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The Stokely Experience

My love affair with cross-country skiing began at Stokely Creek Lodge

Updated: By Conor Mihell

I learned to love cross-country skiing in the snowy Algoma Highlands at Stokely Creek Lodge. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years since I first ventured on skinny skis into Stokely’s vast network of trails, located just north of Sault Ste. Marie. That’s because in a constantly changing world, Stokely seems locked in time; the thrill and revelatory freedom I feel while gliding past wilderness lakes through endless hills remains undiminished and this humble resort with its comfortable vibe and friendly faces remains my benchmark for nordic skiing excellence.

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Real winter: Immaculate grooming and heavy snowfall makes Stokely one of Canada’s best cross-country ski destinations. Photo: Conor Mihell

It’s all about the trails, I think, as I wax up my skis and step into the bindings, eager to revisit my favourite circuit for classic technique. Gentle climbs leading north from the lodge take me to the Peterson trail, where I continue deeper into the backcountry. Then I begin the 200-metre ascent of King Mountain’s west side, using the edges for purchase as I grind up the switchbacks. A long, flowing downhill is my reward for the climb, where my skis feel like wings on the gently undulating slope.

Other cross-country ski areas feel diminutive compared to Stokely, which sprawls over 3,000 hectares and includes more than 100 kilometres of groomed trails. Nordic skiing here was the brainchild of the late Chuck Peterson, Stokely’s American founder who spent years combing the wilderness of Northern Ontario in search of a cross-country Valhalla. “You need a tremendous variety of terrain and very skillfully designed trails to bring Nordic skiing into its own,” said the visionary Peterson, who established the Stokely Creek Ski Touring Centre in 1977.

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Stokely’s Scandinavian-inspired facilities are set apart from the area’s parking lot, instilling a feeling of quaint remoteness.

Algoma delivers rugged topography and abundant snow in spades. Peterson’s acumen is revealed the moment you leave your car in the Stokely parking lot: The lodge is only reachable by skis or snowmobile (a previous manager shuttled guests by dogsled), establishing a palpable buffer between a winter dreamscape and the rest of the world.

One of Stokely’s longest and most challenging trails, the Hakon Lien, pushes deep into the wilderness. I’d rank it alongside the best cross-country ski routes in eastern Canada, flowing like a rollercoaster up and down steep hills, with awesome views of frozen lakes and hardwood hills and a profound aura of remoteness. It’s named after the legendary Norwegian Canadian skier who Peterson recruited to plan Stokely’s trail network. More recently, Stokely Creek has diversified, developing a massive 25-kilometre network of snowshoe trails and offering tours to view Lake Superior ice caves—a unique experience that was recognized as one of the world’s best by the New York Times.

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Encountering Lake Superior’s vast, frozen horizon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just ask the New York Times. Photo: Conor Mihell

Once the trails were in place, Peterson commissioned a Michigan architect to design a series of cedar-sided buildings with a distinctive Scandinavian flair, nestled in a valley alongside the area’s namesake creek. As a local, I’m a regular Stokely day skier. But recently, when my wife and I indulged in a weekend stay in one of the resort’s 25 rooms, I acknowledged that Stokely is more than just great skiing. The food was simply outstanding. Plated dinners included massive cuts of prime rib and glazed salmon. I was particularly enamoured by the buffet-style breakfasts and lunches, which provided plenty of fuel for skiing long. We passed through a hobbit-hole door to access our accommodations, burrowed into a hillside beneath the Clubhouse building with a lovely view of ice-cloaked Stokely Creek. The room was idyllic, truly a space to ourselves.

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Peaceful accommodations and gourmet meals are hallmarks of the Stokely experience. Photo: Conor Mihell

Faces started to look familiar on our second morning, when we settled into comfy chairs beside a crackling fire in the main lodge’s reading room, sipping the day’s first coffee. I chatted with a sinewy Michigan man who’s been coming here practically every winter weekend since Stokely’s inception. The ironman’s eyes sparkled when he recalled the early days and countenance broke into a grin when he thought about the prospect hitting the trails today, mirroring my mood exactly. This is the Stokely experience.

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning freelance writer based in Northern Ontario specializing in environmental and outdoor adventure.

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