As Fort Smith celebrates the 40th anniversary of its annual Thebacha Loppet, a cross-country ski jaunt between town and the edge of the Alberta border, residents are also taking time to remember the political activism that helped the event gain popularity.
In 1975, resident Ib Kristensen, his 14 year-old son Jack and their friend Jerry Schwap spent 12 days gliding from their warm home in Fort Smith to their destination in Fort McMurray, in the hopes of building momentum for the creation of a new road north to the NWT.
Modern Fort Smith residents had the opportunity to question Kristensen at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre last Thursday, during the second installment of its new speaker series.
People from all over were “eagerly promoting this road to be built,” Kristensen said. “I was on council at the time and I got an earful of that from everybody. Mayor (Paul) Kaeser was there hammering away at us and saying do something about it and get that road built, but it wasn’t as easy as that. There were many ups and downs to it…A great many politicians outside supported us but no road came about.”
In addition to NWT communities asking for a new road – to relieve pressure off the Peace River-High Level highway – delegates from Uranium City, Sask., Fort Chipewyan and Edmonton, Alta. met several times over the course of the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s to reach their goal.
In 1975, shortly after the Fort Smith Ski Club was formed, Kristensen and his crew decided to make the trek the length of the road they wanted, following in the footsteps of previous “Walkathons” to raise funds and awareness for other causes.
“I got the idea that something we could do was to physically promote that road,” Kristensen said. “Together with our friends, Schwap and my son Jack, we decided to do a loppet between here and Fort McMurray.”
They took off on Mar. 12, 1975. That day, the trio made it to a Wood Buffalo National Park cabin in Fort Fitzgerald, after stopping to take a break with a team of supporters at Mountain Portage.
“A group of snowmobilers from Fort Smith had humongous ‘participaction’ take place,” Kristensen said.
In a special to The Pilot, a former Fort Smith-based newspaper, Kristensen wrote about his journey shortly after it took place. For now, the story hangs on the wall of the local museum. In the piece, he mentions the immense support locals showed for the expedition, in the form of a $1,000 donation from the town and a fleet of about 20 snowmobilers ready to follow the crew to Fort McMurray.
Once the team was out on the land though, they realized just how tough the next few days were going to be.
“We soon realized that, where no snowmobile had passed, we had to break our own trail – and that was hard work,” Kristen wrote. “Our skis were light touring skis, too narrow for trailblazing and we soon found ourselves skiing along the side of the road, which for a few miles, worked fine.”
While reiterating the tale to his audience, Kristensen focused on conditions that made the going tough along the way and the gracious trappers who would – voluntarily or involuntarily – lend the adventurers shelter in their cabins overnight.
“It was a tough going, no doubt, but we enjoyed it,” he said.
With unusually warm weather, the crew faced ice-covered snow, river overflows and frozen feet.
In the end, Kristensen said, it was all worth it.
“We did the very final trek into Fort McMurray and the mayor was there greeting us,” he said. “Newspapers were there…It was quite the event. A charter was arranged from Fort Smith to McMurray to fill with relatives, friends, to be there at the time to celebrate the arrival of these crazy people that went on the loppet.”
Even though a year-round road has yet to be completed in that region, Kristensen said he is proud of his accomplishment and the contributions made to installing the existing winter road.
“It was quite the event,” Kristensen said. “I cherish that opportunity. Sometimes you have to do something crazy to satisfy yourself and that was one great thing. I don’t know how we did it really.”
The legacy of the loppet now carries on as a classic cross-country event, where dozens of enthusiasts of all ages take to the trails the first weekend of March each year. The 2015 Thebacha Loppet is scheduled for Saturday, Mar. 7.