The Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) is the longest Nordic ski event (160 kilometres over two days) in North America. It’s also the oldest. This year it celebrated its 50th birthday and I had an opportunity to participate – in the Tourer category. But at the end of the first day, about 4:30 in mid-February, I also had a chance to go behind the scenes and visit Gold Camp – the home for the night of a group of amazing men and women who had just skied 80 kilometres. They were all in the Coureur des Bois gold category.
What is the Coureur des Bois?
The Canada Ski Marathon calls the Coureur des Bois the “ultimate classic Nordic skiing adventure; it’s not a race but a winter challenge.” The 160 kilometre course traverses the countryside between Gatineau and Lachute, Quebec over two days with an overnight stop at Gold Camp.
There are three Coureurs des Bois levels – bronze, silver and gold with each level progressively more difficult. At all levels, you must ski the full 160 kilometres over the two days. But at the bronze level, you don’t need to carry a backpack and you can sleep in comfort – say at the nearby Fairmont Chateau Montebello. At the silver level you must carry a backpack weighing a minimum of five kilograms. But again, you can sleep in comfort. It’s not until you reach the gold level, that you must spend the night outside at Gold Camp – no matter what the conditions or temperature – and carry all the necessities like food and a sleeping bag.
Covered with a blue haze from the smoke of wood fires and the sight of men sitting on hay bales, Gold Camp it reminiscent of a scene you might see in a Depression era photo – minus all the high tech gear. The faces you see show signs of exhaustion but also of joy and pride.
Everyone here has been busy since their arrival. At Gold Camp you are provided with three necessities – hay bales, boiling water and firewood. But nothing is delivered to your chosen campsite. You must find a sled and move the firewood, then the hay bales – and finally after you’ve changed out of damp clothes into something warm and dry you can contemplate going to get boiling water. Of course there are other housekeeping tasks to do – like drying your boots and setting up your bed for the night. For some that’s in a lightweight tent, while others sleep on a piece of plastic on top of a hale bale. The ones that have done this before seem to have a system in place. Food is whatever you’ve carried with you. And then there’s the socializing and the story telling.
Who are these people?
There is an incredible cross-section of men and women who tackle this event (and unfortunately some who don’t quite make the mandatory 3:15 PM cutoff for skiing the first four sections.) I met a couple of great guys from Old Chelsea, Quebec. They live close enough to the event that over the year’s its become a bucketlist item for them. Once you’ve stayed at Gold Camp once, do you need to do it again? I wonder if they’ll be back next year.
A family of four adult children and two parents from Vermont was particularly inspirational. They’ve done the event multiple times with one daughter flying in from Norway to participate this year. And the son who is just 18, has been a Coueur des Bois five times. Another gang of four – a father and son plus friends had me laughing. The friend who had traveled in from Vancouver didn’t ski one kilometre to train. The recommendation is to have 500 kilometres under your belt before the event. My husband talked to an older fellow who spoke only French. It was his first time and he didn’t have the support of friends – which would make a huge difference in my opinion – to motivate you when it gets tough and to share the chores of Gold Camp. I hope he was embraced by another group.
What do you get in return for such hardship?
Of course there’s a magnificent sense of accomplishment – and the pride of coaxing your body over 160 hilly kilometres. Truly, my hat goes off to each and every one of these participants. I can’t imagine the stamina they have or their level of fitness.
There are some interesting stats from the 2016 event.
In total 389 skiers registered to do the Coureur des Bois Gold. But only 22 women and 157 men completed the event – less than half of all that registered.
I don’t have what it takes to be a Coureur des Bois but do you?
For more information on the Canada Ski Marathon or to register click here.
Thank you to Outaouais Tourism for hosting my stay and suggesting I do the event in the first place. It’s one I’d recommend to anyone who loves cross-country skiing!