By Conor Mihell
The history of nordic skiing in Sault Ste. Marie is long, colourful and defined by a profound sense of community. More than half a century ago, winter enthusiasts from the upstart Soo Finnish Ski Club blazed their own cross-country ski trails through the snowy woods and rugged hills of what’s now known as the Hiawatha Highlands, located just north of the city centre. Early skiers didn’t know the pleasure of machine-groomed trails. Frontrunners in the club’s recreational races not only set the pace, they also had the challenge of making tracks through the soft powder while keeping ahead of pursuing skiers. Such legendary beginnings kindled one of Ontario’s most vibrant cross-country ski scenes and blazed the way for the development of some of the province’s finest networks of trails.
Fast-forward to 2022, and local event organizer Lawrence Foster was looking to celebrate Sault Ste. Marie’s snowy winters and exceptional skiing terrain. He conceived the inaugural Beaver Freezer Marathon as a fun and adventurous recreational race to wrap up the season at the Hiawatha Highlands. Multiple race options catered to all levels of skiers, fat-bikers and trail-runners, including families, beginners and elite athletes alike, with distances of up to 42 km. Scheduled for mid-March, the event would link existing Hiawatha Highlands nordic ski and fat-bike trails with frozen lakes and wetlands, showcasing the rugged, snow-covered landscape. All proceeds from the volunteer-run event would go towards supporting future trail development to support Sault Ste. Marie’s ongoing efforts to become a hub of outdoor recreation.
“We wanted to make it fun and inclusive,” says Foster, a Sault College professor and former world-class adventure racer. “We had team options. You could race it as a relay or do it as a group. Your kid could ride or ski beside you in the relay. We wanted to have a community event with a friendly vibe, all supporting a good cause.”
First-year registrations far exceeded Foster’s expectations. Upwards of 300 competitors signed up for the event, the majority locals but also approximately 40 registrants from Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa and Michigan. “It seemed like a great way to ski in places you wouldn’t get to experience otherwise,” says participant Paul Kyostia. “I was looking forward to skiing across the lakes with the benefit of packed trails in between.”
With Foster in charge of mapping a course, participants were sure to get a premium slice of Algoma backcountry. Starting and finishing at the Hiawatha Highlands headquarters at Kinsmen Park, the Beaver Freezer route wound through nearly a dozen frozen lakes and waterways, including Trout and Lower Island and Finn, just north of city limits. Groomers marked and packed the trails for easy skiing, cycling and running. Sault College was the inaugural event’s title sponsor and the college’s Natural Environment students volunteered to assist with race day details, including safety checkpoints and aid stations.
With abundant snowfall throughout the winter and perfect lake ice, the plan seemed bulletproof until a deluge of freezing rain forced Foster to postpone the Sunday race until the following weekend. Foster was deflated, but at the same time he knew that so many dedicated enthusiasts would do far more than salvage the event. Participants and volunteers shuffled their plans and held onto their enthusiasm, and with improved weather conditions Foster says the rescheduled race day was all he ever hoped for. “Countless people lined up to volunteer to make it a great event,” he notes. “I’ve received so many messages of support from people looking forward to next year’s Beaver Freezer. It feels good to be contributing to the momentum of trail development with the Kinsmen Club, the Sault Cycling Club, and Tourism Sault Ste. Marie.”
Foster admits that the weather always remains a wild card for late-winter events, but he’s hoping that scheduling the 2023 Beaver Freezer Marathon across an entire weekend will provide an adequate buffer for any surprises. “The biggest highlight has been the support of the community,” Foster says. But given the area’s deep and passionate roots for nordic sports, local support is a given. As word gets out, Foster anticipates a larger contingent of out-of-towners—with visitors arriving to experience the great trails and welcoming vibe of yet another shining example of why Sault Ste. Marie has always been Ontario’s winter sports capital.
The 2023 event will take place on Saturday, March 11th, with Sunday, March 12th being the backup day. All the information you’ll need including course details, timing and other info is available on the Beaver Freezer website.
