Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gatineau Park a wonderful winter playground

Skates and skis, snowshoes and sleds - take your pick; you can enjoy activities involving each one of those types of winter equipment at Gatineau Park, in Canada's Capital Region.

Ottawa just finished playing host to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game this past Sunday, and that, of course, involves skates. However, while watching hockey can be fun, if you like a more active pastime, you'll want to lace up a pair of skates and head out to Gatineau, located about a 20-minute drive from the heart of Canada's capital city.

Over the bridge and through the woods...

I was born in Ottawa, but moved away when I was two and I only returned once, back in 1974, for a fall weekend of football watching. So I'd never see Gatineau, except in photos.

This past March (2011), I was lucky enough to return and finally spend some quality time there, and while I can skate, I can also snowshoe. Actually, snowshoeing is one of the easiest winter activities you can participate in; if you can walk, you can snowshoe.

While the park offers some great paddling and bird-watching opportunities, those types of activities (especially the former!) tend to take place during the summer months when it is warmer - but also much busier. And while you can't paddle in the winter, you can still see birds and other wildlife, as the park is home to deer, beaver, black bear and nearly 230 bird species.

The park is much quieter in the winter, and I don't just mean because there are fewer people. With the ground covered with snow, all noises seem to be muffled, the white winter blanket acting like a natural layer of soundproofing. Even snowshoeing with a small group of people as I was for two days last March, you can hang back just a bit and quickly be surrounded by stillness and silence.

But it's not completely silent. Ten minutes along the trail, I could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker, banging on a nearby tree looking from something to nibble on. Below on my right, I could hear the gurgling of a stream not completely iced over. Keeping rhythm with these sounds was the steady crunch-crunch-crunch of my snowshoes biting into the snow along the trail.

Trudging across the tundra, mile after mile...

You also want to keep your eyes open; while you may not see wildlife itself, you will see many signs in the snow, such as footprints, something you won't see as easily in the summer.

One of the trails, close to the visitors' centre, takes you to the former visitors' centre. From there the trail heads off in several different directions.

You won't run out of trail, anytime soon. The park contains 55 kilometres of trails just for snowshoeing.

If you're too young to snowshoe, you might end up like Santa Claus, riding a tiny sleigh - but instead of reindeer, your sleigh will probably end up being pulled by a parent. During my excursions in the park, I saw this practice on a few occasions.

If you like something a bit quicker, there are also designated cross-country ski trails - more than 200 km, in fact, for classic cross-country skiing and 100 km shared with skate skiers. There are another 45 km of back-country ski trails.

If you're really adventurous, you can camp overnight in the park (yes, many people do enjoy winter camping!) by registering to use the yurts, cabins and campsites designated for that activity.

Former visitors' centre

Even if you choose not to stay overnight, you can enjoy a full day, there. And if you get tired of skiing or snowshoeing, the visitor centre contains a permanent exhibit, "Gatineau Park: Protecting Nature and Sharing Our History" as well as temporary seasonal exhibits, washrooms, a lunch room (no snack bar, though, you need to bring your own food) and gift shop where you can buy Gatineau Park books, maps and souvenirs.

Even though I spent parts of two days there, I wanted to explore the park much more, but alas, my schedule would not allow it. At the beginning of this post, I said I finally got to spend some "quality time" in the area. I guess "quality time" is all relative; I could have used a few more days just to explore the park. As I'm writing this, it strikes me that there is another aspect of quality time: the more quality a place has, the more time you want to spend there.

I guess Gatineau is another gem to add to my growing list of  "places to return to."