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 S.U.V. pulled up, poised to plow through the snowy roads of southern Quebec where I’d come simply to skate.
Other than the Winter Olympics, ice skating doesn’t get a lot of attention among winter sports. It’s usually a “something for the kids” addition at a ski resort, or an activity built around a city landmark, like the rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City or the ice sheet at Millennium Park in Chicago.
But 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.
Three freezing months at relatively low elevations has spawned a distinct winter culture. “Winters are very long and cold in Quebec,” said Robert McLeman, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. He and a fellow scientist Colin Robertson run RinkWatch, a citizen science project where nearly 1,500 participants have submitted climate data and its effect on their homemade skating rinks.
It’s hard to pin a number on skaters in Canada, but the government has found hockey participation is second only to golf in the country. The original four teams of the National Hockey League formed in 1917 were all Canadian, and the championship Stanley Cup is named for Frederick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, the governor general of Canada from 1888 to 1893, who commissioned the trophy. More recently, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, Canada won the team gold medal in figure skating.
“There aren’t that many things that are quintessentially Canadian, but skating is one of them,” Mr. McLeman said.
Skating trails — alternatives to circling an ice oval and perfecting counterclockwise turns — 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.
Having built my own front yard rink, I know these frozen skateways are not easily maintained. Forest paths involve cutting trails, building water barriers, flooding and freezing them, clearing fallen snow into sheet-side banks and continually conditioning the ice as it slaloms between trees. Ice might be a natural state, but skating ice is a wonder of human dedication.
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. Together they bill themselves as “authentic Quebec,” home to 16th-century French settlements and rivers that were the original highways used by First Nations travelers and, later, French Canadian fur traders known as voyageurs. Logging and hydroelectric industries subsequently took advantage of the regions’ natural resources, more recently reframed as tourist draws.
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 a two-kilometer, or about 1.25 mile, ice-skating path. 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 convince several skaters to wear helmets.
I laced my skates inside the park’s generous field house, which supplied a children’s corner with toys and books, and offered fat-tire bike rentals for rides on another trail, shared by snowshoers, that runs for 3.2 kilometers (about two 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.
It seems odd to call skating ice slippery, but the smoother the surface, the faster the ice, which is why skaters love to chase virgin ice after Zamboni machines have sprayed a thin coat of quickly freezing water to groom it. Recently resurfaced and lightly traveled, this skating path was swift on the downhills, met by gentle inclines that slowed my momentum as I approached the slushy river.
In two places, the roughly four-foot-wide paths led to adjacent rinks, one set up with boards and nets for hockey, the other for figure skating. There, in my zeal, I spun myself dizzy and fell hard on my elbow. Still, when a skater falls in the forest and no one sees it, the embarrassment evaporates like tears in a frigid gale. I picked myself up and returned to the tangle of the flooded forest.
Though 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 hockey-like 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 of waterfalls stilled by ice.
Agritourism on ice
One winter, when Jean-Pierre Binette and Madeleine Courchesne, beekeepers in rural Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, about an hour north of Trois-Rivières, had three children under the age of 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 high-ropes 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, 15 kilometers — more than nine 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.
Farm animals and friendly, free-ranging cats offered diversions for skaters of all ages, from school groups that pulled up in buses, to seriously speedy skaters who showed up when the gates opened at 10 a.m. to get in some laps before the lanes got clogged.
Several Zambonis, which resurface the trail at least twice a day, kept the route smooth. Despite my good sense of direction, I found the paths — including straightaways, curvy tree-weaving sections and countless connecting passes — wound so extensively that it was hard to keep track of where I’d been except for the landmarks provided by a few tree stumps carved into bear sculptures. It was this skater’s dream come true, a maze so vast that each turn felt new: sprinters’ drift-walled alleys; pine-dense spurs where teenagers fell laughingly into the snow; four-way intersections where schoolkids, screaming with delight, pushed friends in ice sleds and parents pulled their toddlers on double-bladed skates, taking breaks to feed the eager goats.
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 pine-hewn 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 four 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.
By then, too, three trucks were out resurfacing the path, one to brush away any remaining snow, another to spray water and a third to tamp down snow alleys at the edges used by dog walkers and posted with plastic bag dispensers.
This skateway was different than the others — no forests, mazes or isolation. Instead, it connected the city with a groomed route that skirted bluff-top houses and kayaks piled in snow on the river banks. It dipped under bridges occasionally tagged with graffiti, lending an urban edge to the ice sheet.
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 one-and-a-half-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.
Elaine Glusac is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.