The Canadian Ski Marathon
The World's longest ski tour takes place every February in southern Quebec between Gatineau and Lachute. This is the Canadian Ski Marathon and is a two-day event which attracts over 2000 participants, mostly from Canada but also from the US and as far afield as Europe and even New Zealand.
The 160 kilometres of trail wind their way through the spectacular wilderness of the hills to the north of the Ottawa river passing through forests, crossing rivers and over frozen lakes with a total of about 3000 metres of ascents and descents. Whilst the event is called a "Marathon" it is in fact much more of a celebration of Canada's winter than a competitive event and attracts skiers of all ages (5 to 85) and all abilities.
The trail is divided into 10 sections between 12 and 20 kilometres in legnth and of varying degrees of difficulty. The serious skiers, Les Coureurs des Bois, do the whole course with a backpack and camp out overnight at the midpoint of Montebello. Other skiers (no less keen I should add) can opt to do as many sections, at their own level of competence, as they wish and a system of free shuttle buses are provided between the various sections' checkpoints.
The breadth of the appeal of the event is furthered by the provision of low-cost dormitory accomodation at the secondary school in Papineauville as well as a more upscale alternative at the Fairmont Chateau Montebello (the world's largest log cabin).
This is both a fun event and a challenging one and the CSM organisation, along with over 600 volunteers, do an amazing job of providing all the facilities required to make it an experience that many return to year after year.
For more info see forthcoming travelogue... Most participants have their own skis etc but for those who need to rent there are several ski hire places in Gatineau and (I think) Montebello and Lachute. For the budget accomodation at the dorm you'll need to bring your own sleeping bag and mat. Everything else is pretty much laid on by the organisers including the shuttle buses (school buses on contract). The checkpoints at the start of each section have free hot drinks, soup and food and on the sections various volunteer groups provide drinking water and emergency services.
Quebec's Contribution To A More Cohesive Canada
"The Canadian Ski Marathon - A Brief Overview"
Whilst the province's two main cities, Quebec and Montreal, tend to hog the limelight on the tourist stage with their various year-round festivals and happenings there is more to the area than just these two - in fact about 1,667,626 square kilometres more!
One of the lesser-known, but still internationally-renowned for those in-the-know, events is the annual Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) which takes place in February (every year, strangely enough) between the city of Gatineau and the town of Lachute in the south of the province.
The CSM was started in 1967 to celebrate Canada's Centennial by Don MacLeod, a former Canadian National Ski Team member, setting itself out to be the world's longest cross-country ski tour. The inaugural tour had 400 participants with the present-day event attracting over 2200.
The 160 kilometres of trails traverse up into the hills north of the Ottawa River, passing through farmland and forest, crossing rivers and lakes in the spectacular Quebec countryside. This is a two-day event with a midpoint at Montebello and on each day the trails are divided into five sections ranging in legnth from 12 to 20 Km and requiring varying degrees of ability.
This is termed a "Marathon" but is not a competition as such, more of a tour. The only competitiveness is that of meeting your own personal challenges. The really serious skiers, the "Coureurs des Bois", complete the whole 160 Km (the top echelon Gold CdB's camp out overnight and ski with their camping gear) whilst participants with lesser experience can enter as "Tourers" and cherry-pick as many sections, at their own level, as they feel able.
"Getting There And Around"
As befits an event aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle the use of cars is actively discouraged and there is only very limited parking at the Lachute start point, the Gatineau end point and the Montebello mid point. Instead the CSM charters a fleet of school buses (with, I presume, support from the Quebec Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport, who are also one of the event's main sponsors).
The school buses run a service to the accommodations on the Friday before the off from Gatineau, Montreal and Toronto and back from the end point. There is no parking at all at the various checkpoints between sections and the buses also provide a day-long shuttle service between them for those not completing the whole course. The shuttle service is included in the entry fee.
With over 2200 participants for the two day event and early starts required - especially for those aiming to complete the whole course, the CSM offers a choice of accommodations at the mid-point of Montebello and nearby Papineauville.
