Program Officer, Outdoor Activities
Did you know that Gatineau Park is internationally recognized for the quality of its ski trails? Maintaining a trail network of over 200 km is truly an art — and our maintenance team has become quite adept over the years.
We didn’t get there overnight — although we do WORK overnight. More on that later. The maintenance team has a combined total of 70 years’ experience! Their instincts, know-how and experience inform the decisions they make when it comes to grooming the trails.
Let’s take a closer look at how they do their work.
Working with Mother Nature
The optimal conditions for grooming cross-country ski trails: fresh snow and cold temperatures — but not TOO cold! Truth be told, Mother Nature will always do her own thing, and it isn’t always in the best interests of the ski trails. Luckily, our maintenance team is highly skilled in working with snow.
The basics: Snow!
Fresh snow creates the best grooming conditions, because it’s light and easy to work with. Wet snow is heavy, and dry powder snow tends to blow away; both are harder to work with.
But, the hardest thing to work with: NO snow! Yet, even with very little snow, the maintenance team manages to work miracles.
There’s cold — and then, there’s COLD!
Temperatures between -1°C and -15°C are the BEST for grooming. They help maintain both the snow base and the surface snow quality.
Although skiers may still enjoy the Park on cold days, very cold temperatures (-20°C and below) are not ideal for grooming. They’re especially challenging early in the season, when the trail base is thin, and cold nights threaten to turn it into ice.
The many seasons of winter
Early winter: Laying the foundations of a good season
Before the groomers can hit the trails, the maintenance team must create the base by compacting snow. For this reason, every snowfall is an opportunity and a treasure that they work hard to preserve.
They fill holes, depressions and ditches, and cover rocks, which are all dangerous for skiers. They also make sure that the snow is not mixed with leaves and other debris, to keep the base firm and avoid rapid thawing at the end of the season. In some cases, that work takes several weeks.
As early as the first snowfall, it’s important that people stay on the trails designed for their specific activity. Walking on the ski trails makes the surface uneven and hardens the trail base; it destroys the hard work that our teams have done.
Still early winter: Let the grooming begin!
Early season grooming operations begin on the parkway network. The parkways are paved and have no natural obstacles, so snow accumulates quickly there. On the other trails, we need a deeper snow cover before we can start.
As soon as there is sufficient snow, the wider trails leading to the heart of the network (like trails 1 and 50) become the priority for grooming.
Then, the grooming machines come in and get to work:
- widening the trails
- setting tracks on the full width of the trails
- placing snow along the trails to use when conditions deteriorate.
When enough trails can be recommended from several starting points in various sectors, the season officially begins. From that point on, a daily or season pass is required to access the cross-country ski trails in Gatineau Park.
Mid-season: Picture-perfect tracks
In the middle of the season, when temperatures fluctuate around -15°C, the trail surface remains firm. Traction is excellent, the “corduroy” section in the middle of the trail, which is for skate skiing, is perfect, and the tracks for classic cross-country are well set.
Full maintenance on the entire network takes a combined total of about 60 hours of work. Under ideal conditions, grooming operations take about 6 to 8 hours per person. Sometimes, they can take up to 14 hours.
The ski trails are groomed at least three or four times a week, depending on the conditions. Grooming operations are usually undertaken at night or early in the morning.
End of season: Jumping into spring
At the end of the season, even if temperatures remain below zero, the longer days and more intense rays of the sun cause the surface snow to melt. Water then enters the base, which creates ice on sunny sections of the trails. This cycle accelerates with rising temperatures and wind.
Overall, it takes a lot of expertise, patience, and hard work from our team — along with the help of Mother Nature — to maintain such a large trail network.
So, next time you come across members of the Park’s maintenance team, feel free to say hello. Their top priority is to provide the best trail conditions possible for skiers to enjoy.