While people in Whitehorse were putting their skis in storage and dusting off their bikes the people of Old Crow were just getting prepared for the biggest ski event of their season, the Father Mouchet Memorial Loppet.
I was on my way back to the community for the third year in a row. Joining me to help with the loppet was my friend and former ski coach Pavlina Sudrich, who carries enough positive energy and enthusiasm to brighten anyone’s day.
When we stepped off the plane in Old Crow, our skidoo taxis were waiting for us, the two-stroke exhaust swirling upwards from the idling Bravo in the crisp minus 15-degree air. You’d be hard pressed to find a place more welcoming than Old Crow. Smiling faces, handshakes and hugs are custom to anyone arriving at the tiny airport.
A lot had changed in Old Crow from the previous year. After school in the ski chalet a few new faces greeted us, along with some familiar faces on kids that had grown six inches and learned to tie their own shoelaces. The ski club was equipped with a few new skis, and the long lost track-setter had finally been unearthed sometime last summer.
It was amazing to see how much the young skiers had improved. Three years ago they were learning to stand on skis, last year they were shuffling around, and now they were skiing. Most importantly, everyone was having fun. Skiing is of course much more fun than standing or shuffling around.
While the two-kilometre trail was well maintained, the five- and eight-kilometre trails needed a lot of attention before Saturday’s race. Heavy snow left willows drooping over the trail and the wind-blasted face of Crow Mountain created deep snow drifts and side hills that required a lot of shoveling. Pavlina swung wildly at the willows with a dull hatchet as I attempted to level the slope by taking snow from the high side and adding to the low side of the slanting trail. A beautiful crimson sunset over Crow Mountain rewarded us for our hard work that evening.
With one day to go, word of the races was spreading across town. Allan Benjamin wasn’t taking any chances; he stopped off a day early to size up his ski boots. Last year Allan was left with mismatch sizes.
Ronald Benjamin had just finished hauling his fifteenth load of wood from nearly 20 kilometres across the Porcupine River to add to his already impressive pile of firewood when we came to ask for his help. Without hesitation he put his woodcutting on hold to help with the final track setting of the racecourses. Ronald drove with precision as I rode right on the track-setter for extra weight. The tattered rope between the skidoo’s hitch and the steel track-setter jerked and broke only once.
I strung the Start/Finish banner between the ski chalet and a lonely spruce tree opposite the trail. It was a struggle last year to hang it. This year I was reminded how I had broken off all the branches scrambling down the previous time. Now I had to shimmy up like you would a flagpole, rope in mouth. I was covered in tree sap but managed to get the job done.
A relaxed start time of 10 a.m. gave us time to prepare the final touches to the racecourse in the morning. With blue food colouring we marked out a nearly straight start/finish line. The trail signs, colourfully made by the youth centre, had to be put out on course along with flagging at intersections. A sign of particular importance was the “CAUTION EXCITING (CRAZY) DOWNHILL” sign to warn unsuspecting skiers of the trail’s technical descent.
Jonathan Frost was the first to cross the line in the six-and-under two-kilometre race. He collapsed in exhaustion at the finish, unable to go another inch, let alone speak. His effort would eventually win him a big shiny trophy and a Lego spaceship set. Gavin Charlie came charging into the finish with one pole, the other surely lost in the seemingly bottomless snow off the side of the trail. A replacement was rushed down to him in time to gain a few seconds with his final strides. The seven-to-10-year-olds did two loops to make four kilometres while a few young skiers tackled the more challenging five- and even eight-kilometre courses.
For the final race of the day, the eight-kilometre, there was a mixed bag of athletes at the start line: young and old, locals, schoolteachers, and those of us who came up from Whitehorse. Eleven-year-old Tyra took off on course just ahead of her uncle Allan. The course starts out on the fun, rolling two-kilometre before veering up a challenging ravine. Winding its way up into the sub-alpine, the trail finally flattens out and offers amazing vistas of the Porcupine River and of Crow Flats over spruce trees dwarfed by the permafrost.
We traversed the mountain for several kilometres before coming to the exciting (crazy) downhill. Aidan Kyikavichik, who’d never skied the five-kilometre course in his life fell (only) three times on the hill, and finished with a big smile of satisfaction on his face. Martha Benjamin was positioned just before the finish. “Racer coming!” she would yell out in warning so the timers could prepare to record the time.
Cheering continued until the last racer crossed the line. Caribou chili simmered on the stove inside and the snack table was brimming with homemade donuts, dry meat, and even fresh strawberries. The young racers eagerly gathered around for the awards, eyes glancing between the golden trophies and array of prizes on display in the windowsill.
The chalet was packed full of skiers: skiers who’d skied for the first time ever and skiers who’d skied for the first time in 20 years. As I handed out the trophies I thought of Father Mouchet and how happy he must be to see the racers proudly receive their awards in the room full of smiling faces and laughter.
Knute Johnsgaard is a former TEST and Yukon Ski Team athlete who currently skis for the Canadian national ski team. He helped organize this year’s Father Mouchet Memorial Loppet.