For the first time in 44 years, due to the pandemic, skiers will not be gathering at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on the first Saturday in March to participate in Northwestern Ontario’s largest celebration of cross-country skiing.  Well, that’s not quite accurate.  Although the event has never been cancelled, it was postponed for two weeks in its second year due to a snowstorm and it was moved to the Kamview Nordic Centre in 2007 due to a lack of snow at Sleeping Giant.  Ironically, that year a heavy snow fall occurred the night before the event causing difficult grooming and skiing conditions as well as preventing many out of town skiers from travelling to Thunder Bay.

The event, originally known as the Thunder Bay Ski Tour, was first organized in 1978 by a group of students from Lakehead University.  The group had travelled to Ottawa the previous year to participate in the Canadian Ski Marathon and were inspired to organize a similar event at Sibley Provincial Park.  The event name was changed to the Sibley Ski Tour in 1982 and then to the Sleeping Giant Loppet in 2009 to reflect the name change of the provincial park.  The word loppet has Scandinavian origins and simply means a festival that celebrates cross-country skiing.

The first event attracted 382 skiers and resulted in a tie for first place featuring Richard Suttie and Arnie Nurmi.  Although Richard has since passed away, he was later instrumental in organizing the Tour, while Arnie continues to ski the 50km distance in the Loppet.  Guy Latimer and Ron Lappage remain the only two skiers who have participated every year.  Quite an accomplishment for 43 years!  Attendance at the event is often affected by the weather conditions during the winter as well as on the day of the event.  The record number of finishers is 960 in 2004 while the polar vortex of 2014 caused the finishers number to drop to 551.  A total of 27,548 skiers have finished the Tour/Loppet over the years.

The route for the event has changed many times over the years.  In the first year the race was 40km.  It began at Pass Lake and wound its way south through the park, eventually ending at the Kabeyun Trail head.  Perhaps the toughest part of that event was the rough school bus ride back to their vehicles at Pass Lake. In one of the early years the route actually went onto the Lake Superior ice between Hoorigan Bay and Sawyers Bay.  That route only lasted one year due to the difficulty of maintaining a trail on the windswept lake.  For many years the route started at Pass Lake, wound its way through the park using the Burma and Pickerel Lake trails and ended at Rita Lake.  A major change occurred in 1995 when the start and finish were moved to the Marie Louise Lake campground.  This change provided much better parking and the common start-finish area eliminated the need for long bus shuttles.  Route distances have varied over the years but in recent years the options have included 8km, 20km, 35km, 50km Skate, 50km Classic and 50km Skiathlon (½  Skate, ½ Classic).  There is a distance and route that suits all age groups and skill levels.

Over the last few years the event has attracted 800-900 skiers with about 100 traveling from the United States and another 250 from Northwestern Ontario communities and the rest of Canada. Perhaps the most unique participant was a woman from London England.  She was attending a business meeting in New York and thought it would be a nice idea to pop up to Thunder Bay for the weekend to participate in the Loppet.  Unfortunately that was the polar vortex year so she was pretty cold and tired at the end of her ski.  The vast majority of skiers participate for the opportunity to gather with friends and enjoy the natural beauty of Sleeping Giant Park.  Other skiers like to test their fitness and training against previous results in an effort to achieve personal goals.  In addition there are the expert skiers who compete to be first across the finish line. Brook Latimer of Thunder Bay holds the record for most victories in the 50km event having finished first in the women’s event nine times over a nineteen-year period from 1994 to 2012.  Reijo Puiras (founder of the Lappe Ski Centre) posted three consecutive victories from 1983-85, a feat that has yet to be equaled by another male skier.  The record time for the 50km distance is 1 hour: 59 minutes: 32 seconds and was established by Evan Palmer Charette in 2017.

Skiers are certainly disappointed that they will not be able to participate in a Loppet this year, but are truly thankful that opportunities for cross-country skiing have continued throughout this winter.  Skiers now have more than a year to work on their fitness in preparation for the 44th Annual Sleeping Giant Loppet which is scheduled for Saturday, March 5th 2022.  In the meantime, to keep Loppet memories alive, check out the website at sleepinggiantloppet.ca where you’ll find thousands of photos and the full results from 1999 to 2020.

At the start line of the 2020 Sleeping Giant Loppet.

At the finish line of the 8km event of the 2020 Sleeping Giant Loppet.

At the start line of the 2020 Sleeping Giant Loppet.

Andy Shields, 50 km Free Technique Winner of the Sleeping Giant Loppet.

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