By Sault Tourism
Sault Ste. Marie’s much-loved winter carnival Bon Soo will return for its 60th anniversary celebration presented by OLG, beginning February 4th. 2023’s event promises to bring back the fun with a mix of well-known favorites plus some exciting new additions, including an act best known for their appearance on America’s Got Talent!
So start making your plans to visit; whether it be for the famous Polar Bear Dip or the new and improved Bum Slides, or maybe it’s for new events like the aforementioned Sentimentalists, the exciting Polar Rush or the appetite-whetting Passport to Unity. Keep reading for details of the event or for the full program of the 137 events (yes 137!) visit the Bon Soo website!
Bon Soo 2023 runs from Friday, February 3rd through to Saturday, February 11th. There are three main locations; The Canal District, Northern Superior Brewing Co. and Clergue Park, with many other locations hosting events in and around the city.
Buying a Bon Soo Button for $10 will get you into over 100 events for free. Some other events have an additional charge. All the information about pricing can be found on the dedicated Bon Soo website.
Every day is packed full of fun events, some aimed at families, some aimed at grown ups and many events perfect for all ages! This year our headline events are:
Polar Bear Rush Winter Obstacle, Saturday, February 4th. Bellevue Park hosts the first ever Polar Rush from 10am-5pm. Runners take off in a 2.5km, fun filled course filled with wall climbs, tube running, crazy carpeting
Passport to Unity, Saturday, February 4th. This is a great multi-cultural event at The Canal District from 6pm-10pm. Immerse yourself in a gourmet tasting menu featuring Internationally inspired cuisine and performances from around the world!
4-on-4 Street Hockey Tournament, Sunday, February 5th. A fun outdoor for pre-registered teams takes place at Bay St Active Living community Centre.
The Sentimentalists, Friday, February 10th. The Canal District hosts Bon Soo headline show This world-renowned celebrity mentalist Mysterion teams with mentalist Steffi Kay, creating a two-person mind-reading experience that is truly breathtaking. Watch this special show that has graced America’s Got Talent, sells outs shows across the US and is regularly the headline act on cruises and at theaters and theme parks.
Saturday, February 11th is when arguably the most icon Bon Soo event happens, the famous Polar Bear Dip, which this year is at the Bushplane Museum with musical guest the Hustle Brothers! Registration at noon, jumping begins at 2pm!
Each day is another fun-packed and exciting day of winter events. We’ve broken down some of them here, but be sure to check the Bon Soo website daily for a full run down!
The Snow Carving event actually begins a week earlier on January 28th, to give teams time to design, sculpt and get creative before February 3rd!
Over at Northern Superior is Sno Madness Night #1 with a host of wacky winter games and prizes for pre-registered teams over two nights! If you would prefer to watch, come down and enjoy what is sure to be a lively atmosphere at the Tap Room.
Bellevue Park hosts the first ever Polar Bear Rush Winter Obstacle Course, 10am-5pm.
At Clergue Park enjoy Best in Snow – Snow Sculptures as well as CrokiCurl, Pony Rides from Hidden Hills Stables and Maple Taffy Tasting from Hogan’s Homestead, both from 1-4pm.
In the evening Passport to Unity happens at The Canal District from 6pm-10pm.
Over at Soo Blaster we have a Bon Soo Comedy Night Featuring Glen Foster.
Saturday also marks the start of a number of all week Bon Soo events. The Sault Ste. Marie Museum hosts a special 60-year exhibit, the Bushplane Museum is offering 2-for-1 entry for the entirety of the event for Bon Soo Button holders.
The Canal District hosts Sault Trailblazers Snowmachine Rides
Clergue Park hosts a drop-in Snowshoe Relay Race, along with a variety of other exciting events.
The Bushplane Museum is offering a Crafts and Movie Day, with free entry after 1pm to button holders and there a special screening of the movie Frozen 2 at 2.30pm! Kids are encouraged to bring their favourite Elsa, Anna or Olaf stuffies or cushions to make the afternoon extra special!
The Bay St Active Living community Centre hosts an outdoor 4-on-4 Street Hockey Tournament for pre-registered teams.
