Icy forest mazes and long, winding paths through winter landscapes beckon all skaters
The wait for my rental car at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last February was slow, but the talk was breakaway fast. I joined the line with a National
Hockey League scout for the New Jersey Devils on his way to a tournament to look at promising teenage skaters.
“Skating is a way of life up here,” the native Quebecois said, as my sturdy Nissan SUV pulled up, poised to plow through the snowy roads of southern Quebec where I’d come simply to skate.
As a winter lover who once traveled to Winnipeg to skate that city’s sculpture-dotted frozen river in below-zero temperatures, I was intrigued by the icy fount of adventurous possibilities in Quebec, Canada’s largest province, where it’s possible to escape the oval confines of what we normally think of as ice rinks and skate for long, sinuous stretches on frozen trails through forests and snowy landscapes.
Skating trails can be found across Canada. They embrace the landscape when little is growing but frost and hark back to the origins of skating as a means of travel.
In Quebec, many parks and villages host skating areas that take a variety of forms, from ribbons plowed on rivers to forests that are flooded to create skating mazes.
Several of these ice innovations lie in Mauricie and Lanaudière, two of the 17 administrative regions that make up Quebec province, roughly midway between Montreal and Quebec City.
In terms of tourism, winter is among the busiest seasons here. Snowmobilers come to sled inn-to-inn; “glissades,” or sledding runs, abound, from public parks to private resorts; and ice-fishing shanties create pop-up villages of down-padded anglers.
With ice skates in my carry-on, I laced up to explore Quebec’s long, winding skating trails in a three-day ice quest.
Island skating trail
At Trois-Rivières, a two-hour drive from Montreal, the broad and swift St. Lawrence doesn’t freeze except in some sheltered bays. A pair of islands in the intersecting St.-Maurice River creates three channels where they meet the larger waterway, giving Trois-Rivières or Three Rivers, the second oldest Francophone city in North America, its name.
On one of those islands, Île St.-Quentin, park managers seasonally flood an ice-skating path that’s about 1¼ miles. The frozen maze skirts the seaway, flowing with jagged cells of ice, and weaves into the hardwood forest behind it. Following the contours of the land, it had enough gradual downhills to persuade several skaters to wear helmets.
I laced my skates inside the park’s generous field house, which offered fattire bike rentals for rides on another trail, shared by snowshoers, that runs for about 2 miles around the periphery of the island.
With just a few skaters sharing the ice on a sunny and windy weekday, I had the “sentier de patin,” or ice path, largely to myself, allowing me to skate the route in all directions without fear of collisions. After an exploratory foray, slow and curious, I thrilled to make each iteration different, taking the first alley right away from the river and the second left toward it, circling a warming tent one way, then the other, and edging back on the inland route, taking occasional spurs in unanticipated directions in the exhilarating labyrinth that held me safe in its geometry.
Although the ice trail was quiet, it didn’t take long to find Mauricie’s winter pilgrims. About 30 miles northeast of town, I checked into Le Baluchon Eco-Resort behind a dozen exhilarated French snowmobilers who were sledding inn to inn.
On the Rivière du Loup, or Wolf River, Le Baluchon offers 89 rooms in a mix of inns and chalets on 1,000 acres featuring about 25 miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails, a tubing run and an ice rink with supplied equipment for broomball — a hockeylike game played with brooms and without skates. The sledders headed straight for the Nordic spa to steep in a series of hydrotherapy pools indoors and out.
Later that evening, a full moon lit the riverside trail to the inn’s restaurant — acclaimed for its menu using local ingredients in dishes like walleye with Quebec seaweed butter — and waterfalls stilled by ice.
Agritourism on ice
One winter, when JeanPierre Binette and Madeleine Courchesne, beekeepers in rural Notre-Damedu-Mont-Carmel, about an hour north of Trois-Rivières, had three children under age 9, they flooded a small section of woods on their property. Excited by the frozen forest playground, their children invited their friends, who invited their friends. In 1997, the seasonal diversion became a secondary business as Le Domaine de la Forêt Perdue, or the Lost Forest, opened to the public, keeping a form of agritourism alive in winter (in summer, they offer a highropes course).
“We were the first skating path in Quebec, and now we are training people who are opening trails around the province,” Thérèse Deslauriers, the managing director of the Forêt Perdue, said, as she worked the rustic entry house that doubles as a retail shop for honey products.
Outside, beyond the skate rental tent, more than 9 miles of iceways wove through pine and hardwood forests dotted with farm pens occupied by goats, sheep, ducks, deer and more exotic animals, including an ostrich. Next to the alpaca enclosure, a repurposed phone booth dispensed handfuls of animal feed for a Canadian quarter.
Many skaters brought their lunches. For the less prepared, Forêt Perdue offers a heated snack bar in a tent and a maple candy cabin in the woods.
Inviting though it was, I skipped the snack bar, threw my skates in the car and drove roughly 40 miles east to another of the grand lodges that draw winter fans to Mauricie. Like a castle-size version of a log cabin, Hôtel Sacacomie sits high above frozen Sacacomie Lake, offering wintry panoramas from its pinehewn dining room with a roaring fire in the fieldstone fireplace — the perfect place to warm up over local smoked trout and duck confit poutine.
A frozen river
After an overnight snowfall of 4 inches, the 5.6-mile skating path on the L’Assomption River at Parc Louis-Querbes in Joliette, about midway between Le Baluchon and Montreal, was already open and plowed by 9 a.m., serving a smattering of speedskaters and slower gliders.
I skated hard for an hour, covering the entire route, and was not alone. Like runners in warmer cities, the earliest Joliette skaters came out to exercise in the light morning traffic. By the time I circled back to the park field house just after 10 a.m., a food shack next to the ice had opened, serving beignets and tea to the growing collection of families teaching their under-10s to skate by holding onto loaner sleds and sharing the wonder of skating on a seasonally stilled river.
I intended to leave the river and head straight to the airport in Montreal but couldn’t resist another skating stop so close to it. Diverting 30 minutes north to Bois de Belle-Rivière, I took a final 1.5-mile spin on yet another frozen forest path. In this age of vanishing ice, I skated with a profound appreciation for the transformation of winter and the spirit of ice makers to delight those who love the season.
Skaters make their way along the trail at Le Domaine de la Forêt Perdue in Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec.
Maple syrup poured over fresh snow makes a sweet treat.
A visitor pets a goat at Le Domaine de la Forêt Perdue.