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.
As part of our family trip to Northern Ontario in partnership with Attractions Ontario, we visited and explored the city of Sault Ste Marie. We’d passed it a few times on trips we’d taken to the USA in years past, but we never stopped to explore. I remember driving over the International bridge and looking at that super blue water down there and thinking: we must visit this place. During this first official visit to SSM we spend 2 days and our impression was amazing: the city is incredible and worth a visit.
Here are some ideas to enjoy your stay in the city with your family. It is worth mentioning that we did this tour with 2 children (3 and 5 years old) and a puppy dog, so many of the tips will be family-oriented.
The Sault Ste. Marie Canal, built in 1895, was the world’s longest lock, the first to operate using electricity, and the last link in a Canadian shipping chain from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. It is still operating, and it also brings history and beauty to the region. It’s certainly a must-see and it’s really cool to read the signs and learn about the history of the place. A super cool activity you can do in the area is to rent a fat bike and explore the region around the St Marys River, including Whitefish Island and South St Mary’s Island (Attikamek Trail). There are several trails there and you even go under the bridge that connects the United States and Canada. If you go hiking around Whitefish Island, be sure to look for “fairy doors”, which are small, colorful doors scattered throughout the park.
You won’t believe Bellevue Park: it has about 7-8 playgrounds, one next to the other. In addition, the place also has a brand new splash pad and trails for you to walk on the edge of the St Marys River. When we parked the car, I looked at a playground and thought it was fantastic. Then I looked the other way and there were two more and then I looked towards the river and, guess what?, another one. I’m not exaggerating: there are MULTIPLE playgrounds (and all huge and super equipped). The boys were so excited, they did not know where to go. They played in all the playgrounds and also went to the splash pad, which we thought it was super good for the little ones. Ella (our puppy) and I also walked around the river and even saw some turtles. It is a delightful place to stroll around the city.
As soon as you arrive in Sault Ste Marie you will notice how green the city is. And if you do some research before leaving, you will find out that around the city there are many beautiful parks and trails for you to explore. Among the most popular is the Hiawatha Highlands, which is a 3000-acre park with several trails. There is also Crystal Falls, which is located inside Kinsmen Park (north of the city). I must confess that we almost gave up visiting the place because we couldn’t find the entrance (you should look for the park in your GPS and not the waterfall). When you arrive at the park’s parking lot, you will take a super short walk along a platform and you will arrive at the waterfalls: beautiful! There are several observation areas and after arriving at the waterfall you can even follow the trail for more, but we chose to play in the park (including the playground) and enjoy the incredible nature of the place.
You must visit the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre when in The Soo. This is a super interactive museum about planes that land on the water. The Centre has 29 planes and several other attractions such as a 3D cinema, a space for children to learn and even the Entomica Insectarium, which has several insects and you are invited to touch and learn about them. Many of the exhibitions on the day we went were focused on forest fires and I found it super interesting. The boys loved it and didn’t want to leave. There’s a part of the museum where a real mechanic is fixing the planes: he was there and had a little chat with us.
And on your way out, don’t miss the Tap Room at Northern Superior Brewing Co., one of the city’s many breweries and the patio is pet-friendly too!
You cannot get to know a city without going to a local ice cream shop. And Sault Ste Marie has several amazing ice cream shops, which have great reviews and are well worth a visit. See the list below of the most famous ice cream parlors in the city. We ended up choosing to have ice cream at Holy Cow, which was close to the hotel and further from the center, so we thought it was a great option for a late afternoon dessert. The boys ordered the Spiderman flavor – which was a mixture of various fruits and very colorful. They loved it!
Agawa Canyon Tour Train: An all-day train ride from Sault Ste Marie (99 Huron Street) to the Agawa Canyon region, which is only accessible this way. The journey is beautiful and people always do it at the fall to see the autumn colors. All reviews and posts I’ve read said that this is an unforgettable experience.
The Breakfast Pig: breakfast restaurant super famous for its food and for using only local ingredients. It has been showcased on TV shows and just seeing the menu made me want to try it. We didn’t go, but I already included it here so next time I will not miss it.
The Mill Market: this is a farmer’s market from producers in the Algoma region. The market is open on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Visiting city markets is always a great way to learn more about the region, as well as delight in local products.
The Boiler Room: restaurant with a super nice patio and wood-fired pizza in the Canal District region. In this area, old buildings were restored to become restaurants and shops (same vibe of Toronto’s Distillery District).
Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site: A historic site with historic houses (from the 1800’s) located in the heart of SSM. We stopped by and took some pictures (see photo of Clergue Blockhouse below) but we still want to go inside and explore more about the history of the area.
We stayed at The Water Town Inn. The hotel was perfect for us because the city’s Tesla chargers are in their parking lot, so we didn’t have to drive far to charge our car. We also find the room very spacious and with easy access to the street, which is perfect for those traveling with dogs and also during the pandemic. The room was super clean and we loved the pool area, because it had a children’s pool (boys played a lot). Our room was pet-friendly and had water plate and even snacks for Ella.
It was AMAZING to explore SSM for the first time and we cannot wait to come back and see more.