Skating is fun. Sliding through the woods? Glorious.

OTTAWA – As pleasant as it may be at first, spinning around and around in the limited oval of an ice rink can be monotonous for even the most avid skater.

But to glide on the ice through miles of virgin forest, with birds in the trees, paw prints of wild animals imprinted in the snow, and a new discovery that draws around every turn? This never gets old for Ottawa skaters, and icy trails winding through forests are multiplying in and around the city, Canada’s capital, helping to fill what appears to be an insatiable search there for new recreational skating opportunities.

“It’s a childhood dream come true: to be able to skate wherever you want,” said Michelle Reed, who drove with her husband Lee Larson for about two hours from Kingston, Ontario, to celebrate her 23rd wedding anniversary. Iceland. , which became the sixth ice trail network in Ottawa when it opened this January. “It’s a skate ride through the woods instead of circles on the rink.”

Chris Neal, who played in the National Hockey League for 17 years, began cutting down trees last fall to turn a piece of forest into Iceland.

With chainsaws in hand, he and one of his business partners, Jarrett Gibbons, dived into 25 acres of land owned by Mr. Neil. They had to draw new trails through the forest because the types of trails used for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing are not suitable for skating. Slopes that would go unnoticed during any of these activities may mean that the water goes down before it freezes.

More worryingly, steep descents can cause even experienced skaters to lose control – potentially creating a variant of ice cross-country skiing, a gladiatorial extreme sport in which athletes dressed in full hockey gear dive on ice rinks at speeds of up to 45 miles. per hour.

When Mr. Neil and Mr. Gibbons encountered unexpected slopes while raining trees, they were forced to abandon the routes they sometimes spent days on – although there was enough slope left at the beginning of the trail to allow even beginner skaters a little taste of Olympic speed skating.

Mr Neil, 42, has spent his entire NHL career with the Ottawa Senators, mostly as a team defender, a player more valuable for his fist skills than his goal-scoring ability. But he didn’t want Icelynd to play hockey. He followed the example of everyone except one of the local ice rink centers and banned sticks and washers from the trails.

Ottawa residents may enjoy the perverse pleasure of living in one of the coldest capitals in the world. On a terribly cold afternoon at Icelynd, there were several young boys wearing red and white hockey jerseys on their team as they rode around less confident adult skaters. Makalya Green, a schoolgirl who skates with her father Neil, is also making rapid progress. As they drove one long straight ahead, Makalya compared the experience to sledding.

“It’s just quieter,” her father added. “You can hear everything. The ice is cracking, the wind is blowing in the trees. ” Referring to the temperature in Celsius, he added: “On day minus 20 and something, what else will you do?”

Several other skaters, including a family gathered around one of the campfires scattered around the track, also praised the newcomer to the area’s skating rink, but noted that his trails are narrower than the original center of the trail in the metropolitan area: the 3km Patinage en Forêt trail in Lac des Loups, Quebec, north of Ottawa.

When it was discovered a little over five years ago, the owner of the trail, Dave Meyer, said he expected the trail, built on what was once his family’s farmland, to attract 3,000 people in its first season. But more people than that showed up the first weekend.

To compete with the free channel, for-profit skateboard operators have used two approaches to persuade people to pay. Unlike the skateway of the canal, which crosses the heart of downtown Ottawa, private initiatives are touted as a trip to the woods.

Mr Mayer and Mr Neil are also working to make their ice smoother than the canal. Cracks in the canal – formed when temperature fluctuations raise the ice – can catch skates requiring paramedic patrols, sometimes in miniature ice ambulances.

Mr. Neil had the advantage of keeping the surface of his ice smooth. Unusually even for Canada, he and his business partner already had their own ice machines – similar to the Zambonis, which appeared between NHL games – to take care of their families’ home slides.

But skaters praised the smoothness of the ice at Patinage en Forêt. Mr Mayer said it took him a lot of trial and error to discover the secret to making miles of smooth, durable ice in the woods. He declined to disclose his formula, but it includes a water tanker equipped at the rear with modified nozzles similar to those used by firefighters, in addition to an ice machine.

Because the canal and all external paths rely on natural ice, climate change is a major threat to their viability.

The canal and all paths rely on natural ice. For the Skateway Rideau Canal, which welcomes up to 1.5 million skaters a year, this means that the seasons in recent years are only 18 days for skating in 2016, well below the historical average of about 50 days.

This winter, several off-season thaws and rainstorms closed all profits for several days. Seasonal opening and closing dates are difficult to predict, which complicates business plans.

The National Capital Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing canal skating, began working this year with engineers and scientists at Carlton University to find ways to extend or at least maintain the season. This season, the canal was open for 41 days before closing on March 5th.

One cold morning, before heading out to explore the ice of the canal using ground penetration radar, Sean Kenny, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said there was little chance of extending the season as March got warmer. earlier.

But, he said, the research team is considering ways to allow for an earlier opening, including by spraying slurry on the canal to build up ice faster.

While other Canadian communities have icy trails, no place can boast as much as Ottawa. So when Icelynd opened in January, Mr Mayer was unhappy with another competitor.

Icelynd not only has the advantage of being associated with a local hockey legend, but is also just a fast drive for many Ottawaans.

Lac des Loups, by contrast, is about an hour from the city center, so Mr Meyer relies on both his reputation for smoothing ice to attract customers and new events such as torchlight nights. also offered at Arrowhead Provincial Park in Huntsville, Ontario.

In addition to the new race, Mr Mayer faced another challenge this winter: In early January, a convoy of trucks and cars blocked streets in central Ottawa in a loud protest against pandemic restrictions. Police soon closed most bridges to Quebec. For the few that were left open, the blockade led to hours of delay.

But just before heading out for the last winter night of sweeping and flooding, Mr Mayer said he was still happy with his season and optimistic about the next one.

“It was actually a very, very good year,” Mr Mayer said. “So, yes, I’d say we’re in business next year.”

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