There is a nervous energy crackling in the night air as 120 athletes go through a few final reassuring touches and adjustments to their equipment. It is just before midnight, headlamps flicker on one by one, navigators check and recheck their routes and the 30 coed teams of four bounce up and down on their snowshoes as the race director counts down from ten, his voice ringing out in the clear, crisp, early spring night.
At "Go!" there is a surge of movement and a cacophony of clattering gear as Raid the North--36 hours of non-stop wilderness adventure racing--begins. The tide of competitors weaves and winds its way into the densely treed forest of the Fraser Valley just outside of Hope, British Colombia, headed towards a rendezvous with a distant, remote checkpoint. Their only company on this moonless night is the twinkling of a thousand stars. And their maps, never forget the maps.
Adventure racing is one of the fastest growing sports worldwide and has recently caught fire in Western Canada. Registration in Alberta and B.C. for these multi sport wilderness events has grown by 200 per cent over the last two years. The races see coed teams of three or four--although some events have solo categories as well--navigate their way, using a compass and topographical maps, through the checkpoints of an unmarked race course. Navigation is the key to success and losing your maps is a good way to get more lost then a first year Engineering student in MacHall during Frosh Week.
The most common disciplines in adventure races are mountain biking, trekking, paddling and the negotiation of fixed rope. Uncommon disciplines that spring up in international races include horseback riding, whitewater body boarding, inline skating and, on at least one occasion, camel riding. Unfortunately, there has been no camel riding stage in any adventure race in Western Canada as of yet. The races can run from five hours to as long as four days without a stop in the action. Teams must decide for themselves when, and if, they sleep and which route is the safest and most efficient. Sounds a little like my last semester at the University of Calgary, minus the junk food and pints, of course.
So just what is the allure of this apparent punishment?
"It's not as hard as you think," says racer Stuart Torr after finishing a 36-hour event in the Crowsnest Pass called Full Moon in June. "The sport is great for people that enjoy the outdoors, are reasonably fit and are after something more challenging then a run or mountain bike ride. That and the terrain in Alberta and B.C. is fantastic for racing. As a racer you get a chance to see some spectacular wilderness that you might not normally ever find on your own."
Want to get involved? For those daunted by entering a 36-hour race, there are a number of shorter events springing up in the West targeting rookies. Calgary's Frontier Adventure Racing (www.far.on.ca) runs a series called the Salomon Adventure Challenge, which will see its next event take place in Kimberley, B.C. in late July.
Volunteering at a checkpoint is a good way to become part of the action and learn the ins and outs of the sport. You basically just hang out in a tent tucked away in some gorgeous wilderness somewhere. Why not bring a friend and a nice bottle of red to pass the time while waiting for that first team to come through?