Atikokan, 200km west of Thunder Bay, is home to the Beaten Path Nordic Trails ski club, boasting more than 50km of trails, so I made sure to wedge my cross-country ski gear into the car on a pre-Christmas visit to the in-laws. To be honest, the conditions were merely ok: low grey skies, temperature right around the zero mark, and a brisk wind blowing fine snowflakes around. Still, I had been craving a ski, and the fact that my four-year-old had just received a toy microphone for a gift confirmed my decision to get some fresh air for an hour or so.
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Eight-year-old Ocean Delaurier leads the way out onto the trails on a sunny day at the Porcupine Ski Runners on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, as she’s followed closely by her brother, six-year-old Charlie, and her mother, Rita. BENJAMIN AUBÉ/The Daily Press
TIMMINS – If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
That old saying definitely rings true at the Porcupine Ski Runners (PSR).
While many people choose to gripe and complain about the heavy snowfall Timmins has seen from November to January this season, cross country skiers across the region are welcoming the wintry weather with open arms.
“It’s a given that it’s here,” said Mike Kornell, the president at PSR. “A lot of the winters go from November right through to March or April, so it’s a good five or six months of snow. You might as well enjoy it while it’s here.
“We’ve already got about 1,000 paid-up members based on the early snow. We were already on snow in the middle of November. The old-timers say it’s the earliest start since probably 1985 or 1986, in terms of the actual trails being open for general use, so that’s a positive.
“With the wonky weather we’ve had, even this past week over Christmas, Sudbury still didn’t have snow, neither did North Bay, neither did Ottawa. We were one of the few ski areas known for cross country that were actually open. Their rain was our snow obviously. It’s just a further validation for Timmins being a winter, ski and snow type of destination.”
There have been a few noteworthy changes at PSR since last year. Jane Mulcair is the new chalet manager, taking over from Jim Bielek, who retired after three years in the role.
There’s also a new bully out roaming the 30 km of PSR trails — though skiers will more than welcome its presence.
“We got a new groomer, a few weeks ago, it’s a Pisten Bully, a top-end model from Germany,” explained Kornell. “It’s not brand new, but it’s certainly new to us. Our old trail groomer was about 30 years old, from the mid-1980s, and it was on its last legs, so we got a new one that’s just a few years old. The track set is going to be that much better and deeper and firmer.
“We’ve got roughly 30 km of track-set trail, both classic and skate, and about 10 km of snowshoe trails. There’s rental equipment for the classic and the skate, plus the snowshoes are available for rental.”
The groomer will be put to good use in February, as the club hosts a number of high-profile events.
The highlight will be the Ontario Cup race taking place at PSR on Feb. 28 and Mar. 1.
“There’s only four of them held across the province, and one of the four was allocated to the PSR,” said Kornell. “We should have a couple hundred of the top skiers in Ontario here. We last hosted it in the winter of 2012.”
It was also recently announced that the PSR’s bid to host the 2017 OFSAA high school cross country ski championships was a successful one.
This year’s regional NEOAA qualifiers for the 2015 OFSAA championships in Sudbury will take place at the PSR sometime in early February.
Perhaps the most popular events for locals are the Family Day long weekend (Feb. 14-16, 2015) and the PSR’s annual Loppet, which will take place on Sunday, Feb. 22.
“On Family Day weekend, we usually have special deals on the daily passes and the rentals being at a reduced cost, and that’s usually a huge turnout as well,” said Kornell. “If people want, they can look at the website (www.porcupineskirunners.com) for Family Day plans in terms of rates and activities.
“The Loppet on Feb. 22 is open to everyone, and people can ski with their own skis, or they can rent them at our shop as well. The distances are between 10 km and 50 km. We usually get 100 or more people out for that every year.”
New this year is Women’s Ski Night, hosted at the PSR chalet every Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“Women kind of gather there at quarter-to and go out and ski together,” explained Kornell. “It’s kind of a social thing, and it’s for anyone of any ability, from beginners and up. It’s run by Christine Doiron.”
What hasn’t changed is that the club has been one of Northern Ontario’s premier cross country skiing destinations for more than 40 years. And it’s located just barely 3 km from downtown Timmins.
“What we’re seeing is that there are more skiers that are coming from out of town, whether it be from North Bay or Sudbury, or even further down south,” noted Kornell. “There’s recognition that Timmins has great trails, and there’s the fact that the trails are so close to town.
“The roads are safe and accessible, so for hotels and food, and distance to the airport with Porter and Air Canada, there’s the ease of access. Anyone who is a ski fanatic or is passionate about it has easy access to it. There are a lot more out-of-town visitors, and that’s certainly been noted over the past couple of months.”
With constant trail condition updates on its re-vamped website and Facebook page, Kornell said that, “People are that much more aware of the rentals being available, and coupled with the early snow, people say that it’s a great, fun family activity, and it’s close to our homes, so let’s go and try it.
“What is great as well is the fact that a lot of the trails are sheltered, so even when it’s a cold winter day, the trails are highly sheltered and it’s not super cold in terms of the added windchill factor being a problem.
“It’s one of the few things that most people can do from young to old. It’s a lifetime sport and works into an active, fit lifestyle approach.”
Among those you might see out on the PSR’s trails are Rita Delaurier and her children, eight-year-old Ocean and six-year-old Charlie. She said it was nice to get some fresh air after spending a few days cooped up inside the house.
“We’re just trying to enjoy the sunshine, because we had a few days with no sun,” said Delaurier. “I bought a membership this year, and I figured if I had a membership I’d use it more often, and so far we have.”
Delaurier explained that Ocean recently signed up for an after-school cross country ski program, and figured Friday would be a good day to get some practice in.
“I wanted to come a few times during the holidays so she’d be ready when it starts up,” said Delaurier.
She chuckled with her daughter, recalling that things didn’t go so smoothly the first time they visited the PSR. Before they knew what was going on, they were headed in the wrong direction on the trails.
“We didn’t know!” she said with a laugh. “It was our first time. We still had fun though.”
Kornell said that the club has had a consistent number of about 1,000 members for the past 15 to 20 years. The growing number of visitors and locals alike discovering the sport only bodes well the for future.
“A lot of people say the PSR is one of those hidden jewels,” said Kornell. “It’s all volunteer-run as well, so we’re not (reliant) on the city in terms of funding in any way, we’re fully self-sufficient. People seem to like that aspect, that there’s a community spirit and a sense of volunteerism in town, and PSR is a good example of that.”