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The SJAM Winter Trail: Ottawa’s winter wonderland

February 7, 2018

Found in Activities, Community news, Stories

Helping people get active outdoors is what we’re all about. But living in a major city without access to a vehicle can make it challenging to get into wild spaces. So when we hear about projects that break down these barriers, like Ottawa’s Sir John A. MacDonald Winter Trail (SJAM), we’re all ears. Dave Adams championed and developed the trail, and continues to manage and maintain it. He shares an inside look at what it means to create a new public-transit-accessible winter recreation area in our nation’s capital.

How do you like to spend time outdoors?

I like it to be easy to get outside. I don’t want it to be a big production or require a lot of planning or a long commute. And that’s why the SJAM Winter Trail is so great: it’s right next to a huge population base in Ottawa and it’s accessible by public transit.

What activities can you do on the trail?

The SJAM Winter Trail is an urban-based recreational winter pathway open to human-powered modes of transportation. We groom it for cross-country skis, snowshoes, fat bikes and pedestrians.

The trail opened in winter 2016 as a test. Will it be open every winter?

The 2016 Proof-of-Concept was a very successful test. I borrowed grooming equipment from my local ski club, brought it to town and prepared a trail along the Ottawa River on National Capital Commission park land. Something like this had never been done before, and the news spread like wildfire. People dropped what they were doing and rushed out to start skiing.

At that point, we knew there was no turning back and we’ve been going steady ever since. And, yes, the plan is to bring it back year after year. Introducing the SJAM Winter Trail has turned this area into a four-season recreational facility.

What’s the most surprising or challenging thing about grooming a trail like the SJAM?

Let’s start with “surprising.” I’ve been blown away by the degree of civility I’ve observed out on the trail. I’ve seen skiers, walkers, fat bikers and snowshoers happily sharing the path in harmony.

Raising the money to fund the trail was by far the biggest hurdle, but I expected that. Dealing with climate change has been the next challenge. Wildly fluctuating temperatures and inconsistent snow conditions make it extremely difficult to keep the SJAM Winter Trail in good and usable condition all winter long.

How is the Dovercourt Recreation Centre involved in the trail?

Dovercourt is critical to the success of the SJAM Winter Trail, from purchasing equipment and acquiring insurance to issuing charitable tax receipts.

In addition, as a well-known entity in Ottawa, Dovercourt gives the project credibility. Having Dovercourt and its board of directors standing behind me helps open doors. Without Dovercourt, the SJAM Winter Trail would only be an idea.

Is there a lot of volunteer involvement in maintaining the trail?

By nature, the SJAM Winter Trail is volunteer-run. We simply don’t have the money to pay people. Accountants, graphics artists, mechanics, social media and web specialists, lobbyists, editors, management consultants and groomers have all helped make this project possible.

What inspires you to do this work?

The personal stories from people who use the SJAM Winter Trail. People recovering from serious injuries have told me they use the trail to help themselves heal. Stay-at-home parents have said they’ve felt cornered because they don’t have the money or time to travel long distances to go skiing. I often hear people saying “I hadn’t picked up cross-country skis in 40 years, and then I discovered the SJAM Winter Trail. You have changed my life.”

On more than one occasion, a trail user has made me cry. I’m touched, and I draw my inspiration from these stories.

Can you share a story from the trail?

One day, while working out on the trail, I was approached by a woman with tears streaming down her face. She was a stranger, but to my surprise, she gave me a big hug. After regaining her composure, she explained that she had been seriously injured and lost her driver’s license after an accident, which radically changed her living circumstances. She felt confined to her home and mourned the loss of the lifestyle she was accustomed to. While she knew activity would help her recover from her injury, it was winter, and she had no idea where to go. With no solution in sight, she became depressed. And then she discovered the SJAM Winter Trail, only a few minutes’ walk from her apartment. She looked me in the eye and said that the trail had saved her life.

I never would have imagined that a recreational winter pathway could be so fundamental to people’s physical and mental health and well-being.

When did you become an MEC member?

I remember becoming a member of MEC when you first came out with that simple, well-built Cordura backpack. It was one of your signature products back when you were just two stores in Vancouver and Toronto. Yes, I’m dating myself.

How cold does it get? How do you stay warm while you’re outside all day?

Working in extremely cold conditions is part of the job. While grooming, -35°C with windchill in the dark is not uncommon. And I am perfectly comfortable and at ease in these conditions.

My plastic climbing boots, down, neck gaiter and multiple layers are critical. Merino wool is excellent for wicking moisture, and cotton should be left at home for when you get back into a controlled environment.

Do you have any tips for people who are new to outdoor winter activities?

Keep an eye on garage sales and swap meets for secondhand skis or snowshoes, borrow gear from a friend, or rent equipment for your first time. Once you’re hooked, you can buy your own.

Since the SJAM Winter Trail is free to use and accessible via public transit, trying a new winter sport doesn’t take a lot of money or commitment.

MEC is proud to have provided $20,000 to support the grooming of the SJAM Winter Trail and to help Dave and his crew make this recreation area accessible year-round.

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