The Montebello accommodation is at the rather plush (and suitably pricey) Fairmont Hotel, The Chateau Montebello - room rate for the 2-day weekend about $500 EACH!
In Papineauville however the rate was a mere $95 which included breakfast on both mornings, dinner on the Saturday evening and free use of the swimming pool - at the Chateau there's an extra charge of $12!
The Papineauville accommodation was pretty basic, to say the least, being a space on the floor of the classrooms at the local high school and you needed to bring your own sleeping bag and mat. Meals were provided in the school canteen and were really DELISH. The volunteer staff (mostly Guides and Scouts) did an excellent job of running the place. Fellow participants were more than friendly and all-in-all a good time was had by everyone.
"An Inclusive Event"
The CSM is not a race and is specifically set-up to be open to people of all levels of competence and age. There are various catagories at which participants can enter: Coureur des Bois - those who intend to complete the whole course over the two days; Tourer - which allows entrants to ski as many (or as few) sections as they wish; Geo Plein Air Classic - half marathon on the Sunday; Mini-CSM - the last section on either of the days; Family Fun Day - a mini course at the Chateau Montebello followed by lunch and a swim in the hotel's pool.
Each of the 10 sections have varying levels of difficulty and so Tourers can select those sections which match their abilities.
There's no age limit and in fact 18% of participants in 2008 were aged 5-18 and and a further 18% aged over 55. Entrants come mainly from Quebec and Ontario but there are also Americans, Europeans and even the odd Antipodean or two.
The whole 160 Km of trails is specifically groomed for the CSM and passes through the spectacular wilderness of the hills between the River Ottawa and Petite Nation. There are 10 sections, graded : easy, intermediate and difficult. However, even the so-called "easy" sections have their own challenges - I reckon the the difference is that the tougher sections just have more of these challenges.
Each section has it's own characteristics as the trails variously cross frozen lakes, pass through wooded hillsides, up and down minor river valleys, over undulating farmland and even take in a golf course. Mostly the grooming is excellent and the tracks well-prepared , although if following after the fast-moving Coureurs des Bois there are places where the condition deteriorates but not majorly.
"Training and Fitness"
As with any event of this type it's important to be prepared - which means training! You don't have to be super-fit to participate unless intending to complete the whole course but it is nevertheless important to ensure that you are ready for your own personal challenge - that can be the difference between enjoying the experience or not.
Of course the best way to train for a ski marathon is to ski and also to ski in the conditions that the CSM will present. There are no really easy sections and so some familiarity with dealing with hills is pretty useful (as I found out the hard way!). However even without the access to snow a training regime involving pretty much any other sporting activity will at least establish a general fitness.
The CSM site offers a useful training guide by the former Olympic skier Chris Blanchard, a Gold Coueur des Bois - https://marathoncanadiendeski.com/about_the_ski_marathon/training_tips.html
"The 600 Volunteers"
The CSM is an amazingly well-organised event run by a board of directors and a small permanent staff.
During the weekend itself there are also over 600 volunteers involved who all make a huge contribution to the event's success. The volunteers range from the Guides and Scouts who staff the dormitory accommodation at Papineauville, those who man the checkpoints, the Canadian Military who provide the waystations on the trails, The local Fire Services who were looking after the road crossings and many many more.
So I'd just like to say thanks here to them all.
"Last But Not Least!"
The skiing only lasts two days but the organization is a year-round task and here's the girls from the office at Gatineau who as soon as they have finished with setting up the current year's CSM start immediately with the preparations for the following - Cheers Girls!
Parc Omega is located close to Montebello, Ontario. It's a superb wild park where you are guaranteed to interact with all the wild animals you always wanted to meet. You will tour the park in your car (that's the only way to do it" although there are safe walking areas. A great experience.
Entrance to the Château (dark today...)
Omega Park Wildlife
Omega Park Wildlife