Skiing Off into the Wilds

By Peter Wilson

Star Phoenix
March 25, 1989 Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

STANLEY MISSION – Morning in this historic settlement breaks early with the chorus of sled dogs anchored to their posts on the shores of the bay. Crossing that frozen bay was the first order of the day for our group of 12 cross-country skiers. It was to be the first stage in that day’s 16-kilometre trip to the cabin at Nistowiak Falls, five hours away.

The offer had been tempting – three days of cross-country skiing in northern Saskatchewan. However, getting in shape for what looked to be a 50-kilometre trip with a 15-kilogram pack was a little less than alluring. But with the commitment made, practice regimens were set up and the drawn-out process of getting “in shape”, reluctantly got underway.

For a couple of weeks, equipped with a backpack of books for ballast, trails were blazed across city-side ski routes. As unknown and unheard-of muscles developed and made themselves felt, the load of literary heavyweights gradually increased. The progression from thin detective novels to thick dictionaries was a gentle process, and I knew the time had arrived when my pack swallowed a massive Saskatchewan history work and a book of Canadian quotations.

However, the hard work of getting ready for the trip was forgotten on the drive north. The evening over La Ronge settled like the closing curtain on a Wagner opera. The same avalanche of northern lights and bright stars that looked down from the heavens had provided a backdrop for hunters and trappers for centuries. It was somehow fitting that in our own small way, our group of skiers was about to become part of that history as well.

Ski Trail in Churchill River country, northern Saskatchewan

Ski Trail in Churchill River country, northern Saskatchewan

A hundred kilometres north of La Ronge, Stanley Mission faces the wilderness. This was our starting point.

Escorted by a couple of the town’s dogs that had slipped their moorings, 12 of us, including group leader Cliff Speer, headed east across the ice into the cold sunshine. Speer has organized similar ski trips for the past four years. A veteran of northern travel, he has canoed and skied the pristine landscape in this part of the country.

As we hit the first of the hills and headed into the forest, Speer was like a wagon boss on the old Oregon Trail. Every 20 minutes or so he would ski towards the end of the line and wait for the last of the stragglers, informing them of any tricky hills that might be coming up around the bend.

It wasn’t totally necessary because the whoops or yells penetrating the thick forest betrayed areas where some of the less experienced skiers were having problems.

The steepness of the hill could be measured by the time from the start of the whoop to the inglorious finale. It was rather like dropping a stone into a well to measure its depth.

After more than five hours of skiing, which included a half-hour lunch break, we made our night’s destination at Nistowiak Falls. It was a sight that took away the fatigue of the day. The chilling waters of Lac La Ronge emptying into the Churchill River system created its own dramatics of ice and condensation at the Falls. The rush of water against the rocks, as the current of the Rapid River sped by, was reminiscent of an express train tearing by the group of cabins in the trees.

The two days of camp life were spent skiing the trails to a trapper’s cabin and an old abandoned mine. The mine built and abandoned in the early ’50’s, bore silent testimony to the hopes of an earlier age. The roofless metal structure housing the snow-covered rusting machinery, and the open pit where the ore had been removed were all that was left. The dense bush was slowly, but relentlessly covering someone’s dreams.

Massive ice sculptures at Nistowiak Falls, Churchill River

Massive ice sculptures at Nistowiak Falls

While Speer could be counted on to produce duct tape to bandage a broken ski pole or a screwdriver to fix a loose binding, he was just as imaginative with cooking pots. King of the kitchen, his homemade moose stew and fish chowder filled a lot of empty space created by the skiing exercise. By the end of the trip Speer’s familiar figure, headlamp strapped to his forehead in the dimly lit cabin and churning away with a spoon mixing a mess of whole wheat bannock, would be a scene etched in memory.

While the food was great and the company hit it off well in the tight confines of the cabin, skiing was the main reason we were there. It just turned out that cross-country skiing involves a lot more than equipment and style. It means northern lights, fast-flowing rapids, metre-thick ice, and the occasional jackpine to hug when things get a little too fast on the trail.

It also means that you can sometimes learn more from carrying books than from reading them.

Rapid River above Nistowiak Falls, Churchill River

Rapid River hoar frost above Nistowiak Falls