Up Here: The Finest Spring Skiing In The World

Inuvik’s races once hosted world champions. Now it’s all about fun.

BY JESS DUNKIN • MAR 19 • 2018 • FROM THE MARCH 2018 ISSUE

The Top of the World Ski Races saw NWT skiers take on the world. Photo courtesy Inuvik Ski Club
THE TOP OF THE WORLD SKI RACES SAW NWT SKIERS TAKE ON THE WORLD. PHOTO COURTESY INUVIK SKI CLUB

The crowd buzzes as the hiss of skis goes silent. Children and adults, all dressed in winter wear, some sporting racing bibs, spill off the steps of Sir Alexander Mackenzie School and gather along two sets of ski tracks, lined with tiny Canadian flags. Overhead, larger flags bearing the ensigns of Norway, Sweden, Japan, West Germany, France, Finland, the United States, and Switzerland flap in the spring breeze. Nearby, an ice sculpture of a dog team and musher rises off the ground as though the dogs are taking flight. A race official shouts and the skiers are off.

It’s April 1972 and the fifth annual Top of the World Ski Races have taken over the community of Inuvik. Elite skiers from around the world have travelled to the Western Arctic to race against Dene, Inuit, and Métis skiers from across the Northwest Territories. At week’s end, Fort Good Hope phenom and Olympian Fred Kelly, affectionately known as “The Kelly Express,” will be awarded a bronze medal for placing third overall in the men’s category, sharing a podium with skiers from Sweden and West Germany.

Gwich’in twins Shirley and Sharon Firth, recently returned from the Sapporo Olympics, will just miss the podium for the women, finishing fourth and fifth behind skiers from Norway, West Germany, and Japan.

That NWT skiers held their own against some of the best in the world is remarkable considering the sport was still in its infancy in the Delta. Two workshops in the mid-1960s demonstrated there was local interest—and aptitude—in skiing. This led to the creation of the famed Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program in 1967, devised to see how the sport of skiing might contribute to the motivation and success of Indigenous youth navigating a rapidly changing world. TEST skiers were primarily residents of the local Catholic hostel, Grollier Hall, although some were day students and a few lived in the Anglican residence, Stringer Hall.

Sport and recreation were an important part of residential school life. Euro-Canadian activities like hockey, basketball, and skiing were meant to supplant traditional games and practices, part of the “civilizing” and assimilating ends of residential school. But they were much more than this.

For some, skiing was a lifeline. Paul Andrew, a TEST program participant and later a coach, shared in a 2002 documentary that skiing provided students with a vital connection to the land—a connection the residential school system, through its removal of children from their families and territories, actively sought to break. For others, it was an escape. Harold Cook, who has spoken openly about the abuse he endured while at Grollier Hall, fled to the ski trails. “I imagined the abuser being the one ahead of me and I took all of my aggression out on the skis,” he told a group of Aklavik students in 2016, during a speech about the benefit of sports. For still others, but especially the TEST athletes who went on to join the Canadian national team, skiing was an opportunity to visit places as far away as Norway, Japan, and Slovakia.

The first Top of the World Ski Races were held in 1968 as an opportunity for the inaugural TEST program skiers to test their mettle against athletes from B.C., Alberta, and the Yukon. Senior races (for participants 18 and over) ranged in length from two to 34 kilometres and included both individual events and relays. There were also races of various distances for junior (15-18), juvenile (12-14), midget (10-12), and peewee skiers (10 and under). The “A-squad,” which included the best of the TEST skiers, had logged more than 20,000 miles in training and competed in upwards of 40 races in Canada and the U.S. by the time April rolled around. Though many were under 18, TEST skiers swept both the men’s and women’s senior podiums.

Two years later, the International Ski Federation sanctioned the Inuvik races, opening the door to competitors from member countries. For the first time, locals could watch the top TEST skiers race against the giants of the ski world in their own backyard. Young skiers from communities like Fort McPherson and Sachs Harbour were able to do more than watch world champions like Lars-Göran Åslund of Sweden from the sidelines. During the mixed relay races, the international skiers competed alongside TEST skiers from the other squads. “It was very exciting for the young skiers to be on the same team as the world’s top racers, but especially because the athletes took an interest in the little kids,” four-time Olympian Sharon Firth recalls. In addition to exposing young skiers to the poetic stride of seasoned athletes, the opportunity underscored the training and dedication needed to excel.

