Anyone who tells you there are no mountains in central Canada has never been to Northern Ontario. Stretching north of Sault Ste. Marie, the rugged Algoma Highlands are the Precambrian roots of the oldest mountain range on earth, rising more than 300 metres above of Lake Superior. This unique geography results in a halo of lake-effect snow, which buries the region in nearly four metres of snow annually. The combination of rolling terrain, hardwood forests and ample powder creates exceptional conditions for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the heart of the continent.
This dynamic opportunity was not lost on Enn Poldmaa and Robin MacIntyre, the owners of Bellevue Valley Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast located in Goulais River, a rural community north of Sault Ste. Marie. Avid nordic skiers and wilderness enthusiasts, Poldmaa and MacIntyre started exploring the 500 hectares of forested hills adjacent to their property in the early 1980s. Then three enthusiastic brothers from Michigan to introduced Poldmaa and MacIntyre to telemark skiing, a discipline that combines alpine and cross-country techniques to effectively open up the backcountry for exciting winter adventures.
"I remember the first time we skied back there," said Traverse City, Mich.-based skier Mark Stoppel, who along with his brothers Chris and Joel first met Poldmaa and MacIntyre on the groomed slopes at nearby Searchmont Resort. "I told Enn, 'you've got real ski hills back there.' We did some exploring, discovered endless terrain and realized we could ski here for the rest of our lives."
Ski season at Bellevue Valley Lodge begins in November with an annual trail cleaning weekend, for which Poldmaa and MacIntyre secure a recreational land use permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources and recruits dozens of volunteers to remove brush from potential ski runs. The snow usually arrives in early December.
Winter's crowning event is the annual Snowflea Telefest, a grassroots gathering of backcountry ski and snowshoe enthusiasts that draws up to 50 participants from Ontario and Michigan.
My Experience at the 2013 SnowFlea Telefest
True to form, the hillside is littered with the event's whimsical namesakes—tiny insects known as springtails that emerge from the snow in late winter—as I begin the ascent from the lodge at the outset of the 17th annual Snowflea Telefest. This year's conditions have Poldmaa excited. Seasonal weather patterns in early 2013 barraged the Algoma Highlands with snowstorm after snowstorm. There's no question we'll be skiing dry, fluffy, boot- to knee-deep powder this year. "The plan is to ski 'till we drop," enthuses Poldmaa.
And we do just that, sampling the area's learner-friendly south-facing slope before cresting a scenic lookout and venturing further into the hills to the Northwest Passage, a dogleg pitch that leads into Lone Pine, a long cruiser through a maple glade. After a hearty lunch back at the lodge, I join a group of cross-country skiers and snowshoers looking for more exploration and less downhill thrills. We ascend through the deep snow untracked hills, following a map-and-compass course to a classic northern pond called Hemlock Lake. This is a roundabout way of reaching Bellevue's biggest terrain, a series of north-facing runs with an impressive 200 metres of vertical descent that bear the brunt of winter's grip.
It feels good to end the backcountry tour with a long, glorious powder descent before kicking and gliding back to the lodge. An hour later, it feels even better to luxuriate in the steamy warmth of Bellevue Valley Lodge's wood-fired sauna, anticipating dinner and a night of reminiscing with friends.