Cheer on our Soo Greyhounds as they dawn special Bon Soo Jerseys on game day at GFL Gardens! The puck drops at 2.07pm! These Bon Soo theme jerseys will be available for online auction following the game, at the Greyhounds website.
Sunday is wrapped up at The Canal District with The Sno Ball Family Dance featuring a Children’s magician and a 60th birthday party for Bon Soo.
The Coldest Canuck Challenge at Northern Superior will test your Northern acclimation with a series of Canuck challenges from 6pm-8pm.
At The Canal District you can take part in Dessert and Liquor Tasting.
Gather by the Fire with Thrive Tours is one of the headlines of Tuesday. Visit Clergue Park and gather around the fire to share land-based teachings of Baawating.
Northern Superior hosts EDM Sno Bath (Electronic Dance Music) where you can dance the night away and “chill out” to some good vibes in the snow with DJs Angelazura and Bobby Lawn.
At The Canal District enjoy a Bon Soo Paint Night, family friendly, step by step guided way to paint your own Bon Soo inspired masterpiece!
On Wednesday 5pm – 7pm, enjoy a special night at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig and enjoy Science North’s Indigenous Ingenuity Exhibit. The evening features an on-site knowledge-keeper, SKG Tours, Tobacco Ties and a feather-wrapping workshop.
Northern Superior gets all hot under the collar with a Fire and Ice Hot Sauce Chicken Wing Challenge (pre-registration required)!
Enjoy Night Skiing and a limited-ticket shuttle bus to Searchmont Ski Resort! The bus leaves Algoma University at 4.30pm and people can ski the snow packed slopes of their favourite hill and enjoy free hot chocolate! In addition, button holders get 50% off tickets and rentals!
The Canal District’s Machine Shop hosts Bon Soo Blues Society Concert featuring The Andre Bisson Band and opening act Lindsay Pugh!
Hiawatha Highlands hosts a special Nighttime Lantern Ski, free for Bon Soo Button holders.
The Canal District hosts Bon Soo headline show The Sentimentalists. This world-renowned celebrity mentalist Mysterion teams with mentalist Steffi Kay, creating a two-person mind-reading experience that is truly breathtaking. Watch this special show that has graced America’s Got Talent, sells outs shows across the US and is regularly the headline act on cruises and at theaters and theme parks.
Saturday is the grand finale day with 19 events happening in 9 different locations! Head to Runway Park for all day Snowmobile Drag Races.
The Canal District has Frozen Canoe Rides from 11am – 1pm,
Then join us for arguably the most icon Bon Soo event The Polar Bear Dip, which this year is at the Bushplane Museum. Come for the fun which includes musical guest the Hustle Brothers! Registration is at noon, jumping begins at 2pm!
Finally, Bon Soo 2023 draws to a close with Bon Voyage, a Queen St Street Party from East St to Spring St. Wave goodbye to Mr. Bon Soo and enjoy a beer garden, food stops, illusionist Ryan MacFarling, winters games such as street hockey and road curling, live music, closing fireworks, more including the announcement of the 2023 Snow Sculpture’s Awards!
The iconic Bon Soo Button will get you in to over 100 events for free! It costs $10 and all proceeds go towards making Bon Soo the most enjoyable experience for all! Click here to see where you can pick up your Button!
By Conor Mihell
Nick Brash uses one word to describe the vibe of the 2021 Ultra Trail Stokely Creek: “Joyous.” That’s the overwhelming memory for Brash in organizing his second gathering of 175 running enthusiasts in the Algoma Highlands, just north of Sault Ste. Marie. Indeed, after a year’s hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a welcoming mood of happiness, relief and camaraderie emanates from photographs and videos from the much-anticipated UTSC, held last September amid perfect autumn weather and vibrant colours in the hardwood-clad hills.
“It was like, ‘finally,’” recalls Brash. “We could gather and be one as a community again. Local runners are the driving force of the event. We’re all so excited to show off our backyard. That’s what makes it so inviting for people coming from elsewhere.”
