“Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling too,
Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,
Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling you hoo,
Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!”
The lyrics of this beloved Johnny Mathis Christmas tune seem to sum up the overall cheerful mood of the folks attending Canada’s Largest Sleigh Ride, which took place on March 4, 2017, in Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP) in southwestern Manitoba. Involving 56 sleighs, 30 outriders and approximately 300 people in tow at this year’s event, it seems that it might well indeed be living up to the title.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the not-for-profit event which is steadily growing in popularity, drawing horse enthusiasts from nearby to as far away as four hours.
”I never expected that it would go on this long,” laughed Clinton Marzoff, one of the founding organizers of the event. “It’s pretty cool for something like this to still be going 20 years later.”
The original sleigh ride, held over 20 years ago, began with five teams that gathered at Marzoff's residence near the RMNP, northeast of Inglis, Manitoba, and traveled about 6.4 km (4 miles). Unbeknownst to him at the time, Canada’s Largest Sleigh Ride “officially” began when Marzoff decided to move it to the entrance of the Park at the old Kay’s Lake trail–a 19.3 km (12 mile) loop with stops at the ranger’s cabin and the Kay’s Lake campground.
“Kay’s Lake trail is an old logging trail into the Park,” said Clint. “For 17 years we used that trail, but we were responsible for maintaining it. It just got to be too much.”
By “we,” Marzoff means Steve Novalkowski, a fellow horse enthusiast, who got involved by default since his farm is located close to the Kay’s Lake trail entrance.
Those that use that trail regularly (Marzoff and Novalkowski) have to go in and cut the felled trees and keep it clear. After a big snowfall, the horses and sleighs have to break their own trail through the snow as they are not groomed by Parks staff, and because snowmobiles are not allowed in the Park by the public, it has to be done with horses.
“We go (on sleigh rides) into the Park multiple times during the winter (six-to-ten times a season), with only the one really big sleigh ride,” says Marzoff.
For the past 17 years, Marzoff and Novalkowski's continued invitations to others passionate about sleighing has resulted in steady growth for the event. "We kind of stalled at around the 19-team mark for a little while,” reflects Clint, “and that’s when we decided to change it up a bit.”
Since participants from the south side of the Park were driving around to the north to join in the fun, the decision was made three years ago to split the sleigh ride in two, both meeting in the middle. The northern participants started at the Sugarloaf warden station–and those south of the Park entered at the Birdtail camp site. Both routes involved trails maintained by the Park. After this change was made, the sleigh ride nearly doubled in numbers.
“In 2015, we had jumped to a total of 34 sleighs," reports Marzoff, "2016 saw 48 sleighs, and 2017 was a record year with a total of 56.”
The unseasonably warm weather this year (temperatures hovered around 23° Fahrenheit) may have been a contributing factor in reaching record participation, as 32 sleighs entered from the south side and 24 came from the north. There were also approximately 30 people on horseback saddled up to partake.
The south staging area, owned and maintained by Ray and Susan Armbruster, is situated 19.3 km (12 miles) north of the town of Rossburn. The town of Grandview is just 16 km (10 miles) north of Sugarloaf Station. The Park is only 14.48 km (9 miles) wide at this point and this trail is the most direct connection between those two towns.
At 67 km (41 miles) long, Central Trail is the longest of all the trail systems in RMNP, and is the main trail connecting points along the west part of the Park from Deep Lake to the Bison Range compound at Lake Audy. Sugarloaf campsite is on this trail and serves as the "rendezvous point" where north meets south. The nearby Sugarloaf hills, which actually do resemble loaves of bread, are said to be favored by the resident elk when they shed their antlers because its open elevation allows them to spot predators from a distance.
