Behind the scenes: what it takes to host the 2018 Ski Nationals at Lappe Nordic Center in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Trail groomers, wax technicians and race announcers prepare hours before the event every day
Residents who were born and raised in northwestern Ontario all say without a doubt that the Lappe Nordic Centre is one of Canada's best kept secrets for cross-country skiing.
Located in the middle of the deep woods about 27 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Lappe Nordic Centre has hosted a total of three national cross-country ski championships with the fourth one currently in progress this week.
Some of the best of the best skiers in Canada are racing against each other for a coveted medal for the 2018 Ski Nationals, which began Friday and run until Saturday.
But before they hit the trails, hundreds of volunteers, coaches, wax technicians and snow groomers are busy each morning setting up and making sure everything is in place so that athletes can accomplish the best ride possible.
Preparations start early
Tom Rossi first started working at the Lappe Nordic Centre in 1985, fixing skidoos, grooming trails and learning from owner and former athlete Reijo Puiras.
"On a race day, we normally try to [groom the trail] in the evening, and, depending on the snow conditions, sometimes it takes between six or seven hours to do it," Rossi explained, "what we do is we go around and break up the trail and then we go and make the race course."
Starting his shift usually anywhere around midnight to 2 a.m., Rossi makes sure all the trails at Lappe are up to standards and groomed perfectly so athletes can get the best traction on their skis during race day.
He has dedicated himself to a life of frequently monitoring the snow conditions at Lappe and grooming the trials under the quiet night sky.
"It's just a relaxing thing because I do renovation work in the summer time ... and this is a really relaxing way to unwind in the middle of the night to get out here and watch the stars and the moon and the wildlife. It's great," Rossi said.
Understanding the snow
For the 2018 Ski Nationals a handful of sheds are set up on the side of the parking lot at Lappe, filled with some of the most important equipment and technicians athletes heavily rely on.
Toivo Koivukoski and Kieran Jones have been in contact with Rossi every morning since the race started on Friday, asking about the snow conditions to try and determine what kind of wax application would help skiers achieve the speed they desire.
"You know that saying that every snowflake is different? It is very true," Koivukoski explained. "The conditions are always varying through the day, and they are varying over the course."
"Part of what we are trying to do is get to know the snow here at Lappe and then tune the skis so that it's accommodating to the changing conditions so that athletes can measure up to their potential."
Kieran Jones from the Nakkertok ski club in Gatineau, Que., said this is his second visit to Lappe in the last few months as he was just here for the Ontario University Athletics Nordic Ski Championships.
"It must have snowed 50 centimetres, and that snow has stuck around ... and so the snow stayed quite powdery and really excellent," Jones said.
Race announcers Steve Scoles and Jim Bailey have been watching the race since the moment athletes crossed the start line on Friday, and since they have the important job of keeping the audience and fans up to speed on the event, the pair has been keeping its eyes peeled for the up-and-coming athletes.
"We've got Olympians, we've got world championship medallists, and then we've got these great young skiers in Thunder Bay that are going up against Canada's best," Scoles said.
And with lots of skiers coming to the Lakehead just for the great skiing conditions and facilities, Bailey said it's no surprise that we have some great local athletes who are as young as 14 years old competing in this year's Ski Nationals.
"Thunder Bay provides the perfect mix because skiers are able to attend Lakehead University or Confederation College, all the while skiing in some really great conditions here [and] a number of great ski areas," Bailey said.
Being a skier himself, Bailey said he frequently comes across skiers from all over Canada who decided to move to Thunder Bay to ski.
A detailed list of all the events for the 2018 Ski Nationals can be found on their Facebook page. Races are expected to start at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 17 with the awards ceremony and athlete banquet scheduled for 6 p.m.