Cross-Country Skiing and Winter Camping at the Don Allen Saskaloppet
Running Late on Race Day
Jenna and I are late for the race. Not a couple of seconds or a minute or two late - the starting gun went off 10 minutes earlier. This seems unusual considering we were first to arrive at the La Ronge Legion Hall for the official registration and briefing. We should have been ready on time, but we packed and repacked our bags a few times to get it all right.
We are participating in the Don Allen Saskaloppet Kupesewin. With three tiers - lite, marathon and Sasquatch - our lite event involves cross-skiing 52 kilometres in two days with five kilograms of gear on our back and camping overnight in the snow. A second bag with the rest of our supplies is sent ahead with race volunteers. The other tiers involve skiing 77 kilometres. Sasquatch skiers are required to carry all their gear with no assistance from race volunteers
It sounds a little extreme but we’re excited despite neither of us being expert skiers.
We walk our skis down to the thick orange starting line spray-painted in the snow on the lake. In front of us is the wide-open frozen expanse of Lac La Ronge. We’ll be skiing our way along the lake, through the Nut Point Campground, past the airport, into the Boreal forest and finally to the Don Allen Trails and up to the cabin at the summit. All before dark. Hopefully.
Snapping into our skis, we glide our way past the start line while we cheer each other on. There are no skiers in sight ahead of us - they’re long gone. It’s just us two for the next 26 kilometres.
Skiing Through The Boreal Forest
The Saskaloppet began in 1983 as a fun 50-kilometre event. Today, with distances ranging from two to 77 kilometres, it brings out skiers of all ages and all skill levels. It also brings out nearly 100 community volunteers.
Jenna and I chatter happily as we ski alongside each other in the parallel tracks. The trail winds and rolls through rugged Precambrian Shield outcrops and jack pine, black spruce and aspen forest. For us, the race isn’t a competition. We simply want to have fun.
Several hours later, we enter the pristinely packed Don Allen Trails and begin our last leg of the day skiing up to the summit shelter where we’ll camp for the night. We’re the final of 15 overnight skiers to arrive and in good time - the sun is not far from touching the horizon.
We get straight to work shovelling the snow away from where we’ll pitch our tent. It’s not difficult as the snow is light and fluffy. If we get cold during the night, volunteers will have a fire going inside the shelter as a safety precaution.
Tent erected, we join in with everyone sitting around the heat of the campfire while we make our supper. We discover that most have been skiing the Kupesewin for years. They keep coming back because they love the challenge and the community spirit around the event.
Everyone is friendly and welcoming and we spend the evening sharing stories under the starlight before zipping ourselves into our -20 sleeping bags.
Completing the Don Allen Saskaloppet
Sunrise comes on slowly the next morning but we stayed warm and slept well. We take down our tent, repack our bags and eat oatmeal for breakfast.
Once again, Jenna and I are in the back of the pack of skiers at the starting line. But we’re on time. Speeding down the winding hill from the summit at our own pace, we spot our first manned checkpoint. It hardly seems right to have one so close but we don’t question it and stop for hot Gatorade and orange slices.
We cross Highway 102 and head into the forest, working our way back to La Ronge. For the next six hours, we ski from checkpoint to checkpoint. At each one, giant pyres of wood are stacked in great bonfires. A second fire warms the inside of the ski shelters. Skiers weave through picnic tables overflow with gummy worms, skittles, cheesies, bananas, hot chocolate and energy drinks. Jenna and I split a hot dog at one checkpoint and roast marshmallows at the next.
Every time we stop, we make a point to meet someone new. Some volunteers have the weekend off work while others have family and friends skiing in the race and volunteered in support of them.
Filled with good food and conversation, we continue on into the open flatness of Lac La Ronge for the final few kilometres. With a sense of accomplishment, Jenna and I glide back across the bright orange line in the snow at the finish line and high five each other. To us, it doesn’t matter that it took 11 hours, 43 minutes and 31 seconds to officially complete our 52 kilometres. It only matters that we had one epic adventure while doing it.
Author & Photographer: Ashlyn George
Ashlyn George is an adventure travel writer and social media influencer based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. By 30, she visited more than 60 countries and all 7 continents while documenting it on her blog The Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World. Today,Ashlyn creates content in partnership with world-renowned brands like NFL Canada, McDonald’s and CLIF Bar and has been featured in the New York Times and listed by Kayak as a Top 10 Travel Hacker. Find her online at @thelostgirlsguide or www.thelostgirlsguide.com