In a 3-year effort to fulfill their legal mandate to protect ecologically sensitive areas within Gatineau Park by closing damaging unofficial trails, the NCC has released a highly anticipated draft vision of a new Gatineau Park trail network that will add more than 100km of official trails.

Gatineau Park’s Unofficial Trail Network

Unofficial trails have been around forever in Gatineau Park. The area we now call Gatineau Park has been used recreationally for more than 100 years – 8 millennia actually, if you want to be accurate – and many trails pre-date the creation of both the Park and the NCC, and probably Canada, too. Indeed, when the NCC first introduced the official trails, many were based on existing, well traveled trails and roads.

But along with the creation of the NCC and Gatineau Park came other civil niceties, like endangered species and habitat legislation, which legally binds the NCC to protect dozens of threatened and endangered plants and animal habitats. And of course there’s the Gatineau Park Master Plan, which clearly spells out the NCC’s priorities: #1 is ecological conservation, #2 is recreation.

Unofficial Gatineau Park Trails: this image shows the variety of signage and construction that goes on unofficial Gatineau Park Trails

Unofficial Gatineau Park Trails: this image shows the variety of signage and construction that goes on unofficial Gatineau Park Trails

Since then, existing trails and any newofficial trails have undergone detailed environmental analysis. Legally, trails can’t pass within 15 metres of wetlands. If they found a patch of Fragrant Sumac, nothing within 300 metres; same for woodland sunflower, and it’s 500m for Peregrine Falcon and Heron nesting sites. So, existing trails were moved or closed over time, and new trails were few and far between.

Over the decades, the unofficial trail network has slowly grown in size and sophistication. Many of the unofficial trails began as alternative entrances to the Park from neighbourhoods that border the Park, and others lead to lookouts, bluffs, and even swimming holes scattered throughout the Park. Many are well-maintained by locals and volunteers, kept clean, have signage, and even the occasional bridge has been built. Traffic on the unofficial trails was relatively light, and consisted mostly of real nature lovers and hikers, and the occasional group like the Ottawa Orienteering Club and geocaching clubs.

In recent years, however, a greater interest in getting away from the increasingly crowded trails and, much more significantly, the growth of mountain biking over the past decade have driven up both the number of trails and the number of users.

Mountain biking is allowed on about 90km of official trails, and more trails been slowly opening in the past couple of years. But most of the official trails are wide, multi-use, and are graveled or even paved, which is pretty boring for mountain bikers, and for trail runners, orienteering groups and others.

Camp Fortune, also inside Gatineau Park, offers mountain biking trails, both cross country and downhill, and is a popular destination in the local MTB community… but as fun as it is you can only hit up the same place so many times.

In their search for narrower, single-track trails, with technical features and challenges for advanced riders, it is primarily the mountain bikers who  have driven this rapid expansion in unofficial trails and their use in the past few years.

Many of the trails the mountain bikers have laid are built to industry standards, by volunteers with training and experience building mountain bike trails (through Algonquin College programs or at other MTB locations like VeloMSM with help from the OMBA), and adhere best-practices for trail building as set out by the IMBA.

In fact, this gang is so good at trail building that unofficial trails – all 320km of them – now outnumber the 200km official trail network!

Worth noting also is that in the winter, the culprits are often the snowshoers and fatbikers. There is a growing number of official trails trails that allow both, but not enough to meet demand. And like the mountain bikers, snowshoes and fatbikers aren’t allowed on the groomed ski trails. As a result, a number of snowshoe trails have popped up thanks to Wakefield locals and others.

The Problem With Unofficial Trails

It is the explosive growth of the unofficial trail network and the number of people using them that has launched the NCC down this path to remake the official trail network. Unofficial trails, says the NCC, are putting many sensitive ecosystems in Gatineau Park at great risk.

So, what happens when a trail just randomly cuts through an intact ecological area? It’s called habitat fragmentation, and it generally results in an increase in smaller animals who thrive on the edges of habitats, and the loss of larger predators. In Gatineau Park, that means bears, wolves, even moose. As you can imagine, this can completely change the makeup of an area.

Take this map above, left, which shows – in green – all the in-tact ecological zones in Gatineau Park, with a black circle indicating the minimum ecosystem size required to sustain a wolf pack. Note that the largest blotch of green – around Lac LaPêche in the northwest, is really only about 20% of the size required for a single wolf pack.

You can’t quite make it out, but in the southeast portion of the park the average intact ecosystem area is just .1km squared – 100 metres squared.