Blair Dunbar, former chair of the TEST program, credits coach Bjorger Pettersen with making the Top of the World Ski Races an international affair. “While on tour in Europe with the TEST skiers, Bjorger would talk up the event to other skiers and coaches,” he explains. “The races appealed to skiers from beyond the Delta in part because they extended the season.” Promotional materials emphasized the distinctive location and ideal conditions. A 1971 program reads, “[It] is probably the finest spring skiing in the world—constant temperatures and weather, blue skies, sunshine into the late night, and well groomed trails on the unique Mackenzie Delta setting.”

Preparing for the annual races, which ran for upwards of a week, was no small feat for the town of then-2,700. The organizing committee had to raise funds, find billets, and prepare the courses, which began and ended in front of Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. One element of the Inuvik landscape posed a particular challenge: the utilidors, above-ground water and sewage lines that snake through the town. Volunteers piled snow so skiers could go up and over the utilidors before disappearing into the petite spruce trees that blanketed the hill behind the school. The event became a showcase for the Delta—the community and skiers would come together for a celebratory meal of country foods and a drum dance near the end of the week.

1972 was the last year the Top of the World event attracted international competitors. By 1975, all of the athletes hailed from north of 60, though even Yukon skiers were becoming scarce by the end of the decade. The transformation owed in part to the loss of Pettersen, who left the TEST program in 1971 to become the head coach for the national cross-country ski team, which at that time was loaded with athletes from the Delta. (Six of the eight cross-country skiers on the 1972 Olympic team were from Inuvik). A re-orientation of the TEST program to focus on recreational skiing in settlements beyond Inuvik and a loss of federal funding also contributed to the diminished event.

Former Inuvik Ski Club president Karen Johnson organized the last Top of the World Ski Races in 1991. “We had about 50 skiers for the two days of races that year,” she recalls. Though a smaller event, roughly one-third of the competitors came from the southern part of the territory. Organizers talked about cancelling the races the following year because it was a lot of work for the dwindling number of racers. Instead, the club decided to host a recreational ski event and the Top of the World Loppet was born.

The loppet has never attracted participants in the way the ski races once did; in recent years, attendance has been noticeably reduced. Things reached a low in December 2015, when the Inuvik Ski Club’s garage was broken into and the snowmachines used to groom trails were set on fire.

Now a loppet, organizers hope this year’s event will inspire new skiers. Photo courtesy of Jen Lam
NOW A LOPPET, ORGANIZERS HOPE THIS YEAR’S EVENT WILL INSPIRE NEW SKIERS. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEN LAM

Holly Jones and Patrick Gall, new arrivals to Inuvik in 2016, have given the struggling club an infusion of energy. The club now has a healthy Jack Rabbits program, drawing 30-odd pint-sized skiers to the trails on Sundays. Trails are also busy on Wednesday nights when the couple leads a recreational ski program for members of Inuvik’s youth centre.

This April marks the 50th Anniversary edition of the Top of the World Ski Races/Loppet. The club is planning classic and skate events for racers of all ages and abilities, though Jones notes, “sometimes the snow decides what technique you are able to use.” Plans are also afoot to resurrect the Aklavik-to-Inuvik ski that was part of the Loppet program a decade ago.

The club is working with former national team skier Sharon Firth. For Firth, celebrating the event’s anniversary is as much about the future as the past. “You never know what could come of it. Maybe it could inspire more communities to be involved with the sport of cross-country skiing. I really believe that skiing can give young people a sense of belonging, as well as an opportunity to get outside, enjoy the fresh air, and take care of their bodies.”

One of the original TEST athletes, Firth has been present at many of the Top of the World Ski Races/Loppets over the last half-century. Even after moving south to train, she and her twin sister Shirley would make the annual pilgrimage to Inuvik. “Coming home was one of the ways that we gave back to our communities,” she says. “We wanted to show young athletes our commitment, show them that we were still racing and training. Because maybe they wanted to follow in our footsteps.”

The Loppet will be held April 7-8 in Inuvik.