NCC Horror Stories

The Gatineau Park Trail Riders

"Essentially, without the Trail Riders that trail network wouldn't exist," says John Quarterman, a former Trail Rider who mapped trails, painted signs and trained patrollers in first aid. "It has nothing to do with the NCC."

Be it hikers, mountain bikers or rock climbers, it's hard to find any Gatineau Park user group that hasn't at some point been slighted or marginalized by the NCC's park management. This 2005 article by Christina Davies from Ottawa at Home magazine (excerpted below) provides a capsule summary of the forgotten history of the building of the park's network of cross-country ski trails, and what was lost when the NCC took it over in the early 90s.

[...]The Trail Riders were a volunteer group of skiers who had been maintaining and patrolling the cross-country trails in Gatineau Park since 1951, but they were certainly not the first. A hundred years ago, Gatineau Park was not a park at all, only a patch of wilderness in the Gatineau River Valley. In the early 1900's the federal government had been discussing turning the area around Meech Lake into a national park; meanwhile the Ottawa Ski Club (OSC) was making it happen.

By the time the club purchased Camp Fortune in 1920, they had already cut 31km of trails in the area for public use. Recognizing the need for an organized maintenance team, OSC member Joe Morin formed the Night Riders in 1924. They were a dedicated group of young men who volunteered their spare time and hard work, maintaining the trails and developing them to keep up with increasing demand.

At first, the Night Riders were essentially bushwhackers, armed with machetes, saws, axes, and even dynamite. At night, they would line up across the slopes and carefully groom every inch of snow for patrons to enjoy the next morning. In their efforts to increase capacity while minimizing accidents, the Night Riders gradually evolved into builders, engineers and first-aid rescuers. By the 1950's, cross-country and downhill skiing were becoming more distinct from one another, and the trail system had expanded dramatically. The Night Riders concentrated on the downhill slopes and the Trail Riders were established to care for the cross-country trails.

[...]In addition to first-aid services, the patrollers would be around to direct lost skiers and hand out trail maps that the Riders produced. They built their own cabin, the Rider's Roost, to serve as a meeting place, or to store equipment or just hang out for social gatherings.

The Trail Riders continued maintaining the complex web of trails by clipping branches, repairing bridges, removing fallen trees, and fixing hazards like holes. The group also marshalled for cross-country races in the area, hosting organizations like schools and sports groups, as well as prestigious events like the Canada Cup. When clubs, tour groups, schools and even foreign dignitaries were looking for a tour of the area, the Trail Riders were the ones to call.

By the early 1990s the Trail Riders were at their peak, even discussing plans for an umbrella group of trail patrols that would operate year-round from the 'Roost'. At the same time, however, the OSC - owners of Camp Fortune - were going bankrupt. In 1993, the NCC purchased the area and acquired ownership of the trails and cabins built by the Ottawa Ski Club, the Night Riders and the Trail Riders.

"They discovered that we were the people that actually went out on their trails. We cut branches off trails without permission, and we removed trees that had fallen across trails without permission, and we built bridges without permission, we kept trails open that they didn't want open, and we were in a lodge that was now theirs," says Shone.

The NCC insists it tried to work with the Riders. "We took over the land and all of a sudden we had those patrollers from the 'Roost," recalls Michel Dallaire, Gatineau Park's Manager of Recreational Services. "At the same moment, we had our own ski patrol, all pro patrollers and volunteers, so we asked them to integrate, to create basically a new ski patrol. "It didn't work out."

Many former Riders describe the collapsed negotiations and subsequent dissolution of the group as a very negative experience.

"It was quite hostile," says Peter Sloan, a former Rider who now confines most of his skiing to NCC trails in the Greenbelt. "We felt undervalued and not appreciated." Peter is one of many Riders who felt as though a lifetime of effort and history had been casually, callously discarded. "I have refused to pay to ski the trails ever since in recognition of the trail maintenance work I had done, unpaid."

Others take a more philosophical viewpoint. "It was the bureaucratic culture meeting the can-do volunteer culture," recalls John [Quarterman], who along with Doug [Shone] was involved in the final, doomed negotiations with the NCC in 1993.

The first hurdle was insurance. The NCC didn't want to deal with a loose assemblage of 50 to 100 volunteers. They wanted a formal group. When the Riders became a legal entity, they needed to incorporate and acquire insurance coverage since the "Good Samaritan" provisions covering individual volunteers no longer applied.

[...]After that, the NCC wanted each member of the trail patrol to be bilingual if they were to be dealing with the public, as well as meet the training standards that they felt were necessary. They also objected to the Riders' use of the Rider's Roost, which was built by Ottawa Ski Club members, but had been acquired by the NCC with the purchase of the land.

"We tried to go along with all their ideas," says John. "We did what they wanted, but basically it was a waste of time."

By the end of the 1993 ski season, the two organizations had not reached an agreement. The NCC offered individual Riders membership in the NCC's new patrol organization. After enduring years of tense negotiations, most declined the invitation.

[...]Today the trails are maintained and patrolled by a private company under contract with the NCC, with help from volunteers on the weekends. Presumably to pay for these private services, skiers now pay admission for the trails and a trail map will cost them $4.95.

[...]Many former Riders still resent the sudden severance with the park's history, and the loss of so many trails that the NCC can't afford to keep but that the Riders were quite willing to maintain at no cost. "On our own nickel," says John ruefully.

Earl MacEachern, 71, was an associate member of the Trail Riders and helped develop trails with the group for over 30 years. He said what bothers him most is the loss of so many trails, every year slowly vanishing a little more beneath the undergrowth.

"The NCC abandoned some of the old trails and it certainly - speaking personally, the loss of some of those old trails left a bit of a gap in my winter," says Earl, who still skis in Gatineau Park.

"I've accepted the loss of the ones that are no longer there. It's just the way it is . . . Although occasionally I've made a point of putting some tracks on them."

The NCC likes to airbrush the history of the park, presumably to make themselves appear essential to its running. But the place ran itself rather well, and much as with the cross country skiers, the various park user groups knew their business better than the NCC ever will.

Full article:

Ottawa at Home: Trail Blazers [2005]

NCC Watch Gatineau Park Archive:

Percy Sparks
Mountain Bikers
Rock Climbers