Regardless of their point of entry, participants enjoy 9.6 km (6 miles) of pure Canadian outback–involving everything from heavily-wooded trails, to wide open grassy clearings bordered by majestic white spruce and balsam fir, dotted with tamarack, aspen and poplar trees. A variety of wildlife (or remnants of some) are often spotted including rabbits, white-tailed deer, coyotes, timber wolves and moose. "Hayrack Junction," as it is known on the south trail involves a two-foot-deep crossing of the Birdtail River, so-named back in the early days when farmers used to go in to the Park to make and haul hay from the grassy plains beyond. As the stories go, many a hay rack was upset at this particular spot due to the steep embankment and sharp jut in the trail–a peril that is faced during each sleigh ride today!
It remains one of the primary determinants for when the sleigh ride is held each year, since the river needs to be safely frozen. That was not quite the case one year when a sleigh broke through the ice and upset at the crossing. At least one teamster took an unexpected dip in the frigid waters of the Birdtail! Soaked to the skin, the rest of the caravan gathered up what extra clothes they had so that he could at least travel back to camp somewhat warm!
In terms of bragging rights, it is, as far as the organizers know, at least, the largest gathering of horse/sleigh enthusiasts in Manitoba, as well as in any Canadian National Park, and meets the criteria of Guinness World Records as being worthy of the title, even though the group has chosen not to pursue the official record.
“We did contact the Guinness people about applying for recognition as a world record holder for the sleigh ride,” confesses Marzoff, “however, there was a lot of red tape involved that we just weren’t prepared to undertake.”
RMNP has supported the sleigh ride since its inception and is very accommodating to requests from the group. They help with trail maintenance and check trail conditions. After the 2015 ride, the committee asked Parks Canada for some improvements to be made to the rendezvous site. As a result, the campsite now has an outhouse and a 100-foot hitching rail, to accompany the existing fire pits and picnic tables, courtesy of the national park. This past summer, a wood shed was also constructed and fully stocked with split wood for the use of the group, as well as backcountry hikers and campers.
“By allowing this popular event [into the Park], it is a great means of marketing the landscape in an environmentally-friendly way,” commented Roger Baird, a Parks Canada warden, in the Crossroads This Week community newspaper. “I thoroughly enjoy and deeply back [the sight of] a caravan of loaded sleighs venturing into the Park on the hard frozen ground of winter white.”
For Rossburn-area resident, Calvin Pawluk, the sleigh ride is a chance to reconnect with family and friends, enjoy the scenic landscape, and reaffirm the reason he chose to remain in the area. A trucker by trade, he has certainly seen his share of the country, but it pales in comparison to coming "home." Born and raised near the south entrance to the Park (at the Birdtail camp), the area brings back some wonderful childhood memories for him, and is part of why he participates each year.
“For me, the trail led to one of our favorite fishing spots on the Birdtail River,” reminisced Pawluk. “It was the road we used when we went to check our cattle that once grazed the Birdtail Valley, and the road that was used by farmers that made hay in the park. It was also the road to sawmills and ranches that once operated inside RMNP. It was the connection between Rossburn and Grandview.
“In 2016, my two older sisters also came to the sleigh ride,” he recalled fondly. “We hadn’t been in this part of the Park together for over 40 years."
The reasons why folks attend Canada’s Largest Sleigh Ride are as diverse and varied as the people who make it such a success. “It's interesting to attend every year and hear about everyone’s connection to the Park,” Pawluk added with a smile. For some, like Pawluk, it stirs memories all but forgotten, tucked away in the safe depths of our hearts and minds. For others, it is all about enjoying a scenic ride through the peaceful countryside, accompanied by the sweet jingle of harness and the crunch of the snow beneath the horses' hooves. It's about having the warm sun dance across smiling faces enveloped by the fresh, crisp winter air. Some come out to enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people, long-time acquaintances or to strengthen family bonds between the generations. Yet others attend because of their common horse interest and there is just nothing better than hitchin’ up and goin’ for a ride. For some, it is a pleasurable history lesson; a nostalgic return to a simpler life and time. For others still, it is just pure and simple winter fun. Undoubtedly, for some like Marzoff, they thrive on rising to the challenge to attain the right to be called "Canada’s largest."
