The winter of 2017/ 2018 can not be hailed as a great winter for snowfall here in Muskoka.
I had set my next blog mission for the Bracebridge Resource Management Centre Ski Trails in the fall, not knowing what the winter would bring. It started off by snowing a good deal, and then the rain melted the snow away. It snowed again nicely when we had a house full of guests for the holidays, and then it rained immediately into the new year—so the snow melted again, leaving a hard crust—and it simply had not snowed significantly since! Knowing that my skiing skills were close to their expiration date, having not skied for a very long time, I was none too eager to hit the trails only to fall on hard, sharp, crusty snow.
Thankfully, it snowed the entire second week of February, and sufficiently enough to give trails crews the chance to set good trail with a wee bit of cushion again. Realizing that this may be the last fluffy snow available this winter, I grabbed my skis, boots, poles, and camera, threw them into the car, and headed off to the Bracebridge Resource Management Centre.
The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre Trails offer 16.5 kilometres of ski trails in the winter. 19+ kilometres of trail are available for hiking and mountain biking in the spring, summer, and fall. This is a municipal trail system, brought to us by our taxes, so one can ski the trails at the BRMC at no cost, which is amazing, but you need to have your own equipment, as there are no rentals available. No dogs are permitted on the ski trails.
Before I began working on the Muskoka Trails Council Blog Project—the BRMC trail system wasn’t even on my radar. I have cross-country skied many times in my life, and I may have heard someone mention that there were winter ski trails near High Falls in Bracebridge, but my brain tuned out because I am a snowshoe girl at heart, and I’ve always considered cross-country skis a pain to shuffle around. This year however, I was bequeathed a pair of beautiful back-country skis and boots. They belonged to a very dear friend who will no longer walk alongside me in the forest. The skis inspired me. This would be the year I’d start cross-country skiing again—or at least just this once.
I arrived at the BRMC parking lot, which was quite full for a Tuesday afternoon. I had no idea what my next move would be as I got out of my car with my skis—other than the fact that I would eventually have to click into them. I watched the other people in the lot. All of them were very athletic, spry, and jovial and it didn’t take long for me to realized that every single one of them had more experience in years than me. I marvelled at how fit and happy they were and was promptly snapped out of my daydream as my skis and poles rattled down the side of my car into a heap.
Now, I am quite comfortable going anywhere with my snowshoes, I know how to have my gear on, ready to go—right out the door. I drive to the mission destination, put my snowshoes on, grab my walking stick, camera, and backpack, and off I go… Standing there at the BRMC, with skis in hand, I felt like I was in a whole new universe. Cross-country ski trails are different: there are rules, there is skiing etiquette and I didn’t remember any of it! What I did remember was that skiing would involve pushing myself over the crest of hills where I’d build velocity, with two flat sticks, set in tracks, bound to my toes, pointing downhill. This made me nervous. I really didn’t want to be that lump of flesh and sticks on the trail that others had to jump over to continue their workout.
I decided to study the map at the trail entry adjacent to the parking lot to further familiarize myself with my route (this was a delay tactic to avoid binding skis to my feet until the experienced skiers had left the vicinity—just in case I fell over), when a pleasant, spritely woman, approached and spoke with me about her bird sightings of the day, and what a weird winter it had been for birds and migration patterns. When we ran out of birding anecdotes I asked her about the Lookout Trail Loop – Trail #1, “Was the lookout worth the extra 1.3 kilometres?” She said it was ‘nice’, referring to it further only in that it added extra distance to a workout. I imagined the ‘lookout’ to be a typical Muskoka precipice of land with a vista to photograph—when a mind’s eye vision of me clumsily skiing over the edge appeared—I shook the thought away. It would be well worth it to apply the extra 1350 meters of effort to burn calories and see what was there. I became anxious again once our conversation had wrapped, and we had waved and wished well. I looked sideways at the skis and poles that I’d stood upright beside the map panel. ‘Just put the darn things on and get going’ I said to myself, and so I did… and I didn’t fall over.
With my feet buckled to my skis I set off towards Trail 1 which would take me to the Duck Chutes Lookout. The trail was beautifully groomed, I managed to manoeuvre down the first hill without falling and was pleased to see that there was still nobody behind me—the pressure was off. Thrilled, I found my stride, I began to recall what my mother taught me about form, I got into my kick, glide, kick… I…. Was… Skiing!
Having x-country skied twice in the last twenty years, my plan for the day was to:
- Dress in my normal forest cammo outfit (warm, puffy, bed-like—best for resting in snow)
- Mosey along, slow and steady—to let my muscles and joints acclimatize—rest in snow,
- Stop for plenty of re-hydration and recoup breaks,
- Sleep in the snow,
- Study ski trail etiquette and be ready to step off the trail for those who are more athletically inclined (which would be everybody there but me).
- Ski perimeter along the river to get sufficient coverage of the trails—fall in snow,
- Take lots of photos.
Five minutes in, my body started to rebel. My lungs were pleading for breath, my triceps were, ‘like, what the heck?!!’, and my thighs were shaking. I hadn’t even gone up a hill yet! I had to stop and take a photo to recover. I looked back again, still nobody behind me – thank goodness.
I skied on a few hundred meters, taking in the plantation landscape, then stopped again to catch my breath at an aged interpretive panel. It was still legible and allowed me to understand a piece of the history of the Bracebridge Resource Management Centre.
