Since the time this blog was written in winter 2018–2019, the SJAM Winter Trail and Ski Heritage East winter trail have gotten larger, and new projects have been developed by other community partners. These partnerships, which have been made possible through the creation of the Urban Winter Trails Alliance, have increased the possibilities for winter activities in the Capital. The Alliance includes the Ottawa West Winter Trail, Britannia Winter Trail Association, Rideau Winter Trail and Orleans Ski Club, as well as the SJAM and Ski Heritage East trails.
In winter 2020–2021, there is close to 80 kilometres of groomed trails winding through the Capital, which is about 50 percent more trail space (in terms of length and width) than we had last season. This major addition is part of a pilot project that the NCC is very proud of. The #WinterCapital enhanced offering will allow more Canadians to enjoy getting outdoors in these difficult times.
This blog tells the story of how the SJAM and Ski Heritage East winter trails got started.
Bundle up and head outdoors! Over the past couple of years, over 25 kilometres of multi-use winter trails have popped up along the Ottawa River shoreline for all to enjoy.
We met with Dave Adams, the man behind the SJAM Winter Trail, and Alexa Brewer, a leading volunteer with Ski Heritage East, so they could tell us more about their wonderful winter projects.
SJAM Winter Trail
The SJAM Winter Trail is a 16-km groomed, multi-use winter trail for walkers, skiers, snowshoers and snow bikers. The trail follows the multi-use Ottawa River Pathway along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway. The trail will begin its third official season this winter.
Ski Heritage East
The Ski Heritage East trail runs 14 kilometres along the Ontario side of the Ottawa River in Ottawa’s east end, between Shefford Road and Trim Road. Community volunteers groom the trail for winter recreational activities, including cross-country skiing (skate and classic), snowshoeing, fat biking and walking.
Both organizations work in close collaboration with the NCC’s Land Manager, Mike Muir:
“In itself, a winter trail program is a valuable contribution to the animation of the shorelines, but, for me, it’s especially rewarding to deliver the program in partnership with our core volunteers, who not only give their personal time, but also provide their seemingly endless supply of energy, creativity and enthusiasm. The resulting harmony of NCC and community teamwork results in a program that is not only well received by the public, but also provides a rewarding and fun program to work on with partners.”
How It All Got Started
For Dave Adams, better known as Groomer Dave, there was a blindingly obvious need for a better use of the river shore in the winter months. As a former cross-country ski racer himself, Dave had been giving back to his community for years by grooming the Nakkertok trails. He had the experience, the passion and the will to lead this project.
Supported by Nakkertok, which agreed to lend the grooming equipment, and the Westboro Beach Community Association, which had years of experience with the NCC doing partnership projects, Dave developed a concept which was given a two-week trial run in 2016. It was met with instant success.
Dave then turned to Dovercourt for support in managing and administering this project — and it was a perfect fit! The SJAM Winter Trail is now in its third season and is inspiring communities across the nation’s capital to establish their own winter trail.
In 2017, a group of people from the east end, including Alexa Brewer, were motivated by the success of the SJAM Winter Trail, and decided to take action in their own community: Ski Heritage East was born. Currently in its second season, it is thriving and getting better every year.
“For three seasons of the year, it [the pathway] is heavily used, but was sort of deserted in the winter. Now, with grooming and getting cross-country skiers out, it’s used throughout the year.”
—Alexa (on Ski Heritage East)
For the Community, by the Community
From the west end to the east end of the city, community response has been outstanding.
“I love it! Sometimes, I’m brought to tears with the work load, but it’s making me a better person, and I know that it’s for a good thing. It’s something I believe in. I’m getting such gratification and appreciation from people that it keeps me going.” —Groomer Dave
Dave told us about a woman who once came to him on the trail. She had had a serious injury that took away her ability to drive. She had been feeling a sense of imprisonment in her apartment… until the SJAM Winter Trail came along. Being a former active person, she was used to driving to Gatineau Park for skiing and she couldn’t go anymore. She thanked him and said: “You saved my life. The trail not only saved me emotionally, but the doctor said that, if I didn’t get active, things would go downhill.”
Stories like these really show how important these trails are for the community. The only way to make a public winter trail successful is to engage the public. One way they do it is through social media.
“When we started, I thought I had to find heavy equipment to fill the underpasses with snow, or it was going to be an issue. Now, I just send out one Tweet and, BOOM, I have snow in the underpass.” —Groomer Dave (on the shovel elves)
These winter trails rely on a large army of engaged volunteers. Behind-the-scenes groomers, trail ambassadors, shovel elves, photographers, writers, graphic artists, social media assistants — and more — give their time to the trail’s maintenance.
By nature, a winter trail in an urban setting degrades very quickly. Being so close to the river is also challenging. Maintaining the trails requires a lot of work and care.
“We accommodate by grooming every day that the weather permits us to do it. If you don’t maintain on a regular basis, it falls apart and therefore it’s no good to anybody.”
Ski Heritage East recently acquired a used groomer to run its own operations.
“Having control of the equipment will allow for very responsive grooming. It could be three to four times a week, depending on the snow. It’s also going to allow us to do a multi-use type of set-up.”
Working with the community and understanding its needs also help improve the trails. For instance, the Cairine Wilson Nordic Ski Team uses the Ski Heritage East trail for training purposes, so the trail managers try to support them as much as they can with the type of grooming that they need.
To be sustainable, winter trails need funding — and that’s a challenge. Up until now, both organizations have been creative in finding the money they needed to operate, with promotional videos, crowd-funding campaigns and sponsorship programs.
The NCC, the City of Ottawa and various businesses across the community contribute through financial and in-kind donations, which demonstrates support for initiatives such as these. The NCC is proud to support these great community-driven initiatives.
“They’re fantastic! They’ve been really supportive, and share our vision. The NCC wanted to bring the shores to the community and this [Ski Heritage East trail] gives phenomenal access. We’ve got nothing but cooperation, good advice — they’re our best partner.”
—Alexa (on the NCC)
In the future, the SJAM Winter Trail and Ski Heritage East hope to facilitate the fundraising process by collaborating with other winter trail organizations. The Winter Trail Alliance, a larger endeavour that is just beginning its work, would act as the voice of all winter trails across Ottawa.
“One day it will be a full path, mark my words.”
—Alexa (on connecting the SJAM Winter Trail and Ski Heritage East trail)
While many, like Alexa, envision a Capital-wide winter trail network, trail managers are currently at capacity, considering the resources (time, energy, people and money) at their disposal. Extending the winter trail from the west end to the east end of the city is the dream, but that can be accomplished only when communities step up and take action in their own neighbourhoods — that, and a lot of snow.