Canadian Ski Marathon – 50 years on

To celebrate Canada’s Centennial, in 1967 the CSM was devised as a skiing adventure from Montreal to Ottawa. The first day entailed a 5 Km crossing of le Lac des Deux Montagnes from the west island of Montreal and the total distance for the three day event was approximately 200 Kms. I skied that first day into a biting north-westerly however opted out of the next two days, due to a business flight to Bogota – fortunately, because the route then crossed the Ottawa River into the fields and flat landscape of north-eastern Ontario all the way to Ottawa.

Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith Johannsen, the father of Canadian skiing, then in his 92nd year, was conscripted for his ideas of a more suitable routeing and within a few years the CSM became a weekend event through the lower Laurentian hills from Lachute to Ottawa, ultimately reversing the direction every second year. Jackrabbit also conceived the idea of a Coureur de Bois category for those wishing to cover the entire 160 Km distance, firstly for a bronze medal award, followed in another year by a silver medal category, carrying a 5.5 Kilo ruck sac laden with survival gear, and ultimately graduating to “Gold” which entails packing into a ruck sac everything needed on the trail from Saturday morning until completion on Sunday evening …tent or tarpaulin, sleeping and changing gear, food and water, cooking utensils – no help from anyone. In the mid- 70’s I was one of the early ones to try for the “gold”. Jackrabbit, then almost 100, had become both my friend and mentor. He encouraged me and said “Take my ruck sac – my spirit will be with you!” As he handed over his steel-framed pre-World War 1 ruck sac, I was thrilled – that is, until feeling its weight – 8 kilos without anything in it! At 40+ what’s a few extra kilos? Away I went.

At the CSM start a few days later, already and hour late at 7 AM, caused by a non-starting Renault, followed by our Peugeot developing a flat tyre, I skied off with 17 kilos on my back for a truly memorable “tour”! As advised by Jackrabbit, I quickly assembled my sleeping tarpaulin upon arrival at the Gold Camp, then stripped for my snow bath, hung my sweaty clothes on the branches to freeze over night for rubbing out the ice particles in the morning, then repaired in dry clothes to the little fire, around which were assembled the 12 other gold hawks, already eaten while I pulled out my steak, potatoes and beans for my hot evening meal.
In the dark of early morn, ‘twas the same routine- all other having eaten and off at the 6 AM starting gun while I tucked into porridge, toast, bacon and eggs, following on 30 minutes later. With a 3 kilo lighter ruck sac, I felt ready to fly which was partially kyboshed when trying to avoid what I thought was an open stream in the gloaming. I flipped, broke through the ice and immersed part of my body — which fortunately had its compensations because we were heading NW and the west wind froze that side of my clothing such that I had a marvellous wind-break all day long.

Flash forward 50 years from1967. I am now 82 and decided to ski my final CSM for my Red Bird Ski Club on a mixed veteran touring team which is allowed to start at 750 AM and cannot go through any Section Checkpoint after 2 PM except 3:15 PM for the last check point each day if one gets that far. That means skiing close to 50 % faster than the heavily weighted Courier de Bois. This was a snap in the old days but became more and more challenging as the decades rolled by. The last time I was able to ski all of the Sections this way was 5 years ago at age 77. The years take their increasing toll and so 8 of the 10 was the goal this year, meaning approximately 65 KMs /day!
Until Tuesday before the big event, the little snow on the ground was mainly ice and ice crystals which on xcty skiis is not good. Then came the biggest one day local storm on record – a half metre of snow falling on most parts of the CSM trail. Cheers all round. However without thinking how difficult it would be to pack down and track set such an amount. Then the weather changed from a perfect – 8 on Friday afternoon to + 3 by the Saturday Start. Soft, powdery snow became quagmires of slush and by the time 800+ Coureur de Bois aspirants had skied on the semblance of tracks, a good portion had become slick and wobbly – lethal for both kick and glide. It was like learning to ski all over again.

Most skiers had klister wax under foot. While providing a semblance of “kick” under foot, klister gums up over snow not yet transformed, such that a gliding ski can be suddenly stopped. Particularly lethal on downhills, of which there are many in the CSM, run entirely over unprepared private lands, each parcel presenting its own challenges.

Fortunately, the temperature stayed warm enough on the Saturday to prevent freezing – instead a piling up and rutting of snow on the downhills, complete with muguls and sitz marks, turning many descents into obstacles to overcome, OR NOT!
I have the fitness to ski a complete CSM. However with age comes decreasing balance and strength. Both are required to survive dodgy downhills on xcty skiis intact. As the hours wore on, even ski poles as braking and supporting levers between the legs were less and less able to help me negotiate the furrows and ruts. Tumbles began – not good for a body just recovering from cracked ribs at the Year’s end. Of course there was always the option of taking skiis off, however to get through check points, only rarely could I choose this option. With less than marginal control, I had to simply attempt to survive!
Not fatigued except in tested muscles and adrenalin rushes, after 30 Km I arrived at the end of the second section well before the 2 PM cut-off time only to find the entrance to the third section closed with literally 100’s of “coureurs”and some touring skiers waiting for bus pick-up. The ski machine had fallen through tracks only partially groomed and so all who arrived at the check point before the deadline were given credit for the section and bussed out. The credit appeased almost all because on balance these were the worst xcty ski conditions most of us had ever experienced, in spite of which we had survived what were at times beautiful wilderness scenes and sweeps of trails through nature preserves where we could effortlessly double pole, only to be sadly upset by the horrendous downhill track conditions.

Our team planned to avoid the third section on the second day, a section which entails a truly tortuous up and down trail. Thus we resigned ourselves four sections maximum out of the five, the total number of sections determining the winning team. However, given the conditions – still above freezing but fortunately without rain, we should have been content with three sections again that day by skiing the first one and then the last two ending us up for changing and banqueting at the Lachute Golf Club. Out first two sections covered almost 40 Kms of difficult skiing and only one of us got there in time to get private transport to the second last section before closure. I arrived on time to go through to the toughest and longest section of the CSM however, as for the day before, it closed early due this time to emergency evacuations and so we frustrated few were given credit for the section and bussed out. While I had tried to be allowed into the third section the day before, I whimpered softly this time round, having dreaded the thought of that Riviere Rouge section, sinking myself gratefully into the comfort of a warm bus. Amazingly, some several hundred Coureur aspirants made it to the finish line, all sections completed. The “Golds” in particular, some having slept out more than 30 times over the years, are the true “Jackrabbit “ followers. I saluted them admiringly when called up to talk about the event.

For me countless CSM memories will persist. However I am grateful to have arrived intact at the close of the CSM’s 50th celebration and to move on to new adventures rather less taxing on the body. Maintenance mode has become my credo and where I shall remain!

Victor Emery
Feb 2016