When I think of winter hiking a lot of words come to mind. Quiet, stillness, beauty, fun. The one word that rarely crosses my mind when pulling on my snow pants and venturing into the woods on a chilly January day is “easy.” Snow may add a lot to the hiking experience but it certainly presents its share of challenges. That is why, on January 6, 2015, as I laced up my skates at Arrowhead Provincial Park just north of Huntsville I felt like I was stepping into uncharted territory. Did they really expect me to believe I could glide through the snow?
Arrowhead Park is a beautiful place no matter what the season. In the summer months visitors can enjoy countless opportunities for outdoor fun including hiking trails, swimming, canoeing, fishing, birding, and mountain biking. During the winter, the park is criss-crossed with over 30 km of cross country ski trails. But the thing that sets Arrowhead apart from other parks is that for the past few winters it has hosted Ontario’s longest outdoor ice-skating trail. That is what I had made the drive to see.
Making the turn off highway 11 with my wife and mother-in-law we all let out a sigh of relief. The drive north from the GTA had confronted us with snow squalls that wrought havoc on road visibility and left us longing for asphalt with friction. Fortunately, the weather that had made the drive so treacherous had created the quintessential winter wonderland in the woods around Huntsville. Large soft snowflakes fell from the sky and blanketed the trees with a thick layer of fresh snow that tested the strength of their bows.
After checking in at the visitors centre and paying our $16/vehicle entrance fee we made our way to the start of the trail. Parking the car we quickly found a preparation area equipped with a few picnic tables and some cubbies to store our bags. We had driven passed a restroom on the way to the trail but the rink itself is not equipped with such facilities, so make sure you “go” before you go. Having skated on ponds throughout Ontario over the course of my childhood I was less than optimistic about the ice that awaited us under the rapid growing layer of snow, but I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from a few potholes that were marked with pylons, the trail is remarkably smooth considering it is built on a road.
Arrowhead’s ice-skating trail winds its way through a campground that is closed during the colder months. Through the methodical application of H2O the park stewards have turned a forgotten area of Arrowhead into, arguably, its most attractive feature. The 1.3 km of ice winds gradually through the forest with only a hint of a hill now and then. If you follow the route in a counter-clockwise direction as we did you are treated to a final 200 m stretch of slightly downhill skating which offers great opportunities for NHL-calibre speed and epic snowbank wipeouts (if you don’t fall at least once, you’re not having enough fun).
On the day we visited there were few other groups, probably because of the road conditions. We saw maybe 10 other people during the nearly 2 hours we spent on the ice, meaning most sections of the trail felt private and secluded. At one point my wife stopped dead in her tracks and pointed to the sky as a mature bald eagle skimmed the treetops directly overhead. Arrowhead was pulling out all the stops for our visit, it seemed.
All tolled I ended up skating over 10 km before the falling temperatures made warming my feet seem like a more desirable option than continuing. It should be noted that the mercury fell to -10 C during my visit. On a day when the temperature is closer to 0 I have no doubt that the trail could offer endless hours of fun. If you plan to stay overnight in Huntsville you can even take advantage of the rink after dark, as park rangers light torches that guide you through a landscape of fire and ice.
To sum up: this trail may be one of the most enjoyable things a person can experience outdoors in Ontario this winter. The park is beautiful, the ice is great, the eagles are soaring. If you have the opportunity to make it to Arrowhead, make sure you take full advantage. I don’t know who came up with the idea for this ice-trail, but that person is a genius.
By Steve Kux
Steve Kux is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC and co-founder of www.sketchyscience.com