The scraping of skates on ice and the occasional bird call are the only sounds as the dark forest glides past. There are no cellphones, no car engines. Only you and three kilometres of ice through the trees.
This is Patinage en foret, a picturesque skating trail located 45 minutes from downtown Ottawa on the edge of Gatineau Park in Quebec. It opened only last year but appears poised to become a fixture of the capital’s winter landscape.
A long, rustic building with press-board walls, picnic tables and benches serves as the admission office and chalet where visitors can buy tickets, lace up their skates, grab lunch and otherwise take a break in relative comfort.
The chalet includes a canteen that serves hot dogs, soup and chili as well as a small kiosk to buy souvenirs and rent skates, though visitors are advised to bring their own because the supply on site is limited.
The skating experience starts the moment visitors walk out the glass doors at the back of the chalet and are greeted by open skies and an oval of ice that has been cleaned and smoothed by a Zamboni.
On the other side of the oval is the start of the skating trail, which is also groomed. Spruce and birch trees frame the ice path, creating a natural doorway through which skaters cross into another world.
The trail is somewhat narrow; it would be difficult to impossible for three people to skate side by side. But the closeness of the trees, many of which are adorned with birdfeeders, only adds to the wonder.
And what the trail lacks in width it more than makes up for in other ways.
Not only is it three kilometres long, but the path contains several different branches off the main loop for skaters to explore at their leisure.
For those who don’t want to skate, or don’t know how, there are also snowshoeing and hiking trails.
Dave Mayer is the force behind Patinage en foret, which sits on about 40 hectares in the small village of Lac-des-Loups. Mayer spent the past 30 years working on custom homes and purchased bits and pieces of the land over the decades.
“We wanted to do something nice with it without having an environmental impact,” he says, adding that the actual idea came after he read about a similar attraction near Trois-Rivieres, between Montreal and Quebec City.
About 20,000 people skated the trail last year, Mayer says, which far surpassed the 3,000 that he was hoping for.
But such success doesn’t come easy. Freezing rain or higher temperatures can close the trail and require rebuilding the ice surface.
While Mayer says he gets a large number of visitors from the U.S. and other parts of the world who are drawn to the romanticism of a skate in the Quebec woods, most on this day are from the National Capital Region.
For many, it is their second or third visit since Patinage en foret opened, and all were eager to recommend the skating trail to others — even if it meant less peace and quiet for themselves.
“It’s a different ambience,” says Gabrielle Carriere. “It’s different from the city.”
Adds Johanne Denis: “You don’t have to skate round and round. And the quality of the ice is beautiful.”
IF YOU GO:
— The drive to Patinage en foret through small Quebec towns and farmland is beautiful, but make sure to print directions or have a GPS to avoid getting lost.
— You can buy tickets online at https://www.patinageenforet.com or when you arrive, though they don’t accept debit or credit. There is a third-party ATM machine on site.
– Tickets are $13 for adults, $9 for kids aged six to 17, while children five and under can skate for free. Discounts are also available for family passes and season passes. A ticket for snowshoeing or hiking is $7.
— Bring your own skates or rent some before you come as supplies are limited. Mayer recommends Sport Echange in Gatineau as one place where you can rent if you don’t have any skates.
— Check the ice conditions before you make the drive. Conditions are updated daily online, or you can call and ask someone directly.
— The canteen offers hot dogs as well as chili and soup, but visitors are also allowed to bring their own food and eat in the chalet.
— Dress warm! It is winter in Canada, after all.