Jackrabbit Classic: Global warming spurs ski marathon organizers to carve out new northern trail
Inaugural cross-country ski event from Mont-Tremblant to Montebello in Herman Smith-Johannsen's spirit
When 275 skiers set out from Domaine Saint-Bernard in Mont-Tremblant at 6 a.m. on Saturday in the direction of the Ottawa River, they will be following roughly in the tracks once skied by Herman "Jackrabbit" Smith-Johannsen on his annual trek from Piedmont to Montebello.
Smith-Johannsen, the Norwegian-born pioneer who coached Canada's 1932 Olympic ski team and blazed cross-country ski trails throughout the Laurentians, is the stuff of legend – skiing well past his 100th year.
He helped establish the Canadian Ski Marathon and attended it for a last time when he was 110, dying a year later, in 1987, at 111.
Snow cover a climate-change issue
The Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) turns 50 this year.
However, for the past several years, organizers of the 160-kilometre, two-day event between Gatineau and Lachute have worried about the effects of climate change on snow cover along the Ottawa River – especially on the low-lying areas west of Montebello.
"We've had years when the snow is not so good," said Paul "Boomer" Throop, the one-time coach of Canada's national ski team who is past-president of the CSM. "The western trail really won't hold snow because of all the farmers' fields it crosses."
There is no immediate plan to change the ski marathon's route permanently, although that may be down the road, Throop said.
"Our intention now is to have a backup."
Throop said the Papineauville heavy-equipment operator who has been responsible for trail-cutting, grooming and sign-posting the route for years, Denis Marcotte, has long advocated for a northern trail, to go where the snow is more reliable.
"Now he's created it," Throop said.
Farmers, municipalities enthusiastic
Of course, when Johannsen plied the route, there were no double-tracked trails, no water stations or pit stops.
"He would just bushwhack," his granddaughter Karin Austin said. "He had an amazing sense of direction. He was born with a compass in his brain."
Austin is the honorary president of the inaugural event, and she will be on hand at the 60-kilometre mark in Boileau and then later, 39 kilometres farther south in Montebello, to hand out medals to the finishers.
"This event is so much in my grandfather's spirit," said Austin.
In Johannsen's day, "he would just ski into a farmhouse and say, 'I'm Herman Smith-Johannsen, could you put me up for the night?'" Throop said. "And they'd put him up."
Today, planning a new trail means getting permission to cross the land of dozens of property owners, obtaining the co-operation of snowmobile associations to keep their members' machines off portions of the route and finding volunteers to shovel snow across roads, escort skiers through towns and villages and hand out water at key points along the way.
Experts only for 1st-time event
Throop said the plan has come together with the help of two other major ski organizations, les Traversées des Laurentides and Ski de Fond Mont-Tremblant, as well as the Redbirds Ski Club, the Arundel Outing Club and municipalities along the entire route.
Participation for this first-time event was limited to expert skiers, but even for experienced skiers, in a year in which the snow arrived so late, 99 kilometres in a single day is a big challenge, Throop said.
"I've never skied more than 80 kilometres in one day," Throop acknowledged. "But I think we'll be impressed with the number of people who finish it."