So with that mind, these four maps below basically tell the story of the NCC’s new trail network:

The first map shows the official Gatineau Park trail network: 200km of official trails for hiking, cycling, and mountain biking in the summer, and skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and now fatbiking in the winter.

The next, quite frankly stunning picture, is the entire, 520km trail network, including the 320km of unofficial trails. Wow. Notice where the trails are, and consider the green ecosystem blotch around Lac LaPêche.

The third and most revealing map shows the whole network, official trails and unofficial trails, with legally protected ecological areas highlighted in yellow.

And that’s where the problem lies: many of the unofficial trails run right through these sensitive zones, and the NCC is legally bound to protect them.

The NCC’s Proposed New Gatineau Park Trail Map

When they realized the scope of the unofficial trail network a few years ago they began a process of consultation with the stakeholders involved. The NCC invited over 80 groups and agencies to sit down and discuss trail use in Gatineau Park, including OMBA, CPAWS, the cross country ski community, hang gliders, snowshoers, environmentalists, and more.

Through these consultations, which began in 2014, the NCC has engaged the most avid users of the unofficial trails in an effort to both educate them on the damage caused by these trails and to enlist their help in planning a trail network that better serves their respective communities.

After gathering and analyzing input from interested parties, the NCC set about evaluating the unofficial trail network against several criteria:

  • Usership
  • Aesthetic appeal
  • Experiential appeal
  • Sustainability and design
  • Level of service required
  • Accessibility
  • Active transportation

A new Gatineau Park Trailmap

At the end of this process was the new trailmap:

The NCC's new proposed trailmap for Gatineau Park, with 110km of new trails.

The NCC’s new plan envisions adding 110km of the unofficial trail network to the official trail network, with some modifications to swerve around certain habitats and ecosystems, bringing the official trail network up to 310km. All the other unofficial trails will be permanently closed.

In doing so, the NCC will effectively close 220km of unofficial trails.

What kind of trails they adding?

While the exact nature of each trail has not yet been decided, the NCC was unambiguous: none of the new trails will be mechanically maintained, which means no gravel or pavement, no cross country ski grooming. It is clear that lion’s share of the 110km of new trails will be back-country hiking, snowshoeing, and – most of all – mountain biking.

While some the trails will likely be open to back country cross country skiers, the NCC feels the skiers are already well served by the 200km of trails available to them under the current network. Again: none of the new trails will be groomed in the winter.

Of the 110km of new trails proposed, only 50 kilometres have been officially approved; the remaining 60km still need some further environmental assessment and possibly alterations to the trail to accommodate any findings. However, the NCC staff were pretty emphatic that they believed these trails would ultimately be approved, and that we should know by the Fall.

The new trails will be brought online sector by sector over 3 to 5 years, but some are hopeful that few might open by the end of the summer.

How will they close the remaining unofficial trails?

As the new trails are opened, essentially flipping from unofficial to offficial, the NCC will be taking measures to close the surrounding unofficial trails.

The NCC outlined a variety of escalating measures they’ll take to enforce the closure of trails, but they’re really hoping that buy-in from the various sporting groups, especially the mountain bikers, will curb the use of unofficial trails without the need for active enforcement measures. Everyone involved in the consultation process no doubt has a clearer understanding of the delicate ecological balance that needs to be struck in Gatineau Park.

Beyond good will and education, the NCC outlined a number of approaches they could take:

  • scattering trees and debris across trails
  • add barriers at trailheads
  • use of their new “Youth Ambassadors” to educate wayward bikers and hikers
  • and worst case, tickets and fines.

Awesome! So what’s next?

The NCC is being very budget conscience with this expansion of the trail network, and is eager to keep any costs associated with them as close to zero as possible.

To accomplish this, the NCC plans to form working groups of volunteers from the various activity communities, who have proven themselves eager to help on many occasions in the past.

Friends of Gatineau Park have worked with the NCC for several years to arrange “trail days”, where volunteers meet and clean or repair Gatineau Park trails; something like this could continue.

So we’ll essentially have the mountain bikers taking care of their own trails, and those with mixed use will see a variety of solutions.

As the NCC progressively opens the new trails, they’ll begin progressively restoring the unofficial trails that remain.

And finally, they plan to integrate this new trailmap, and all it entails, into the next iteration of the Gatineau Park Master Plan.

Wrapping  it up

This is a great leap forward for the Gatineau Park trail network.

While Gatineau Park serves many constituents very well, a major investment of time and energy was required to sort out the latest adventure sports – mountain biking, fat biking, and snowshoeing here – and integrate them effectively into the Gatineau Park plan. And that’s just  what the NCC has done, through an exhaustive, three-year consultative process.

And now, we wait.

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