Winter took a while to get started. December in much of eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. felt more like early October. The temperatures during the week of Christmas in southern Ontario were only a couple of degrees below what they were on Canadian Thanksgiving, which I spent camping with my family and friends.
Climate change and El Nino, that odd phenomenon of warming water in the Pacific Ocean that can wreak meteorological havoc on all of North America were blamed. Folks were complaining that we don’t have “old fashioned” winters anymore. They had obviously forgot about the brutality of the two previous winters and made “old fashioned” a euphemism for frigid, snow-bound misery.
Finally, in the second week of January, it looks as though winter is indeed here and it might just stay for a while. I shovel the walk and my half of the driveway while snow blower engines growl around the rest of the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the usual skiing and skating scene in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec is slowly taking shape.
Unfortunately, the delayed arrival of winter weather has meant a delayed freeze on that most iconic of Ottawa winter attractions, the Rideau Canal Skateway. The National Capital Commission had everything in place to open the world’s longest skating rink (7.8 kilometres/5 miles) back in December but was lacking one important necessity—ice. Changing areas, rental and refreshment stands have sat propped up on concrete blocks for almost two months while signs telling skaters which street they are located at have blown lazily in often-warm breezes.
In fact, the temperature only became cold enough just this week to even make it safe for crews to get on the canal and begin to prepare the still too-thin ice for future skaters.
Across the river in the Hull sector of Gatineau, red flags are still flying along Ruisseau de la Brasserie (Brewery Brook) to warn skaters to stay off the ice at that popular rink. There is a plan B though for anyone wanting to skate outdoors in Canada’s capital. The Ottawa Senators Foundation Rink of Dreams at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall is open and being well-used.
Will the winter weather prevail for the capital’s annual Winterlude festivities in February? Hopefully. At Jacques Cartier Park in Hull, the man-made hills of snow are growing in height each day in preparation for my personal favourite—the snow slides. I love laying on one of those inflated rubber devices, spinning down the hill and laughing the whole way. Part of Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa is cordoned off while crews prepare the space for the ice sculptures. Nobody wants to see an ice sculpture turn to sad slush. It’s like finding a discarded ice cream cone on a hot summer sidewalk.
The cold, sunny weather and snow this week had the skiers on the local slopes. Camp Fortune in Gatineau Park is closest to the city, just off Route 5 in Chelsea, Quebec. Last Wednesday morning, there were a few alpine adventurers on one of the runs, while snow-making crews supplemented what Mother Nature had already provided on another run.
Nearby in picturesque and refreshingly countercultural Wakefield, the family-friendly Ski Vorlage is open, as are about half of the runs at Edelweiss over on Route 366. Also open is Mont Cascades in Cantley, Quebec, just north of Gatineau off Route 307.
Admittedly, my alpine skiing experiences are limited. I recall spending New Year’s Eve on the slopes a few years ago and being momentarily terrified when I arrived at the top and looked down to see ambulances with flashing lights waiting to aid the injured at the bottom. I tend to slowly corkscrew my way down the slope with many tight turns in order to control the speed. The result is painful the following day.
For cross-country skiers, the over 200 kilometres (124 miles) of wonderfully groomed trails are open in Gatineau Park. These trails are more like highways for skiers. Gatineau Park is wilderness within very easy reach of the city and offers great views of the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys. There are shelter cabins along the trails where a fire is always going in the woodstove for a warm place to enjoy lunch. The park also offers a couple of cabins for overnight stays.
Gatineau Park has snowshoeing trails too. There are other groomed cross-country ski trails in eastern Ontario. There are 8 kilometres (4 miles) of trails at the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary on County Road 2 between Ingleside and Morrisburg. At Voyageur Provincial Park along the Ottawa River and Quebec boundary near Hawkesbury, there is 10 kilometres (just over 6 miles). Just north of Kingston, Frontenac Provincial Park offers 11 km (just over 6 miles) of trails and also winter tent camping in a wilderness setting.
I’ve been a cross-country skier and snowshoe enthusiast for a few years now. It’s an easy, affordable, and reflective form of winter recreation. Like anything else, it still has its hazards, but one rarely hears of cross country skiers suddenly becoming airborne, their skis falling off, and then sliding the rest of the way and nearly wearing a hole in the seat of their pants in the process.
Now that we finally have weather resembling real winter, why not get outside and enjoy it while have it? The culprits of climate change and El Nino could take it away very quickly, or it could be a very long couple of months to spend indoors avoiding spending time outside.