The 2019 UTSC, held at Stokely Creek Lodge in Goulais River, about 30 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie, included 5km, 15km, 32km, 55km and 83km courses. The inaugural event attracted a sell-out crowd of 150 runners from across Ontario and the U.S. Midwest. Brash admits he was floored by the turnout—and equally surprised when the event claimed a Northern Ontario Tourism Innovator award later that year.
Perhaps the greatest accolade, however, came when the prestigious Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, a world-renowned trail race held annually in France, accepted Brash’s upstart, grassroots event as an official points qualifier. The UTSC was red hot and expectations were sky high—escalating into even greater, pent up anticipation when Brash finally received clearance to deliver the sequel in 2021.
To meet UTMB requirements Brash added a 170-km category for 2021, attracting 15 hard-core entrants (only five managed to finish the punishing long-distance course). Regardless of the race distance, they’re all meant to be tough, the organizer insists. The UTSC routes exploit “every scrap of elevation gain” in the rugged Algoma Highlands, including swooping single-track through intimate hardwood forests, exposed granite ridges and technical rocky climbs and descents.
With few (if any, depending on the distance) road segments, an overwhelming sense of wilderness pervades and runners must keep close track of trail markers. The popular 17km category ascends King Mountain, one of Ontario’s highest points of land, affording views to Lake Superior. Brash, an avid runner and founder of Bear in Mind Running, a local trail race organizer, mapped routes with all of his favourite heart-pounding climbs and jaw-dropping lookouts for his flagship UTSC event.
But all the challenges come with definite rewards. “I tried to include everything that I would want to see if I was a runner coming here for the first time,” adds Brash. “I wanted to make sure to include every possible view that needed to be seen out there.”
Having travelled across Canada for running events, it was natural for Sault Ste. Marie-based runner Mir Shafiee to support a race in his own backyard. Shafiee, who has participated in both installments of the UTSC, contends the Algoma Highlands scenery is truly world-class. “Last year, I remember scenes of sunrise, quiet lakes and thick fog,” says Shafiee, 53, who ran the 56km event in 2021. “It felt like I was running in the clouds on Robertson Cliffs.
“Trail running is always a challenge because of the uneven footing,” he adds. “But I never grow tired of it. Stokely is a challenging course. But it will teach you how to be persistent, and how to keep going forward.”
As much as Brash, who has run the epic 100-miler at UTMB in France, admires the long-distance competitors, he maintains that the UTSC is for everyone. The shorter races are popular with youth, first-time runners and high-school athletes alike. As the buzz continues to grow around Stokely’s “ultra”-length races, Brash says continued interest amongst recreational runners in the 5km and 17km categories will ultimately drive registration to his goal of 300-plus participants when UTSC returns on September 23-24, 2022.
For Ramin Emad, the 5km event at Stokely was a perfect way to wrap up his first season of trail running. Emad, 40, who moved to Sault Ste. Marie from Toronto in 2020, recalls being nearly overwhelmed by the initial uphill climb—and then equally awestruck from the scenery as the trail levelled off. “It’s like you’re on top of the world, surrounded by all the fall colours,” he says. “I had to stop to enjoy the view and just take it all in.”
Of course, Brash is far too busy on race day to lace up his own running shoes. But he shares in the thrilling sense of accomplishment runners feel as they cross the finish line. “It’s like a tailgate party,” he says. “It’s a celebration, not a competition.”
Emad recalls feeling just that as he completed his first UTSC. “It was so friendly and there was such great camaraderie,” he says. “The cowbells were ringing and I felt great.”
By Conor Mihell
Crank the Shield is a 3-day mountain biking event held in the Algoma Highlands just north of Sault Ste. Marie. With the city having some of the best mountain bike trails in Ontario, bringing the race back is in 2022 is a perfect fit for the community. Registration for this year’s event, being held from July 29-31, is now open. Sault Tourism spoke to event organizer Sean Ruppel about this year’s installment.
In the three years that have passed since the last installment of the Crank the Shield mountain bike stage race, organizer Sean Ruppel has had plenty of time to reflect on what makes this three-day event so special to him. “It’s always been about the type of riding,” says Ruppel, the Muskoka-based owner of Superfly Racing. “It’s all about backcountry adventure riding, out in the wilderness with real mountains and pristine rivers. There’s no better mountain biking anywhere else in the province.”
