The Jackrabbit Classic : a report from the longest cross-country ski tour in North America

Published on December 15 2016

By Frédéric Ménard, event director of the Canadian Ski Marathon

The adventure began in June 2015 in the municipal library in Amherst, in Quebec’s Laurentian region. A dozen or so cross-country ski and history buffs, including me, were comparing recent topographical maps with charts of the old cross-country ski trails broken by the late Herman Smith-Johannsen, better known as Jackrabbit. We talked about possibilities, lakes and rivers, rights of way. We scribbled trail sections on a scrap of paper, then said our goodbyes until the next meeting. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we’d just witnessed a historic moment: the birth of the Jackrabbit Classic, a 101‑km ski tour between Mont Tremblant and Montebello.

I faced a big challenge: not only had I agreed to help organize the first edition of the event, I was also going to participate, even though I’m not much of a skier. Sure, I skied with my parents as a kid, but I’ve never taken any lessons or skied more than 40 km in a day. Even so, I figured that as an amateur endurance athlete I could probably manage more than 10 hours of continuous physical exertion. As an added incentive, Martine, my colleague at the Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM), hung “my” medal on the wall across from my desk. “This one’s for you, and I’ll hang it around your neck myself,” she promised me every day.

***

The day before the Classic, a dozen of us stayed overnight at the starting point, the Domaine Saint-Bernard, where I had the privilege of meeting Paul Junique, a living CSM legend who has completed the marathon 36 times. My 36-year-old self felt small and insignificant by comparison! What a pleasure it was to listen to Paul telling stories of the Marathon over a frosty Jackrabbit beer from the Brasseurs de Montebello!

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. As I shuffled to the starting line with my teammate (and CSM board president) Julie, I realized that I was by far the least experienced skier in the group. I started getting nervous. Moments before the official start, the ghost of Jackrabbit on his skis glided by and disappeared into the darkness beyond the flickering torches. A magical moment that set the tone for a historic event.

We started the Classic by the light of our headlamps. After following the Mont Tremblant trails for the first few kilometres, we crossed under Route 117 and headed into the woods. At kilometre 27 we emerged into a long uphill field. The wind whistled across the trail. I felt as if I was standing still, and I started to wonder what the bleep I was doing out here. Fifteen minutes later we were back in the woods, sheltered from the biting wind.

At the rest stop at Boileau (kilometre 59), I recalled the advice our trail director, Denis Marcotte, had given me: “Fred, here’s a tip: If you get to Boileau and you’re not sure if you can go on, take the bus, because after that you hit the Kenauk reserve and there’s no turning back: you have to keep going all the way to Montebello.” But Julie and I were bound and determined to finish the longest cross-country ski tour in North America, so on I went!

As the kilometres mounted up, conversation dwindled. I was getting tired, and fatigue made me introspective. I thought about skiing along the Ottawa River as a child. I could feel Jackrabbit’s eyes on me and hear his voice urging me not to quit. At kilometre 65 my left foot started to hurt, and I had to double-pole for the next 10 K until the anti-inflammatories kicked in. But I didn’t say a word to Julie—I didn’t want to curb her determination. I dropped back so she wouldn’t see me limping.

We skied the last 20 kilometres in total darkness and utter silence. Gradually, the lights of Montebello appeared in the distance. A final descent, over the railroad tracks, and across the finish line! As promised, Martine was waiting for me there, after 12 hours and 101 km. With tears in her eyes, she hung “my” medal around my neck.

Since that thrilling moment, Martine has been hospitalized with brain cancer. She’s the reason I’ll be skiing the second annual Classic, on March 11, 2017. She’s the reason I’ll be going on another inner journey and paying tribute to Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen, the pioneer of cross-country skiing in North America.

If you want to register for the Jackrabbit Classic, click here.

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