While the love of horses is the common denominator for the participants, their equines have very little in common. This year's ride involved draft and draft-crosses of the Percheron, Belgian and Spotted Draft persuasion, light horses and ponies of all colors and sizes, and consisted of everything from show horses to chore teams to retired chuck wagon ponies to pleasure horses and everything in between. In the past, there've also been mules and even a team of miniature horses. Sleigh styles also vary from fancy custom-made units, to enclosed caboose-style vans, open bobsleighs with the capacity to carry a dozen or more people, homemade stone boats, to cutters that transport only a couple of passengers.
Everyone from babies to seniors are welcome, bearing in mind the length of the trail and that the only access is by horse and sleigh. This year, the youngest participant was less than a year old, and the oldest, was none other than one of the organizers and teamsters, Mr. Steve Novalkowski, at 80 years young.
Having traveled the farthest were Harvey and Yvonne Linnen who made the 200+ mile trek for the second consecutive year from Raymore, Saskatchewan, with their team of seven-year-old Spotted Draft geldings, Ike and Tom. It was the maiden voyage for their custom caboose-style sleigh, complete with a wood stove and modeled after an old-style school van they had used previously. The Linnens had heard about the sleigh ride from harness maker, Theresa Early, of Holland, Manitoba.
“Since the ride, we've told other people about it as well, and definitely plan on coming back again next year,” says Yvonne, convincingly.
Roy Tucker of Melville, Saskatchewan, similarly heard about the event. He'd sold a team to a couple who had taken part in last year’s sleigh ride, and during the transaction, the subject came up. Tucker asked for them to let him know when it would be held this year, and they obliged.
This is exactly what Clint loves to hear–he encourages people to share the word about the sleigh ride each year. Even though they print posters and post information on Facebook, he admits that there is no better way to let people know, than by word-of-mouth.
Will the event endure another 20 years? Marzoff is cautiously optimistic. “I guess time will tell.”
One thing that would ensure its longevity is having more young people involved. While there were lots of younger folks in attendance this year, it was apparent that the vast majority of the teamsters themselves had more than a little "snow on their peaks."
“Of the 56 teams this year,” says Marzoff uneasily, “only five or six were driven by someone under 30.”
While there is no charge to take part in the sleigh ride, a 50/50 raffle has been held the past couple of years which will, in the future, be used to pay out-of-pocket expenses, such as the special events permit and liability insurance required of the group by Parks Canada in order to operate within the Park. With no formal committee or group footing the bill, some of the organizers have contributed upwards of $200-$300 to make it happen. Others donate their time and talents in the form of photography services, videographers, etc. As well, each year area businesses contribute items to be raffled off at the rendezvous. It is because of all the time, hard work and commitment of the organizers that participants can enjoy a scenic sleigh ride and fellowship, reminiscing, and renewing acquaintances over a campfire and a hot (or cold!) beverage.
“It’s the highlight of the winter,” beams Pawluk, “and the people that provide the horses and sleighs and camaraderie deserve a standing ovation for all their hard work in making this ride such a memorable day.”
While Marzoff and Novalkowski line things up on the north side, Clint is quick to point out that the success of the event wouldn't be possible without the hard work of many. “It would never have gotten as big as it has without the help of Dan Shwaluk, Jim Lane and Richard Bilinsky, who take on the shared responsibility of getting things organized at the south end."
It is the "thrill of the chase" and this competition-driven motivation that keeps Marzoff organizing the sleigh ride each year.
“I get a kick out of seeing how many we can get out,” laughs Marzoff, with a competitive twinkle in his eye. “It's pretty damn cool to see that many teams and that many horse people together in one place. It’s a lot of fun. My goal is to hit 100.”
For information on the 2018 event, please contact Clint at 204-773-6226.