'One of the best sites in Canada': How a New Brunswick village became home to an elite sports venue
Les Aventuriers Ski Club has slowly developed a top-notch cross-country ski course since the 1970s
Before this week, you would be forgiven for not knowing Charlo, the small northern New Brunswick village, is home to one of the country's premier sports venues.
Sitting in the woods along the north branch of the Charlo River is Les Aventuriers Ski Club, a little-known Restigouche County gem and economic driver. Talk to club members and they will tell you even the locals aren't fully aware of what happens on the cross-country trails or the impact they have on the community.
"We're probably known more outside this province than we are in this province," said Marc Levesque, a club official and one of several key figures in developing the site.
"Go anywhere in Canada and talk to people who cross-country or biathlon. Ask them about Charlo. They know where it is."
The club is garnering attention this week as host of the 2018 Canadian Biathlon Championships, but Les Aventuriers aren't new to the national spotlight. The club has been hosting provincial, regional and national competitions for decades.
The unassuming community has slowly and steadily built the course from scratch for more than 40 years into a renowned facility with millions worth of infrastructure, and its origins are as modest as they come.
"It was a group of people there who just wanted to cross-country ski," Levesque said.
"And that's how it started."
Guy Laviolette is better known as the owner of La Source, a highway-adjacent restaurant and long-time fixture in Charlo, but he played a crucial role in establishing cross-country skiing in the community.
In the mid-1970s, Laviolette and his employees built a five-kilometre cross-country course next to the restaurant. They rented skis and boots and built a hut for the public at a time when the ParticipACTION program was in full swing.
"It became very popular very fast," Laviolette said.
An independent club was formed during the 1976-77 winter, the trails were extended and they began racing, he said. Laviolette remembered a race where one competitor stopped midway through to have a chat after recognizing someone off the trail.
To his surprise, the early races were considered a success. "We didn't even know what was a good race," he said. But word began to spread.
The first big test came in 1981 when the region was tapped to host the junior nationals, the province's first national cross-country event. Because the course was too small, it was held at nearby Sugarloaf Provincial Park, and despite the change in location, the foundation was laid for the cornerstone of the club's success: institutional knowledge.
"When I came back from any place, I brought back ideas, I brought back knowledge either for trails, either for officials, either for money for coaches from Sports Canada. That kind of thing," Laviolette said.
"You've got to be on the ice to play the game."
Laviolette has an extensive history in the sport, from designing courses to officiating at the Olympics and serving as president of the sport's national body. He paved the way for many other community members to get involved, trained and certified.
After the first nationals, the area then had an enthusiastic, qualified and organized base of volunteers, boosting its chances of attracting more elite-level competitions.
"From there it never stopped," Laviolette said, listing events such as cross-country national championships, Canada Cups, other biathlon nationals and the 2003 Canada Games.
"Behind all that is a bunch of volunteers who stepped in different roles and potentials and put it all together, and that's how we became known to be a good site to run an event."
While walking across the bridge overlooking the thin, calm river branch that snakes through the snow-capped trees, Joseph Elias, chairman of the 2018 biathlon nationals, nods to various improvements made at the club over the years
The bridge itself was a game changer, Elias said. The Bailey bridge grants access to a large swath of hilly terrain, including a plateau perfect for a shooting range and competition headquarters. It also allowed the creation of an expansive network of trails, totalling nearly 30 kilometres.
As the course, which was shifted a few kilometres west from its original home behind La Source, began to take its current shape, the club began constructing specific buildings to not only accommodate large competitions but serve as a winter getaway for recreational skiers and the like.
The addition of the shooting range — developed through a land donation from Levesque's family — was key in the regional to host the 2003 Canada Games, Elias said. A paved track was also built for off-season training.
"It's one building at a time, one brick at a time," he said, adding they're not finished.
"I have a vision of a true stadium here. We have people thinking and perceiving and having a vision of where these things are going."
The proper amenities — for shelter, maintenance, race management, etc. — has permitted the club to host all kinds of events and tourists, Elias said. For instance, many Nova Scotians make the trip north because their province simply doesn't have the facility or the snow, Levesque added.
That means plenty of economic spinoffs for the region, but it also lays the groundwork for growth of the sports.
"It's with infrastructure like this that eventually you get athletes… they have to start somewhere," Levesque said.
One those athletes is Mark Arendz, who arrived in Charlo on Monday after winning six medals at the Paralympics in PyeongChang and being named flag-bearer for Team Canada. The Prince Edward Island native trained in Charlo during the winters of the mid-2000s in the early years of his career.
Arendz said the course stands out because it's challenging and the community is well-organized to host an event.
The course's high-degree of difficulty is thanks to Laviolette. The expert course designer, who had a hand in shaping virtually every Atlantic course and many others, used the landscape to meet international standards, and he stands by the club's work.
"It's one of the best sites in Canada."