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Long winters and wild terrain create a skiing destination that rivals Scandinavia. (Darren McChristie)
Long winters and wild terrain create a skiing destination that rivals Scandinavia. (Darren McChristie)

A first timer joins one of the last wilderness loppets Add to ...

At the starting line, it feels like I'm rubbing shoulders with the wrong crowd. I'm a scrawny, first-time participant amid a sea of muscled Nordic gods in spandex speed suits and Terminator-style shades. I've come to Thunder Bay in early March to take part in the Sleeping Giant Loppet, a 50-kilometre cross-country ski race that attracts about 1,000 skiers from across North America. My stomach is in knots. Once the starting gun is fired, I'm sure I will become intimately aware of the chaotic implications of the term "mass start."

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Amazingly, there's no carnage when the pistol blast echoes through the forest and we get under way. Carbide-tipped poles stay low, skis remain untangled and 100-odd bodies glide with impossible grace into the first curve of the five-metre-wide trail. Cheers erupt from the sidelines; within the pack, there are grunts and words of encouragement. The spandex super-athletes speed off, leaving ample space for more modestly skilled and attired skiers to enjoy the boreal landscape of spruce trees, frozen lakes and hills.

Northwestern Ontario is said to be home to the world's largest Finnish population outside Finland - a critical link in making Thunder Bay a cross-country skiing hotbed. Peter Crooks, an organizer of the Sleeping Giant Loppet, has been involved in the Lakehead's ski scene since the 1960s, when "about 99 per cent" of local skiers were recent Finnish immigrants, most of whom came to work in the forest industry. "Some were former world champions and Olympians," says Crooks, the manager of Thunder Bay Nordic Trails. "Starting with the Finns, there was an aura around here about cross-country skiing that got people going. It just followed that the sport would blossom."

It doesn't hurt that the wild terrain west of Lake Superior and long, cold winters create a skiing destination that rivals Scandinavia. Crooks is responsible for grooming about 100 kilometres of trails in three locations: along the cascades of Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, off the Trans-Canada Highway just west of Thunder Bay; within city limits at the Kamview Nordic Centre; and an hour's drive east of the city in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a rockbound peninsula that juts into Lake Superior like a prone giant. Another group, the Lappe Ski Club maintains an immaculate 20-kilometre network of trails in Thunder Bay.

For more than 30 years, the Sleeping Giant Loppet has been the region's key Nordic event. By definition, a loppet is "a recreational mass participation cross-country ski event that may or may not be timed." What sets the Sleeping Giant above its counterparts, such as Quebec's Gatineau Loppet or Wisconsin's famous American Birkebeiner, is its rugged charm. "It's one of the last wilderness loppets," Crooks says. "You often see fresh wolf tracks in the snow, and a few years ago the leading skiers were held up by a moose. We've kept that close feeling of a wilderness trail, much the same as it was 30 years ago, yet we still attract elite athletes. You don't see that anywhere else."

Shorter events ranging from eight to 35 kilometres make the loppet popular with families and all levels of skiers, in both classic and freestyle (skate-skiing) disciplines. In recent years, Crooks has noticed that cross-country skiing has surged in popularity, much like it did when the first waves of Scandinavian immigrants introduced the sport to the area in the 1960s and 1970s. "Back then, the saying was, 'If you can walk, you can cross-country ski,'" Crooks says. "Everyone in Thunder Bay has cross-country skis in the rafters of their garage, and it's neat to see people starting to use them again. We're now getting 75- and 80-year-old grandmothers skiing with their grandchildren."

After the nerve-racking start, I realize that for most skiers, the Sleeping Giant Loppet has little to do with competition. I fall into the exhilarating skate-skiing rhythm that comes with a combination of perfect spring snow conditions and just-below-freezing temperatures. I join a group of similarly paced skiers and we fly along at almost 20 kilometres an hour, urging each other on the uphills and whooping on the downs. The trail follows a wooded corridor, at times opening up with sweeping views of the steep, flat-topped profile of the Sleeping Giant peninsula. Aid stations are scattered along the way, where cheering volunteers provide energy drinks and snacks.

For skiers in the 50-kilometre races, the crux comes just past the halfway point, where the trail heads uphill on the Pickerel and Burma Lake Loop. The route gains more than 100 metres in elevation in a series of difficult climbs. Despite having trained most of the winter, I'm wheezing by the time I make the summit. As I autopilot down the home stretch, the trail becomes crowded with dozens of skiers of all ages, all kicking and gliding toward personal bests. Crooks greets each skier with a megaphone as they cross the finish line, and cowbells ring long into the afternoon. For a moment, it feels like Scandinavia.

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