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Sault Ste. Marie Has World-Class Backcountry Skiing

If you're looking for deep powder, stunning settings and an amazing adventure then head to northern Ontario

Backcountry skiers know about the big mountains of the west and the hills of Quebec, but few are aware that the area around Sault Ste. Marie has the best backcountry skiing in Ontario.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise really. The Searchmont alpine skiing resort has 220 metres of vertical and an average annual snowfall of over 300 centimetres. Finnish Canadians brought Nordic skiing to the region in the mid-twentieth century, and local areas like Stokely Creek Lodge and Hiawatha offer the modern facilities, dependable snow conditions and long season that have elevated the Soo’s reputation as one of Canada’s top Nordic destinations.

Earning turns in the Sault Ste. Marie backcountry. Photo by Colin Field

Now skiers can add some of the best backcountry skiing and split boarding east of the Rockies to the Soo’ attractions.  Within easy reach of one of the most exciting cities in northern Ontario, there are quiet glades with drops up to 200 metres, the powder is deep, and there’s no avalanche danger.

Local guide, hotelier and back country enthusiast Robin MacIntyre has lived in the area for 40 years, since she came to the Sault for art school at the age of 20. MacIntyre was an instructor at Searchmont and Stokely Creek Lodge, and offered accommodations at the big house she had bought with local skier Enn Poldmaa to folks skiing at Searchmont. They could see the potential of the local hills for backcountry before it was even a thing in most areas.

Deep fresh pow in Ontario’s best BC terrain. Photo by Colin Field

“Even before there were specific telemark skis,” said MacIntyre, “Enn and I were out in the bush on our old woodies. Learning to telemark and converting downhill skis for that purpose was an eye opener. We started glading and advertising our product almost immediately.”

Three brothers who stayed with their families at Poldmaa’s and MacIntyre’s taught them modern telemarking. “We were suddenly a bed and breakfast on weekends,” said MacIntyre. “It got intense having so many people coming around, so a few years later we built our two-storey chalet.”

Bellevue Lodge, the area’s first backcountry skiing lodge and a testament to the area’s  backcountry potential was born. If you’re looking to get away skiing for a few days, the lodge offers all-inclusive accommodations on their 100-acre playground of maple glades and hills with drops up to 200 metres. Guides can show you the best runs, but you’ll have to earn your turns. No motorized access is allowed, so the only noise you’ll hear will be your hoots of excitement as you carve some of the best powder in Ontario on runs suggestively named Undertaker, the Overtaker, Vortex of Pain, and the Pyramid.

In the maple glades, Sault Ste. Marie. Photo by Colin Field

King Mountain, in Algoma Highlands Conservancy near Sault Ste. Marie, brags a lofty 600 metres of vertical through mature sugar maples. With a little searching you’ll find nice openings in the maple woods to link turns and plenty of powder to share among the handful of like-minded backcountry fanatics who know about it. Start at the Stokely Creek Lodge, the centre of the 120-km cross-country trail network, follow marked trails up King Mountain and then explore the forest off the north side to find the best snow.

On the hills, you could run into skiers from all over the midwestern US and Canada, and even out west. When COVID-19 travel restrictions made a trip to Vermont or New York’s Adirondacks harder, Ontario skiers were especially keen to discover what the Sault’s backcountry had to offer and many soon had a favourite new spot, right in their home province. “I love the big hills, the whole Group of Seven vibe in the forest, the lake, and the casual, friendly local scene,” says Debbie, a backcountry enthusiast based in Toronto, “the Sault has kind of become my backcountry go-to, at least in the east.”

Colin Field, a ski journalist based in Thornbury, Ontario, couldn’t agree more. He’s skied in everywhere from Israel to Norway, the Rockies and even India, but his annual, week-long pilgrimage to Algoma has a special place in his ski schedule.

Sault Ste. Marie backcountry skiing. Photo by Colin Field
Snowboarding off-piste in Sault Ste. Marie. Photo by Colin Field

“It’s awesome,” said Field. “I live in Ontario, so I can drive there. It’s a wild place to ski, and it feels more like true wilderness than most places. It’s so freakin’ beautiful.”

Field has also seen an evolution of the scene and the amenities since he first visited in 2012. “The scene’s super cool, super friendly. There are restaurants, brewpubs, lots of like-minded outdoors people, not only in skiing but also in mountain biking, coming out of the woodwork or moving there.”

Skinning for awesome views and fresh runs, Sault Ste. Marie. Photo by Colin Field

Field speaks in awe of the vast potential of the area and some spots where he could see Lake Superior from the top of the run.

As for conditions, Field says anytime in the winter could be ideal, but he usually chooses a week in February.  “With global warming, he said, “snow is a crapshoot everywhere. Lake effect snow can help. You can get dumped on by metre and a half of pow, or it could rain, but conditions are usually good.”

As a footnote to that comment, Poldmaa skied over 80 days last winter.

MacIntyre’s mantra is: ‘”Levity gets you up, gravity gets you down, it’s always a hoot!’ But there are a few skills skiers need to fully enjoy the area. Field has skied every style over his career and recommends the Soo to anyone familiar with back country techniques, willing to earn their turns, “anyone that’s a good skier, who can ski trees.’ Anyone who doesn’t have those skills can learn them from the folks at Bellevue Lodge.

It looks like backcountry skiers in Ontario and the Midwest have a new capital: Sault Ste Marie.

Sault Ste. Marie backcountry guru, Enn Poldmaa. Photo by Colin Field