The classic cross-country loppet from Fort Fitzgerald to Fort Smith celebrates its 40th birthday this year - a surprise to its organizers.
Originally thought to have started in 1973, loppet organizers Patti-Kay Hamilton and Don True were approached by Camrose resident Blair Dunbar while down south advertising the Thebacha Loppet at the Birkebeiner – a popular ski event near Edmonton – who told them he had actually held the first one back in 1972.
“That makes us the oldest loppet in Western Canada,” said Hamilton.
The 30 km trail running over Smith’s Landing First Nation land was first cleared by Frank Laviolette with the Thebacha Workers Co-op in 1966 to get the historic route ready for an all-night spring solstice walk in celebration of the centennial in 1967, when Fort Smith was still capital of the Northwest Territories.
That winter, the same trail was trekked by snowshoe with dogsleds sweeping behind.
Several years later, Dunbar informally began the skiing event on the trail. In 1973, it was taken over by Jacques van Pelt, Ib Kristensen and Peter Verhessen and made into a formal event held the first Saturday of March every year since, holding true to its original vision.
“We did not want to have anything to do with racing or people over-taking one another,” said van Pelt. “It was to be for all ages, parents with their kids. Everything was on a cooperative basis – getting fit versus high-falutin competition.”
Van Pelt, who came North as the first recreation coordinator for the territory, said that was the purpose of community recreation back in those days, which had more to do with fun than winning.
“Community recreation is about doing things together so that we grow,” he said. “The big idea was to have fitness in the outdoors of the Northern landscape that was achievable by anyone who was not mobility-impaired and family, family, family-oriented.”
The supportive and relaxed, all-ages tone of the event has not changed. Each year the young and old, beginner and professional take to the trail, stopping at the five traditional check-point sites for conversation and a cup of something hot.
A large part of what brings them back, said Hamilton, is the natural beauty of the trail running along the Slave River. Various outlook points open onto four sets of river rapids, where the mist hangs like a magical fog and coats the trees in frost.
“I’ve skied around the world,” said Hamilton, including Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Norway. “And every time I do it, I think the views on our trails are world class. Lots don’t have trails as nice as ours but we’ve never told the world about ourselves.”
The slogan for the Thebacha Loppet – “It won’t be the trek that leaves you breathless” – sums it up for Hamilton, who is fascinated by the history of the trail and its natural splendor.
“Whenever I’m skiing and I see the big birch trees, I just wish they could talk and tell the stories of who’s been there,” she said.
Used by Aboriginal peoples as an original portage route, the trail has been walked for thousands of years. People from as far away as the Sahtu travelled down river systems to the trail between Fitz and Smith on moose hide canoes to trade there centuries ago.
Later on, the trail would be used by the first explorers coming to the North, including Sir John Franklin, Alexander Mackenzie and Samuel Hearne.
“There are so many stories on that trail,” said Hamilton.
This year more than other years, the ski club has begun marketing the event to outside visitors. As Hamilton said, they are “planting seeds” for future skiers to make the 12-hour drive North.
“Our ski club thinks that we have a responsibility as things are warming in other places and they don’t have as much snow,” she said.
Further, there is an underlying environmental advocacy aspect to the event.
“Just as Paddlefest brings people to the river, the loppet does in the winter,” Hamilton said. “I think if people in McMurray and other places downstream could see the river and what it looks like up here, it might have an impact on their decisions. It’s easy to do damage and not feel responsible if you don’t know what the consequences are.”
The Thebacha Loppet takes place Saturday, March 3. Participants meet at 10:00 a.m. at the Fort Smith Nordic Centre to be bussed to assorted trailheads. Skiers can choose to begin at Fort Fitzgerald for the full 30 km, the Halfway check point (15 km) or Mountain Portage (8 km). Register online at www.zone4.ca.