiers do as much as they can before hopping onto one of the shuttle buses that run from each checkpoint -- where a cup of hot soup, a handful of cookies and chocolate covered raisins provide fuel for the next section of trail -- back to civilization.

Conditions can be difficult. Some days the minus-45-degree wind chill can whip across frozen lakes and open fields where skiers plod in an endless line, their heads bent. Catching your breath in conditions like these is like being thrown down on your back and stomped on, and you long to return to the shelter of the forest. Race veterans come prepared with goggles, balaclavas and thick mittens.

Snow-plowing can slow your pace on a wide trail with deep, soft powder. But often the marathon trail is narrow and icy with protruding roots or ruts that guide your skis where you don't to go. The only proven technique for reducing speed in that case is the Drop Stop.

Sometimes you have to act fast. I once came around a blind corner to find a fallen skier in my path and had to struggle to find my balance before plunging over a bank onto an icy lake. Coming out of that adventure I knew why I was there: it was an adrenaline rush.

On Saturday night competitors have a chance to socialize at Le Château Montebello. The hot tub is the place to thaw frozen fingers and relax sore muscles. After dinner the wise head to their rooms to wax their skis and get to bed early for the start at dawn. The more gregarious stay up for hot chocolate by the stone hearth and swap trail stories with the other weekend adventurers.


Overnight at Le Château doesn't qualify as roughing it, though the hotel is the largest log structure in the world. It offers an interesting mix of rustic and luxurious, fitness and indulgence. The heroic coureurs de bois are truly out in the bush: they race with five-kilogram backpacks and camp out on Saturday night. They begin the second leg of the 160- kilometre trail in darkness at 5am with headlamps lighting their way. By 7:30 they've skied 19 kilometres to the first checkpoint where they stuff cookies in their mouths and guzzle hot honey water before dashing off again, constantly checking their watches to maintain their minimum eight-kilometre-per-hour pace before reaching the finish line.

At 91, legendary cross-country skier Herman Smith "Jackrabbit" Johannsen was on skis to inaugurate the first annual CSM. He promoted the sport actively in the area, established trails and continued to attend the CSM until he was 110. He made it a tradition to visit the coureurs de bois in their camp on Saturday nights.

His daughter Peggy Austin recalls that, when ski lifts were built after the war, alpine skiing took over as the most popular winter sport.

"Anyone who stuck to cross-country was a fuddy-duddy and didn't know how to ski," she recalls. "It was considered old-fashioned and no good."

Today at 84, Austin is the oldest female participant. And she still keeps her father's tradition of visiting the camp where the coureurs de bois sleep out.

Rabbits and chickadees
Long before Mont-Tremblant became an international resort and the site of world-class downhill ski competitions, Jackrabbit Johannsen played on its slopes and built trails in the Laurentian highlands. Today, Johannsen Peak looms over the Diable River Valley and the Jackrabbit Trail links up with a 90-kilometre network of well-marked cross-country trails that are groomed daily.

It's here each winter that a race and family ski tour are held in honour of Jackrabbit's son-in-law, the late Peter Austin who lived nearby. The starting point is at the Centre de ski de fond Mont- Tremblant/Saint-Jovite, built on the former Domaine Saint-Bernard property. In contrast to the rapid urban development occurring nearby at the Tremblant Intrawest resort, this land is municipally protected green space.

Set in the valley, this is fairly tame ski country. There are no spectacular mountain descents or tortuous climbs. It's far enough to the north that deep snow is a pretty sure bet and meeting avid backcountry skiers is guaranteed.

Families are sure to get in on the event; last year the age of participants ranged from 12 to 83. Four circuits are offered -- ranging from two, six and a half and 20 kilometres -- one for children and three for adults. Tours are offered for both classical and skating technique. And free packets of sunflower seeds are even available to hand-feed the wild chickadees that flock to the sidelines.

Quaint Country Skiing
For residents of the continental United States, the Far North is just south of Canada. Vermont's Northeast Kingdom is a backwoods frontier where covered bridges, white church spires and dairy farms are scattered among the forested ridges of the Green Mountains. While St. Johnsbury may be the region's cultural centre, Craftsbury Common is at the heart of cross-country skiing in the state.

This 18th-century village is the epitome of a quaint New England town. Its large snow-covered common is surrounded by a white rail fence with a bandstand and war memorial. Centuries-old clapboard houses with black shutters line the main streets next to the library, post office and church.

The day of the race, organizers are up at dawn in the high-school gym preparing for the arrival of the hundreds of participants -- more than 600 last year. Skiers pick up their numbered bibs and board buses to the starting point where, each year, a tranquil pasture near Greensboro becomes a bustling mass of colorful jerseys.

This is no ordinary small-town race. When organizers ask the crowd at the starting line how many have participated in the Olympics, dozens of ski poles point skyward. Top US athletes from east and west -- like the Fischer/Subaru Factory Team -- are vying for over $US10,000 in prizes. A $US100 bonus goes to the first man and woman to the top of the first hill, a three-kilometre sprint away.

Recreational skiers will take to the trail after the lead pack has darted off. Trail conditions are generally good too, thanks to modern grooming equipment that pulverizes the icy crust that formed on these fields the day before. Proper waxing becomes a major factor in such conditions as the ice crystals scrape off an unprotected soft wax in less than a kilometre and a half.

Although many youngsters and families enjoy this tour, it's not for beginners. The trail goes deep into the forest across a rugged stretch of Appalachian Mountain country. Even if you've trained hard on flat terrain don't be surprised if you discover some tender leg muscles you didn't know you had when you reach those mountains.


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