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A Yankee Notebook

February 24  2014


MONTPELIER – Watching the 50-kilometer cross-country ski race Sunday afternoon – and feeling empathetic pain for the men giving their all over 30 miles of up-and-down warmish Russian snow – triggered some old memories, of an amazing place not far north of us, and gave us a peek through a window at world-class nordic racing.

I’d snagged an assignment from the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine to travel to Labrador City, Newfoundland, to cover the last World Cup nordic races of the winter of 1982-83. There would be several Dartmouth alums at or in the races, as well as Dartmouth ski coach Al Merrill.

As I was going to be there, anyway, I decided to stay over afterward and ski in the Great Labrador Loppet, run by the local Menihek Ski Club. My buddy Dudley would fly up Saturday and join me for the 54-kilometer event. I packed a pair of skis and poles, my notebook, my single-lens reflex and two cartridges of black-and-white Tri-X, and drove to Montreal. No iPad or laptop, no cell phone or digital camera; this was 30 years ago, at the dawn of civilization as we know it.

If you want to be ready for an off-the-wall trivia question someday, store in your memory that the North American city with the greatest snowfall is not somewhere in California or Alaska or the Tug Hill Plateau in New York State. It’s Labrador City, at 53º north in what’s called West Labrador, right on the border of Quebec. Accessible the year I was there by only air or railroad, it’s downwind of Hudson Bay and gets huge amounts of moisture all year long.

It was the week before Easter. The World Cup Tour had been run in Europe all winter in terrible conditions, on trucked-in snow. The translator with the tour told me that, as they got off their chartered plane in Labrador, he’d never before heard, in so many languages, “Look at all the ****** snow!” I’d never dreamed of so much of it myself. The covered shopping mall had tunnels dug to its loading docks for semitrailers to back in; the front door of the town hall had another; and the one-story houses of the city (a planned development by the Iron Ore Company of Canada) were drifted in up to their eaves. Many local cars and pickups had caved-in front fenders; peering around corners at street crossings was impossible, with the predictable result. They also carried orange extension cords looped around their rearview mirrors for plugging in at night.

The nordic trail had been designed by Bill Koch of Vermont, who’d seven years earlier won a silver medal in the 30-kilometer race at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics (He’s still the only United Skates skier ever to win a medal in cross-country.) Koch was there, as were the Russian champion, Alexander Zavyalov, and the popular Swedish star, 21-year-old Gunde Svan. It was a pretty hilly trail, with one feature I’ll never forget: a rounded berm across the trail on a downhill. It threw you up into the air, and concealed until almost too late that you needed to turn sharply left before you landed. My first time over it, I took out a television crew, tripod and all, set up to shoot the excitement. I got the impression they hadn’t planned on being a part of it.

Gunde won it. You could hear him coming before he got to your spot along the trail, by the chants of his fans: “Gunda! Gunda! Gunda!” Zavyalov was second, but in the post-race interviews blew off the difficulty of the course: “In Russia, is easy course.” Bill Koch, who finished third, allowed that if he were to design a course for his specialty (he still holds the world record for skate-skiing 30 kilometers, on a Vermont pond.), it wouldn’t be that one.

That evening we all repaired to the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Hotel in nearby Wabush – Cree for “snowshow hare” – for a banquet at which the then-107-year-old skier Jackrabbit Johannsen was keynote speaker. There was an open bar, courtesy of the World Cup Tour, and a performance by the Wonderful Grand Band of Labrador. One of the band members channeled Carmen Miranda with her fruit-topped hat, another Tom Wolfe in a white linen suit. They told Newfie jokes and rocked the house. Gunde Svan grabbed Britt Petterson, the Norwegian women’s champion, for a dance. I swear some of their dual grandes jetés covered ten meters; but then, you must remember it was an open bar, so accurate memories may be in short supply.

Next day Dudley showed up. Easter Day we skied to the start of the loppet. The entire American ski team was there in spectacular red suits, along with a few dozen locals. It was a mostly flat open course: 27 kilometers to the iron-mining town of Fermont, Quebec, which features a kilometer-long curved building that collects the winter sun and serves as a wind deflector for the houses in its lee, and then 27 kilometers back. It was a good snow year. I commented on the tiny Christmas trees beside the trail, and a local said they were actually about 20 feet high in summer.

Dudley and I were not yet to the turnaround point when we spotted the American team coming back, maybe half a mile away. Phil Peck, an assistant coach now headmaster of the Holderness School, was leading the pack. They were skating in easy unison, a scene straight from Chariots of Fire. In a moment they whizzed past with cheerful halloos, their skis hissing on the snow, and Dud and I were left to our accelerated-pedestrian pace, which mostly involved trying to overtake skiers we spotted ahead of us. Next day we were back in snowless New England.

I don’t see any World Cup events in North America this winter, but the Great Labrador Loppet will be run on March 22. I recommend it. If you’d like to ski in what feels almost like another world, go for it. You’ll never again in your life see so much snow.

Photo by Willem lange