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.”