The BRMC property is a solid example of silviculture practice and has been tailored to educate trail users about forest management. There are many interpretive panels throughout the property highlighting points of interest that are typical of our forests here in Muskoka, along with explanations as to how the OMNR managed many of the forested properties that were under their mandate.
The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre was, in a way, an experimental tree farm and the plantations of Red Pine were the gardens! Sun-loving Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) were chosen by the OMNR in 1970 as the species to plant across what were once open fields. Once the Pine Gardens had reached the age of twenty-five in 1995, the trees were thinned to allow crowns of the trees to expand and catch more sun. As these trees grew taller, they were scheduled to be thinned every ten to fifteen years to keep the stand robust, and the final harvest was set to occur in 2020.
Just a few hundred meters beyond the Pine Garden, is the midpoint of Trail 1, where it forks towards a small loop so that skiers can visit the ‘lookout’—but don’t get your hopes up, this is not a photo-op lookout, there is no hill, and the view is quite overgrown. The point of interest is a set of rapid chutes across a small bay adjacent to the ski trail.
I had to remove my skis and bushwhack to get to a clearing with a view of Duck Chutes Bay. In doing so, I noticed that the botanical history on this little spit of land seemed quite rich. There was an array of native and non-native tree and shrub species. It was fun to imagine this spot being another type of garden; perhaps it was a nice picnic and swimming destination back in the day. I romanticized that many people may have held a fondness for this spot in their hearts, planting special seeds and roots, along with trees and shrubs, in the name of love and loved ones. Truth be told though, many of these species could have self-seeded, as foreign species (such as the invasive Scots Pine) tend to do.
With the lookout loop under my belt I continued to the Main Trail section where the trail turns into a double trail with a skate trail running down the centre. I stuck to the right, like I do on the roads, and hoped for the best. The groomers sincerely do a wonderful job here, and the fact that I didn’t have to pay a fee made me feel quite grateful. I herringboned up my first hill and made it to the top. My confidence was building, and my legs were limbering up!
Near the end of my cross-country ski mission I forced my back-country skis through the deep snow of an open plantation to study a cluster of Red Pine that were bent over at the middle. This stem-bending is common among monoculture plantations. The trees were planted with the intent to have them grow and be thinned over 50 years, after which they’d be harvested (a bit like carrots as one interpretive panel points out). These Red Pine are all the same age, being planted all at once, and grew tall, fast, and lean, because they were all competing to be taller than their classmates—to gain bonus points in the sun. This gardening method produces the ideal timber trunks for forestry, which is why they were planted here in the first place and now they are OMNR educational timber trees.
The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre plantation gardens show us the ecological differences between mixed forest and plantation ecology. When skiing through the BRMC trails one can see that the plantation forests have little to no understory (a.k.a. mid-level plant stems). Understory plants are beneficial to forest ecosystems because they create a buffer that slows wind gusts. Mid-level plants also provide food and habitat. In this case here, a clearing was cut into this plantation for the trail grooming equipment. When a good gust of wind came along, it was able to build across the gap and catch hold of the heavy crowns of this cluster of Pine, bowling them overtop of their lanky and elastic timber stems.
In restoration ecology, we often see the ‘Lollipop Effect’ in areas where vegetation is abruptly cleared along a linear edge—and this doesn’t always apply to plantations, it happens along the edges of most new clearings cut squarely into forests, where height competition was involved. Trees along these edges, or those that are left in small forest islands with no forest friends are labelled ‘Lollipops’ and often share a predictable twist of fate, like these pines seen here.
Speaking of Forest Friends, I experienced so much kindness and friendliness throughout my ski, from my lovely fellow skiers to the volunteer trails crew, they had me laughing out loud, and to myself. You can certainly tell these ski trails are well loved by the community and are thought of fondly year-round.
Overall, the BRMC ski trails were very beginner friendly. If you are a green-circle skier, I found that if you stick to the trails along the Muskoka River, it is not too hilly. There is just the one large hill to climb near the end to get back to the parking lot. Despite my lack of practise, I sincerely enjoyed these trails! By the time I got back to the car, cross-country skiing no longer intimidated me. It was a fantastic whole-body workout. I am now driving around everywhere with the skis in tow. Botanigal is going to try to ski at least once a week and hopefully the weather will cooperate, though it is raining now, as I write this.
It takes a lot of work by an inspired crew of volunteers and an excellent trails crew to bring Muskoka the privilege of having a free cross-country skiing destination. If you haven’t tried cross-country skiing, you really should. The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre trail system is as friendly a place as any to give cross-country skiing a try.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Bracebridge Resource Management Centre is located right off Highway 11 Northbound, just north of Highway 117. If you are accessing the site from the Northbound lanes keep your eyes peeled after you pass under Highway 117. You will pass one road (do not exit onto this road because the BRMC is the next road up #5140). If you are accessing the site from the Southbound lanes it is a bit more complicated—you need to either exit off Hwy 11 onto 117, go over the highway and re-enter Northbound. You could also use the median lane at High Falls Road to jog-back northbound to the BRMC entrance, but this is a high-adrenaline option.
Heading back towards your destination after your ski is another feat because you must drive north on Highway 11. If you need to head south, some study of the roads on a map ahead-of-time would be a good idea.