There are miles and miles of groomed and trackset cross-country ski trails waiting for you in communities across Ontario. Many of them are maintained by volunteers, members of recreational ski clubs who celebrate winter by enjoying the great outdoors. Cross-country skiing is great for all ages, and most trails can accommodate everyone's preferences, be it for flat terrain or twists, turns and hilly thrills.

Cross-country heaven:
Three cheers for volunteers who get all those trails ski-ready

I remember the first time I strapped on my cross-country skis and headed into the woods across from Hazeldean mall in Kanata, where I lived in the suburbs during my 10 years in Ottawa. I had no idea what to expect, since I was new to the city, and had yet to get my hands on the National Capital Commission’s Greenbelt trail map. But it took only 15 minutes to realize that I had stumbled onto a little piece of heaven.  

I followed the Old Quarry Trail as it wound around trees and across boardwalks, eventually leading to a second path off to the right. Ten minutes later, I had arrived at a dead-end of sorts. I had to decide: come back the way I had skied, or scramble up the hill and follow the abandoned railbed, which forms part of the Trans Canada Trail.  

I’m glad I took the climb. Out in the open, surrounded by nature on either side, I could see forever. It was hard to believe that people were whizzing by in their cars just minutes away.  Here, you could hear a pin drop.  
Later, after discovering a whole maze of trails, I started to head back to the parking lot. It was as I entered the woods and rounded a corner that I came almost eye-to-eye with a white-tailed deer. Beautiful.  

For a recreational skier like me who just wants to enjoy nature without a lot of scary hills and turns, Ottawa’s Greenbelt, with its 125 kilometres of trails, is the place to be. How lucky we are, I thought, that we can practically ski out our back doors and onto a trail almost anywhere in Ottawa. And, best of all, it’s free!  

Or so I thought.  

Many of the trails, I was to find out that first winter, were trackset and groomed. What time did these trail elves get up, I wondered each time I happily set out on another sunny morning ski. Eight years would pass before I bothered to find out the answer. And when I did, I was feeling mighty guilty!  

What I found out was that with money in short supply, it was no longer the NCC (a federal government agency) setting and grooming trails. It was — and still is — volunteers from two cross-country ski clubs, one looking after about 25 kilometres of trails in the west, the other overseeing about 35 kilometres of trails in the city’s east end.  

I talked to Frank Roscoe, then president of the Orleans Nordic Ski Club, and found out he had been personally tracksetting the trails in his end of town for a dozen years. After a snowfall, he’d be out on his snowmobile pulling the grooming equipment, beginning just after 7 a.m.  It would take about 21 hours to cover his entire east-end area. And because snow doesn’t wait for a weekend, that meant Roscoe would have to take 10 days of leave from his government job during a typical winter so those trails would be groomed and ready for skiing.  

“I do it because I love the sport, and I would love other people to love it and to love winter,” Roscoe told me back in 2007.  “It’s especially the children,” he added. “When you see the smiles on their faces, the rosy cheeks and they’re having fun with their families, then it’s worth it.”  

And while people appreciated all the work —  “I had people hugging me in the parking lot,” Roscoe chuckled — what they failed to realize, he said, “is that this costs money.”  

Watch for the drop-box, then drop in your contribution

Sometimes you need to be hit over the head with a brick to realize the obvious: that maintaining and grooming cross-country trails isn’t something that just happens by magic. First, you need dedicated volunteers. Second, you need money for saws and snowmobiles, signs and grooming equipment. That’s why Nordic ski clubs in communities across Ontario rely on memberships to recoup some of the costs of keeping the trails ski-ready.  Often, for day users, there will be a drop-box on the trail where you can pay up.  

But while the clubs couldn’t operate without user fees, what really makes winter so enjoyable for cross-country skiers in so many communities are the volunteers — the Frank Roscoes — who make it all happen.  
In South Bruce Peninsula, which includes the communities of Wiarton and Sauble Beach, Lloyd Sheridan is one of those unsung heroes. His wife, Jo-Ann, is another. They are both on the executive of the Sauble Beach Cross-Country Ski Club, she as the person in charge of memberships, he as the one responsible for maintaining the trails, both for skiing and snowshoeing.  

“We really have to congratulate the people who carved out these trails 29 years ago,” Lloyd Sheridan tells  “They didn’t have GPS back then, so it would have been quite the task mapping out trails, especially along those ridges.”  

All agree that the club’s18 kilometres of groomed ski trails, which branch out from Sauble Falls Provincial Park, offer the most scenic Nordic trails in southern Ontario as they meander through forests and open fields, over rolling sand dune ridges and along the Rankin River. And not a motorized vehicle in sight. As Sheridan sums up simply: “Beautiful trails.”  

It’s these ski trails, and another 10 kilometres of snowshoe trails mapped out in the past two years — with a loop taking you past the picturesque Rankin dam — that today’s volunteers stand guard over, cutting back brush and fallen trees, taking care of signage, and grooming and track-setting for those who enjoy classic Nordic skiing.  

Group ski in the moonlight, then a good party

“It’s a real club effort,” says Sheridan, who puts in several hours a week himself during the winter. In the fall, he gathers a crew of 10 or so volunteers — “mostly people who know their way around a chainsaw” — for the big pre-season maintenance job. Depending on how many trees have fallen on the trails and need to be chopped up and hauled away, the volunteers on this crew put in between 120 and 200 hours of work before the ski season begins.  

Back at the club’s chalet at the north end of Sauble, another group of volunteers works weekends and daily during the Christmas holidays and March Break selling day-use trail passes and handing out free hot cider.  

All that dedication is paying off: there were 231 club members for the 2009-2010 season, and membership is up this year.  

When asked why he volunteers, Sheridan, a retired banker, is quick to reply: “There’s nothing better than being out in the bush. I’ve skied there for 10 or 15 years. It’s a great sport for the exercise.” Sheridan, who is just shy of 65, says a good number of club members are in the same age bracket.  

Along with the exercise, there are also social benefits to hanging out with the ski club. Every Monday, the club holds a group ski, starting and ending at the chalet, where everyone gathers for a brown-bag lunch. It’s an outing that is especially nice, Sheridan says, for people who don’t have a partner to ski with. On Fridays, there’s another group ski, followed by lunch out at local sponsoring restaurants.  

The major social events are held “at full moon,” when night skiing is followed by a celebration back at the chalet, which started out as a donated trailer and morphed into a comfy wooden clubhouse, thanks to donated lumber and more volunteer labour.  

The Sauble Beach Cross Country Ski Club sells memberships for $45 a person ($35 if you buy one before Dec. 1), $70 for couples without the $10 discount, and $90 for families without the discount. A small price to pay for an entire season of exercise and socializing.  

For the cross-country ski club nearest you, check out the Cross-Country Ontario website and look under your district. — January 2011