misty winter river with frost covered trees at Quetico

Quetico’s Sawmill Lake Classic Ski Tour

Today’s post comes from Quetico Provincial Park‘s superintendent, Trevor Gibb.

The smell of crisp clean pine and spruce trees. The sight of fresh moose, wolf, otter, and hare tracks zigging and zagging across the path in front of you. The chirp of a chickadee. The crunch of the bright white snow and the gentle bite of the winter air on your cheeks.

This is cross-country skiing in a wilderness park. This is what winter is all about.

Each January, the Beaten Path Nordic Trails Ski Club hosts the Sawmill Lake Classic Ski Tour at Quetico Provincial Park.

sign for Quetico's Sawmill Lake Classic ski

This one-day ski tour offers two route options: a 24 km or a 10 km groomed classic route. It is a group-oriented ski, where no one is racing and participants enjoy a more relaxed, adventure-style ski through the snowy woods of Quetico.

The day’s adventure starts at the Heritage Pavilion at Quetico’s Dawson Trail Campground. After registration, ski prep, and hot coffee by the crackling fireplace, skiers set off from the back deck of the building down the groomed boardwalk following the Pickerel River.

Quetico skiers

The groomed riverside boardwalk leads skiers to the park’s winter activity parking area near the shore of French Lake. From there, the group follows trails and campground roads south until campground development ends, and then glide into the park’s backcountry.

On this next section, the ski tour follows the Pines Hiking Trail, which is groomed and track-set specially for this event. The tight single track winds through the spruce and Jack Pine. The trail occasionally lends views of the Pickerel River.


Before reaching the sandy beaches and old-growth pines of Pickerel Lake, the ski tour veers to the east, along the Sawmill Trail. The Sawmill is a true wilderness trail, sliding around the perimeter of spruce bogs and the shores of water bodies not reachable at any other time of the year.

Keep your eyes and ears open for winter wildlife!

Moose tracks criss-cross the snow of the sparsely wooded bogs and wetlands along this stretch of trail. The tracks sometimes so fresh, you wonder if the moose caught sound or smell of the first skiers in line and retreated just moments before.

Just before reaching Sawmill Lake, skiers are welcomed to a warm campfire. A great place to rest, roast sausages, or warm-up lunch with new trail companions.

Quetico skiers

Once past Sawmill Lake, turn north and follow the historic Camp 111 road, more of a trail these days. Prior to the prohibition of logging in Quetico, the road led to a remote logging camp. This section of trail offers gradual downhills through sheltered thickets of balsam fir, as well as long flat sections which are welcomed by most skiers by this point in the day.

After this stretch of smooth skiing, skiers reach a second fire, where there are refreshments and an outhouse, one last warm up and gathering spot before the home stretch.

Quetico skier

The final stretch of the tour continues north on the Camp 111 road, and then turns west onto the historic French Portage.

At one point, the Dawson Route — the route to Western Canada for a brief time in the late 1800s — passes by this very portage.

The French Portage returns skiers to the Dawson Trail Campground and the Heritage Pavilion where the tour began. Participants exchange stories of funny slips and falls, wildlife sightings, and special experiences from the day.

Skiers who started the day as strangers now chat happily beside the fireplace, and warm beverages are shared until the crowd gradually thins out.

Ready to sign up?

The Sawmill Classic Ski Tour is certainly a special way to spend a Saturday in January.

This year’s event runs on January 18, 2020, beginning at 9:30 am at the Dawson trail Heritage Pavilion. Bring your classic skis. Show up 20 minutes early to register.

The ski tour costs $20 per registrant (which includes the park’s day-use fee). Participants are responsible for their own food and hydration.

Email event organiser Chris Stromberg at cstromberg@shaw.ca for more tour information.

More details here.

P.S. Why not stay the night?

Quetico backcountry cabin in winter -- showing front porch.

Stay over in a beautiful rustic cabin at the Dawson Trail Campground. Check out Quetico’s roofed accommodation page for details.

Reserve online or by phone (1-888-668-7275).