The South Cariboo used to be one of the biggest cross country ski havens in the country, with nothing like it west of the Gatineau area of Quebec. The 100 Mile Nordic Ski Society hosted a private event on Dec. 28, celebrating the Cariboo Marathon and the birthday of local photographer, Chris Harris.
The marathon had its peak in the 80s, around the time Harris moved to the South Cariboo, partly due to the marathon.
“I was teaching actually down in Vancouver when a friend of mine who was a Canadian Olympic biathlon cross country skier taught me how to cross country ski and brought me up to my very first marathon up here,” said Harris.
It was the second biggest marathon of its kind in the country during the ’70s. The experience allowed Harris to “pick up a vibe about the community and the people at large” that he hadn’t ever felt in any other town in B.C.
“I always remembered that,” he recalled. “Later in 1984, I had started an Outdoor Adventure business and I realized I could run this business wherever I happened to live. I knew I was never going to get off the ground in Vancouver so I decided to move here. So in 1984, I did. I moved to the Cariboo and it was all because I came here and felt the energy of the town as a skier.”
As a matter of fact, before he moved Harris was teaching outdoor education and would bring up to 80 of his students at a time and ski the marathon together.
His adventure tourism business, which took clients to various locations in the province, and living in the Cariboo enabled him to pursue photography.
“At first, my photography had to do with promoting my business but eventually after I moved up here my photography began to change as I began to explore the entire region. I started to explore out in the Chilcotin as well as the Cariboo. Eventually, I just wanted to share the beauty and the biodiversity and the recreational potential of the whole region through my photography, because I knew the power of photography has the ability to pass on those elements.”
Eventually, Harris published 13 books of photography on the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.
Harris is no longer photographing to publish books but is still very active in photography. Instead, he is pursuing teaching photography workshops, along with doing presentations on the Cariboo-Chilcotin with his wife, Rita Giesbrecht.
As for the Cariboo Marathon, the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society was established in 1977. The society organized the Cariboo Marathon until it ended in 2014. It was at times part of the Canadian Ski Odyssey and the BC Loppet Series.
“At that time it was only 225 people and then the biggest one we had was about 1,500,” said Gunner Rasmussen, who skied in either 25 or 26 of the marathons. A ten-speed bicycle racer, cross country skiing was suggested to him by a friend in Vancouver.
“I’ve been skiing a little bit since I was six years old. In Scandanavia, you ski to school so I just knew a little bit. Thus guy dragged me into the race and it was a hood experience.”
Rassmussen ended up moving to the area and opening a ski and bike shop.
After the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society established itself, as well as the Cariboo Marathon, skiing also expanded in the area. A school ski program was launched at the Forest Grove Elementary School in the 1977-78 school year. Buffalo Creek, Horse Lake, Bridge Lake, 108 Mile Elementary and 70 Mile followed suit the next school season.
In 1978, the 100 Mile Nordics were formed as a race team under the umbrella of the South Cariboo Ski Society but were largely ran as an independent organization hosting the BC Championship Races, the Western Canadian Champions, and the World Championship Trials for Cross Country Canada in 1979, the latter only being once.
It was one of the biggest cross country clubs in Canada, with around 1,500 people turning up for the Cariboo Marathon. A new junior league introduced by Cross Country Canada called the Shell Jackrabbit Ski League replaced the school ski program. Around 400 children enrolled locally, making the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society’s junior program the largest in Canada.
The club also won the BC Championship Club Trophy for the first time in 1982. They didn’t stop there though, winning it consecutively until 1987.
But 1982 is when the Cariboo Marathon started to slip in popularity.
“We were the only marathon in British Columbia, just about, and other clubs kind of go ‘this is a great thing, let’s start [our own]’ and that’s where the whole loppet thing started,” said Rasmussen.
As new clubs formed their own marathon events, Cross Country BC introduced the BC Loppet Series in 1982. It involved five events including the Cariboo Marathon across B.C. and the Yukon. Later, it was expanded to 12 events. The BC Loppett Series ran from January 1982 to March 1999.
“Every club had a loppet somewhere and somehow, and some people thought ‘what races do we go to now. That’s basically how it went downhill. Too many of them and there are only so many skiers. And every time you go to a race, wherever you live, it will cost you some bucks to do that type of stuff.”
According to Rasmussen, there are still some Loppets that do very well, but none have them had the same level of participation that the Cariboo Marathon had during its peak. Even Salmon Arm, he says, only had somewhere between 400 to 450.
The same year, the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society and the 100 Mile Nordics merged into the 100 Mile Nordic Ski Society.
Rasmussen also helped coach the kids in the junior program, which rose to 600 by 1983.
“The club at the time was really big,” said Rasmussen, mentioning the six consecutive BC Championship Club Trophy wins. “We were the best club in the province for many years and suddenly things changed a bit – people got older, the kids got older and went away for school or whatever and it’s harder to pick up new kids. But now I think, they’re [Nordics] really on the right track now. They have a lot of young kids coming in.”
Rasmussen said the 100 Mile House Nordics Trail system at 99 Mile (established by Ray Ostby, Neil Manhard and Tom Linderud in 1986) is one of the best in the province. He was adamant that his opinion wasn’t based on being a former member of the club, but due to the standard of the racing trails being up to international standard and the generally flat terrain.