It’s 4am when my watch alarm wakes me up. I open my eyes and see stars. It’s been a clear night and my sleeping bag isn’t covered in snow. That’s good news. Reluctantly, I unzip my sleeping bag and let the cold air in. I quickly put on a puffy, some thick mittens and go get some water to boil on the fire while I wax my skis. It’s day 2 of the Canadian Ski Marathon, the 160Km two-day challenge that is held every year between Lachute and Gatineau.
The adventure begins Saturday at 5:40 am. That’s the day 1 start time for the Coureur des Bois Gold event, the highest category of participation at the marathon. There, huddling at the starting line, over two hundred skiers sporting heavy packs anxiously await the start signal under the dim light of their LED headlamps. A thick fog from their collective breath hangs over the crowd and crystallizes into little sparkles. Eventually, the start is finally called and the men trickle across the starting line forming a serpentine line of little lights disappearing into the forest.
Over the next 10-13 hours, the Coureurs des Bois ski all 5 sections of the first day’s trail (roughly 80 km). Between each section, a large checkpoint area is set up with refreshments, food, first aid, and buses for those who decide to call it early. All along the trail and at the checkpoints, an army of volunteers (including, a large contribution from the actual army) shovel snow on road crossings, man water stations, and service first aid posts. Shortly before the end of the last section, the trail bifurcates; the Coureus des Bois Gold go right, and finish their day at Gold Camp where they spend the night outside and everybody else goes left and finish their day at the far-more-accommodating Fairmount Château Montebello, the official midpoint of the Ski Marathon.
The Spartan environment of Gold Camp contrasts sharply with the luxurious setting of the Château, but some basics are provided, including water and a bale of hay. These are extremely useful, since melting snow is laborious and slow, and most Coureurs des Bois want to get to bed as soon as possible to restore some strength for the second day. The hay makes an excellent mat to sleep on when scattered; in fact I’ve even stopped carrying a sleeping pad to the marathon (for more information on technical preparations, including gear, see my next article on marathon preparation).
Once at Gold camp, the objective is to stuff as much food as possible into yourself, dry your boots if possible and get to bed as early as possible. Ski waxing and field repairs might be done at night or in the morning, depending on whether you trust the weather forecast. Sleeping arrangements are simple. The bed is a winter sleeping bag on a pile of hay. As for shelter, some people bring bivy sacks (mini tents that are basically just a shell for your sleeping bag) but I, and many others, bring nothing. I rely on the warmth of my sleeping bag and, if necessary, I can always wear layers to bed. Against the wind, I simply select a shielded spot to lay my bag and I don’t protect myself at all against snowfall, which doesn’t melt much on my insulated bag.
The day 2 morning is basically the previous night in reverse: get up, eat as much as possible and line up at the staring line for the early-morning start. The trail from Gold Camp soon rejoins the trail from Montebello and the adventure continues over another 5 sections to finish in Gatineau. There, a banquet is held where worn-out and tired skiers exchange congratulations and try to hide the fact that they’re drunk from a single beer as they share their stories from the trail.
The Coureur des Bois Gold event is reserved for those committed to the Marathon’s toughest challenge, but that is not the only event at the Ski Marathon. Indeed the Canadian Ski Marathon is a very inclusive event and there is something for virtually everyone, of every skill level and age. Being an untimed event, the Canadian Ski Marathon is not a race, but rather a challenge to yourself to ski out a certain distance. Different prizes are awarded for skiing certain numbers of sections, depending on the category your register for. Team categories are also available where the total number of sections skied by the whole team is counted. The sections themselves vary in length and range from 12 to over 20 km. Transportation to and from the start and finish is provided by a regular stream of shuttles and participants can therefore select exactly where they want to start and finish, and it is possible to stop at any checkpoint.
For those participants who do feel up to skiing the entire distance of the marathon, 160Km, the Coureurs des Bois categories are the way to go. These benefit from an early start time (between 5:40 am and 6:00 am) and are divided into three classes. The Bronze Coureurs des Bois attempt to ski the entire distance, stopping halfway in Montebello and resuming the next morning to complete the distance. Those who have successfully completed the Bronze event may register for Silver the next year. In this event, they repeat the process but carry a pack of a certain minimum weight. Skiers having previously accomplished Bronze and Silver may then register for the Coureur des Bois Gold challenge, described above, whereby they must ski the complete distance of the marathon, stopping halfway to camp out in the snow and self-sufficiently carrying all their gear on their back.
More information is available on the Marathon website and watch for my next article which will briefly discuss the preparations required for the Ski Marathon.