Benjamin Hiard

Program officer, Outdoor activities

Winter is here, and many users want to know more about winter trail maintenance in Gatineau Park. So, I got together with the head of Gatineau Park maintenance at Services récréatifs Demsis. He had learned the ropes working with the very experienced previous head of trail maintenance, and now shares with us his passion for grooming the trails.

Role of the maintenance team

The maintenance team’s expertise is key to the success of winter recreational activities in the Park. Trail maintenance is demanding work, but it is a privilege to be able to contribute to season passholders’ enjoyment of the trails.

Grooming operators usually work at night or early in the morning. When temperatures are ideal for grooming, the work takes six to eight hours per operator and, when conditions are not so good, each operator can spend 10 to 12 hours grooming the trails. On average, when the winter season is under way, each time the team undertakes maintenance of the entire trail network, it takes a combined total of about 60 hours of work.

Ski patrol on snow mobile
Ski patrol

The decisions that the maintenance team make affect all the other services in the Park:

  • ski patrol
  • maintenance of parking lots
  • maintenance of shelters and ready-to-camp units
  • ticket sales
  • client services (accommodation, passes)
  • pruning and clearing, signage, maintenance of rest areas with fire pits.

The art of grooming the trails

Even though the maintenance team has a combined total of 70 years’ experience, they still depend on weather conditions. The team members’ instincts, know-how and experience help them take many factors affecting the art of grooming into consideration when making grooming decisions. These factors include

grooming machine in Gatineau Park
Grooming operations
  • changing weather conditions
  • variable weather conditions depending on the Park sector, as well as the impact these conditions have on the trail network
  • determining the right time to undertake grooming operations, in order to create the best trail conditions possible
  • the time of season
  • skier experience.

Working at the right time to adapt to the whims of Mother Nature

Certainly, the team prefers to work when conditions are optimal for grooming:

  • when the snow is fresh, because it is lighter and more malleable; wet snow is heavier, and dry powder snow tends to blow away
  • when the temperature is between -1°C and -15°C, so the snow base won’t be damaged and the surface snow quality can be maintained.

However, conditions are not always favourable, so the team has to adapt. For example, it often happens that the team has to undertake grooming operations when there has been no new snowfall. Other times, especially when it rains, they have to put off their operations for the night in order to be able to create the best trail conditions for the following day.

The team also has to adapt to large temperature fluctuations between day and night. Early in the season, temperatures can drop to -20°C and turn the thin trail base into ice. The art of undertaking operations at the right time is especially important at times like these.

In order to protect the trail base, skiers are sometimes asked to stay off the trails. It is also important that people stay on the proper trail that is designed for their specific activity, as early as the first snowfall. As an example, walking on the ski trails makes the surface uneven and hardens the trail base.

How maintenance work changes during the season

The parkways are paved and have no natural obstacles. Snow accumulates quickly there, and so that’s where early season grooming operations begin. On the other trails, the snow cover has to be thicker before work can be undertaken. Each new snowfall becomes a treasure to be preserved. As soon as there is sufficient snow, the wider trails leading to the heart of the network become the priority (e.g. trails 1 and 50). 

grooming “corduroy” machine

In some cases, the work to prepare the trails, repeated compacting undertaken by snowmobile, takes several weeks. It is important to fill holes, depressions and ditches, and to cover rocks, because these present real dangers for skiers. Workers also have to 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. Then, the grooming machines come in and do the following work:

  • widening the trails
  • track setting the full width of the trails
  • placing snow along the trails to be used when conditions deteriorate.

When a sufficient number of recommended trails can be offered from several starting points in various sectors, the season begins. 

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.

Cross-country ski trail

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, and the base too, as a result. Water then penetrates the base, which promotes the formation of ice on sunny sections of the trails. This cycle accelerates if the temperature increases rapidly or if the trail is in a windy area.

So, next time you come across members of the Park’s maintenance team, feel free to say hello. Their main priority to offer skiers the best trail conditions possible. 

Happy skiing!