The long, pandemic-caused wait for the next Crank the Shield event has built up a lot of enthusiasm in Ruppel and race participants. Ruppel’s business plans, coordinates and hosts adventure races across Ontario. In the inaugural, 2018 Sault Ste. Marie event, Ruppel felt like he was sharing a secret treasure with the broader mountain biking community. Ruppel envisioned an epic 230-km route on many of the rugged Algoma trails he had been exploring all his life from a family cottage on Lake Superior. “Make no mistake—this is as ‘real’ as mountain biking gets!” he wrote in the race prospectus.
Ruppel’s mission was accomplished: 180 participants were awestruck (and seriously exhausted) by the expansiveness of the terrain, which included grinding climbs to some of Ontario’s highest peaks, obscure logging roads, multiple river crossings, and swooping single-track. Crank the Shield starts with a wilderness train ride aboard the famous Agawa Canyon Tour Train, and includes overnight stops at Stokely Creek Lodge and Searchmont Resort before wrapping up in Sault Ste. Marie’s Hiawatha Highlands. The 2019 sequel only added fuel to the fire. “It’s like suddenly mountain bikers from elsewhere in Ontario were aware of how epic the off-road riding is up here,” Ruppel notes. “People were starting to look north.”
Then, of course, came all the confusion and uncertainty of Covid-19, which put Crank the Shield on pause. Now, as pandemic restrictions are lifted, Ruppel is equal parts thrilled and refreshed to return to organizing the event July 29 to 31, 2022. Besides the personal pleasure of returning to his own favourite landscape of Canadian Shield mountains, wild rivers and labyrinthine trails, Ruppel believes lockdowns revealed the sense of freedom and great adventures available in Northern Ontario. “So many people have had an awakening,” he says. At the same time, Sault Ste. Marie made huge investments in mountain biking trail infrastructure, expanding the network of single-track at Hiawatha Highlands and investing in new machine-built flow trails for riders of all levels. “The Soo has always been super welcoming and friendly,” Ruppel notes, “but now it’s an even cooler vibe. The city has embraced cycling and the local community of riders is growing rapidly.”
Ottawa-based cyclist Rob Parniak was pushed to his limits by previous installments of Crank the Shield. “The route was harder than I expected,” recalls Parniak. “The first stage with rough trails, river crossings and lots of climbing was one of the most challenging days I’ve ever spent on a bicycle. Getting through it felt like a commendable accomplishment.”
For Parniak, a Sault Ste. Marie native, Crank the Shield was a reunion. He always recognized the city’s outdoor potential, and was blown away when it was put on full display. “I see a sort of scrappy pride in a lot of Sault people of my generation,” says Parniak. “It’s as if they’re determined to defy the stereotypes. They’re creating their own happiness by building their own place. The cycling scene–the bike shops, the trails, the club, this race–are tangible examples.”
Ruppel says the 2022 Crank the Shield race, (July 29-31) will fall back on what made it so successful and impactful in the past, including great hospitality at Stokely Creek and Searchmont and a vibrant after-party at the Bushplane Museum on the waterfront in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. But mostly, Ruppel insists Crank the Shield is all about the riding. “It’s a niche event,” he says. “You have to be a serious off-road rider to take on three days of this type of distance in this kind of terrain.”
Tweaks to the route bring the cumulative three-day distance to 200 km. Upgrades include: an optional climb to the summit of Batchewana Mountain, capped at 20 participants, for those seeking a high-adventure, quad-pumping climb to Algoma’s highest point that won’t be counted in total race time; improved single- and double-track segments in the Algoma Highlands and Searchmont portions of the race; and a velvety smooth, fast finish on 35-km of purpose-built mountain bike trails at Sault Ste. Marie’s Hiawatha Highlands on day three.
“This event has made such an impact on everyone who has ridden it,” says Ruppel, “and after the few years away, I’m excited to get back at it. This is my opus, my dream race. I can’t wait to provide riders with an introduction to my favourite place on earth.”