Skating on a rink is fun. Slipping through a forest? Glorious.

OTTAWA — No matter how fun it is at first, circling around the constrained oval of an ice rink can become monotonous for even the most d...


OTTAWA — No matter how fun it is at first, circling around the constrained oval of an ice rink can become monotonous for even the most dedicated skater.

But gliding on ice through miles of pristine forest, with birds in the trees, wild animal paw prints imprinted in the snow, and a new discovery at every turn? It never gets old for skaters in Ottawa, and ice rinks winding through the woods are springing up in and around the city, Canada’s capital, helping to fill what seems like an insatiable demand for new skating options. recreational.

“It’s a real childhood dream come true: being able to skate wherever you want,” said Michelle Reid, who drove with her husband, Lee Larson, about two hours from Kingston, Ont., to celebrate their 23rd birthday. wedding at Icelynd, which became Ottawa’s sixth ice trail network when it opened in January. “It’s a skateboarding trip through a forest, instead of circles on an ice rink.”

Chris Neil, a National Hockey League defenseman for 17 years, started cutting down trees last fall to turn a patch of forest into Icelynd.

Chainsaws in hand, he and one of his business partners, Jarrett Gibbons, dove into the 25 acres of land Mr Neil owns. They had to carve 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 go unnoticed in any of these activities could mean the water is flowing downhill before it freezes.

More worryingly, steep descents can cause even experienced skaters to lose control, potentially creating variation in ice descent, the extreme sport of gladiators in which competitors wearing full hockey gear dive down ice tracks at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.

When Mr. Neil and Mr. Gibbons encountered unexpected inclines while felling trees, they were forced to abandon the trails they had sometimes spent days on – although there was enough incline left at the trailhead to give even novice skaters a little taste of Olympic speed skating.

Mr. Neil, 42, spent his entire NHL career with the Ottawa Senators, mainly as a team enforcer, a player prized more for his ability with his fists than his ability to score goals. But he didn’t want Icelynd talking about hockey. He followed the lead of all but one local ice trail center and banned poles and pucks from the trails.

Ottawa residents take a perhaps perverse pleasure in living in one of the coldest capitals in the world. On a frosty afternoon in Icelynd, several young boys sported their team’s red and white hockey jerseys as they rode around less confident adult skaters. Makalya Green, a student who skated with her father, Neil, also made rapid progress. As they rode down a long straight, Makalya likened the experience to snowmobiling.

“Except it’s quieter,” his dad added. “You can hear everything. The cracking ice, the wind in the trees. Referring to the temperature in degrees Celsius, he added: “One day minus 20, what else are you going to do?”

Several other skaters, including a family gathered around one of the fire pits dotted around the circuit, also praised this newcomer to the area’s skating scene, but noted that his paths were narrower than the original trail center in the capital region: the 3-kilometer trail Skating in the Forest in Lac des Loups, Quebec, north of Ottawa.

When it opened just over five years ago, trail owner Dave Mayer said he expected the trail, built on what had been his family’s farmland, could 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 skate rink operators have implemented two approaches to persuade people to pay. Unlike the canal ice rinkwhich crosses the heart of downtown Ottawa, private initiatives present themselves as a trip to the woods.

Mr. Mayer and Mr. Neil also aim to make the ice on their trail smoother than that on the canal. Cracks in the canal – formed when temperature fluctuations lift the ice – can seize skates, requiring paramedic patrols, sometimes in miniature ice ambulances.

Mr. Neil had a head start in keeping his ice surface smooth. Atypical even in Canada, he and his business partner already had their own ice surface machines — similar to the Zambonis who show up between periods of NHL games — tending their family’s home rinks.

But the 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 reveal his formula, but it is a tank truck fitted in the rear with modified nozzles similar to those used by firefighters, in addition to an ice surface machine.

Since the canal and all outdoor trails depend on natural ice, climate change seriously threatens their viability.

The canal and all trails sit on natural ice. For the Rideau Canal Skateway, which sees up to 1.5 million skaters a year, that means seasons in recent years as short as 18 skating days in 2016, well below the historical average of around 50 days. .

This winter, several non-seasonal thaws and thunderstorms closed all for-profit trails for a few days. Seasonal opening and closing dates are difficult to predict, complicating business plans.

The National Capital Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing canal skating, this year began working with engineers and scientists from Carleton University to find ways to extend, or at least preserve, the season. This season, the channel has been open for 41 daysbefore closing on March 5.

One cold morning, before setting out to probe the channel’s ice with ground-penetrating radar, Shawn Kenny, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said there was little prospect of extending the season as March warms earlier.

But, he said, the research team is considering ways to allow earlier opening, including spraying slush on the channel to build up ice more quickly.

While other Canadian communities have ice trails, no place has as many as Ottawa. So when Icelynd opened in January, Mr. Mayer was not happy to have another competitor.

Not only does Icelynd have the advantage of its affiliation with a local hockey legend, but it’s also a short drive away for many Ottawa residents.

Lac des Loups, on the other hand, is about an hour from the city center. Mr. Mayer therefore relies on both the reputation of its smooth ice to attract customers, as well as on unique events, such as torchlight skating evenings, also offered at Arrowhead Provincial Park. in Huntsville, Ontario.

In addition to the new competition, Mr. Mayer also took on another challenge this winter: from the end of January, a convoy of trucks and cars blocked the streets of downtown Ottawa in a loud protest against pandemic restrictions. The police quickly closed most bridges to Quebec. On the few that remained open, the traffic jam caused delays of several hours.

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

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

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Newsrust - US Top News: Skating on a rink is fun. Slipping through a forest? Glorious.
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