Story by Jamie Ross
ARROWHEAD PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO — There were cross-country skis under the Christmas tree this year. Two sets of backcountry skis, poles and boots. Santa Claus must have felt I needed to get out and get a little more exercise. Well, not just me, my darling wife too. Or, more appropriately, he felt that I should, and he was kind enough to give me company.
My wife and I headed to Arrowhead Provincial Park, where we booked a back-country cabin for a couple of nights and planned to do some skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating on the property’s generous groomed trails and ice loops. We have often taken advantage of the marvellous parks in summer for camping and water recreation — visiting during the cold months was a new experience.
Nineteen provincial parks in Ontario are open through the winter season, with cross-country groomed trails to ski, designated snowshoe paths to hike, and flooded and frozen roadways to skate. Eight of the 19 parks have comfortable roofed accommodation for rent. We chose Arrowhead in the northern area of Muskoka, knowing that we would be guaranteed good snow.
After checking into the park just north of the town of Huntsville, we throw on snowshoes and then hauled our gear into our cabin on toboggans that were provided. We felt like Arctic explorers as we trudged to our cabin some 300 metres away. Well, truthfully, my wife hauled the gear while I led the expedition — breaking trail, along the hard-packed access route.
Where Snow Is Welcome in Ontario
After a quick rest to re-energize, we headed out on the ski trails. I had not cross-country skied for many years, not since I was a teenager in an era when skis had just advanced past being wooden boards with leather straps. Way back then you had those plastic low-cut boots that helped to deep freeze your toes into a painful state of numbness. You felt that if you whacked your foot with a ski pole, both boot and foot would crack in half. The equipment certainly has advanced.
This new variety of boot is high cut, leather, well-cushioned and comfortably insulated. They look good too, racy and sleek. I had considered some Spandex tights to complete the ensemble, but my wife, sensibly, had given a thumb down to that potential look.
The long skis are a little wider than I remember and better suited for ploughing down snowy trails. They are scaled on the bottom, so you no longer have to rub wax on them for hours on end before departure. Even the bindings seem much more sensible than the old “squeeze-the-toe” type that always seemed to pop loose as you were gaining speed down some steep pitch.
I clipped my boots into the ski bindings, grabbed the poles and prepared to stride off down the peaceful trail. Instead, I lost my balance and fell clumsily into the soft deep snow. I found out what the poles were actually for, as I slowly pried myself back to my feet, and then fell the other way. I contemplated pulling out an excuse, a bad back, a sore knee, a concussion — I bonked my head and couldn’t remember how my legs work. Instead I persevered. Soon, I was mastering the technique.
My poles flicked at the snow, working in unison with the skis. I pushed hard down the packed track; the dense groves of silver birch, maple and aspen that hedge the trail were nothing more than a blur in my periphery. I glided effortlessly along, climbed short hills, and then swooshed down long, looping slopes that carved through thick stands of pine.
Feeling proud of myself, I wondered whether there was enough time to prepare for the 2018 Korean Olympics. But a Norwegian accent brought me back to the moment.
“Track!” shouted an elderly man and woman, who were clearly not as frail as they looked.
“Track!” they both yelled again just as they swished ahead of me.
“Yes, well we kick your butt in hockey,” I muttered to myself.
Okay, the Olympics are out. I was having fun, though, exploring Arrowhead Park on skis. The weather was pleasant. In the woods, it is quiet; the heavy snow deadens any sound. Silence — save for my heavy breathing, the sound of the wind, and the twitter of the occasional bird.
I skied most of the 28 kilometres of groomed classic trails that the park offers, along the East River and around Arrowhead Lake. Afterwards, my wife and I snowshoed to Stubb’s Falls, and watched the water gurgle over a snowy ledge and down through a frozen wall of ice. It was beautiful, a natural ice sculpture.
My wife scurried ahead in her modern and fancy aluminium shoes, light-weight and barely bigger than my snowboots. I plodded along in my authentic chestnut and gut-line beavertail shoes, circa 1749.
I got the best of her later, doing my best Eric Heiden impression on the oval skating track, while she teetered around unsteadily, looking for a hand to hold. We even bounced down an icy bobsled-like run, piled together on some rubber tube, and here I did hold on to her, tightly, lest I get catapulted away.
At the end of the day we got cosy next to the fireplace in our cabin — tired and satisfied, after a day well spent in this splendid and largely unknown winter playground.
MORE ABOUT ARROWHEAD PROVINCIAL PARK
Location: 451 Arrowhead Park Road, Huntsville, ON (see map below)
- From Toronto, Follow Highway 400 North to Ontario Highway 11. Take exit 226 to Muskoka District Road 3 in Huntsville and continue to Arrowhead Park Road (trip is about 250 km).
- From Ottawa, take Highway 60 West to Muskoka District Road 3 in Huntsville and continue to Arrowhead Park Road (trip is about 350 km).
Day-use Fees: Vehicle fees range from $5.25 (for persons with disabilities) to $20. Admission ranges from 50 cents to $2.
MORE ABOUT ONTARIO PROVINCIAL PARKS
Cross-country Skiing in Ontario Parks: The Ontario Parks Ski Report’s interactive map shows where the 19 winter parks with groomed ski trails are located. Trail conditions are updated regularly and there are links to each park’s amenities and to local weather forecasts. If you weren’t good enough to get ski gear for Christmas, equipment rentals are available at Arrowhead, Pinery and Wasaga Beach provincial parks.
Snowshoeing and Skating in Ontario Parks: Snowshoeing is the world’s fastest growing winter sport. Hikers, walkers, backcountry adventurers and even runners are discovering snowshoeing on Ontario Parks’ trails.
If you’re an ice skater, imagine gliding around a frozen roadway through the woods. You can at MacGregor Point and Arrowhead provincial parks. Every winter, park staff flood campground loops at both parks to create ice trails for skating.
Spot Winter Wildlife: Winter can be a great time for wildlife viewing. Head out on a winter mornings after a light dusting of snow to spot animal tracks. At Arrowhead, wolf tracks are often visible on the snow-covered lakes.
Further winter park information: www.ontarioparks.com/winter