Who were the Riders of Riders’ Roost?
Encouraged by a strong Norwegian presence, the Ottawa Ski Club was formed in 1910 for the purposes of ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
The Club originally focused on jumping. The first primitive jump tower was built at ‘Suicide Hill’, Rockcliffe Park. Another ski jump was built a Camp Fortune. The Club’s activities were suspended during World War I and in 1919 the Ottawa Ski Club (OSC) was reorganized and incorporated.
Cross-country racing predominated for more than a decade after the Club’s reorganization. 1920 marked the acquisition of Camp Fortune. Trails were cut, lodges were built and the Ottawa Ski Club grew in numbers becoming the largest ski club in the world with a membership of over 10,000. The Nordic (jumping and cross-country) events were open to all competitors.
Disbanded in the early years of World War I when many of its members enlisted, the club was re-organized and incorporated in 1919 with 19 members and $19 from membership fees. C.E. Mortureux was the first president, and remained so for 27 years. The initial aim was to foster all disciplines skiing with cross-country skiing as the main focus. There were fewer ski jumpers but the sport was very popular with the public at large with crowds of up to 5,000 gathering on the outrun on the frozen Ottawa River.
The first Ottawa Ski Club jumping competition was held at Rockcliffe Park in 1912, and was won by local resident, Sigurd Lockeberg. Four thousand spectators attended the Canadian Championship hosted by the Ottawa Ski Club in 1914. Several jumps were constructed over time; all were eventually dismantled or collapsed. A rival ski club called Cliffside Ski Club was formed in 1919, spurring the Ottawa club to push even harder to be the best. In 1919, the founding year of the Ottawa Ski Club, another organization was also founded, the Cliffside Ski Club, that provided direct and friendly competition.
By the 1920s, most of the skiing activity in the Ottawa region was centred on the Gatineau hills north of Ottawa and, specifically, around what was to become the permanent site of the Ottawa Ski Club, Camp Fortune. From 1924-1932, a group called the Night Riders (lead by Joe Morin) using machetes, brush hooks, saws, axes and dynamite, cleared bush to provide an interconnecting network of cross-country trails linking a number of lodges. At its peak, there were 62 miles of trails although the network has been reduced in length in response to current needs. As befits the name, the Night Riders toiled at night with or without the benefit of moonlight.
It wasn’t until after the second-world war, and the construction of lift lines, that the focus of the OSC moved towards alpine events. The night riders focused on the Alpine hills and a group called trail riders maintained and patrolled the cross-country trails around Fortune and across the Gatineau Park
The idea of creating a park in the Gatineau Hills for recreational purposes was proposed as early as 1903. In 1938 money was allotted for the acquisition of Gatineau woodlands (for preservation) and the construction of a parkway. To that date, the area was extensively used for sport and recreation. The trail riders build, maintained and patrolled the trails throughout the Gatineau Park for a century.
They helped found one of the region’s biggest attractions, but there are no signs in Gatineau Park to commemorate the Trail Riders, Ottawa’s cross-country skiing pioneers.
“With roots extending back to the 1920s, the Trail Riders were largely responsible for the network of cross-country and downhill ski trails that have now become a linchpin of tourism and recreation at Gatineau Park. Every year, over 200,000 cross-country skiers glide along the well-groomed trails in the park, now operated and managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC). Essentially, without the Trail Riders that trail network wouldn’t exist,” says John Quarterman, a former Trail Rider who mapped trails, painted signs and trained patrollers in first aid.
The Trail Riders were a volunteer group of skiers who had been maintaining and patrolling the cross-country trails in Gatineau Park officially since 1951, but they were certainly not the first. A hundred years ago, Gatineau Park was not a park at all, only a patch of wilderness in the Gatineau River Valley. In the early 1900’s the federal government had been discussing turning the area around Meech Lake into a national park; meanwhile the Ottawa Ski Club (OSC) was making it happen.
By the time the club purchased Camp Fortune in 1920, they had already cut 31km of trails in the area for public use. Recognizing the need for an organized maintenance team, OSC member Joe Morin formed the Riders in 1924. They were a dedicated group who volunteered their spare time and hard work, maintaining the trails and developing them to keep up with increasing demand.
The Trail Riders membership ranged between 30 and 60 active members patrolling trails twice a day. They were builders, engineers and first-aid rescuers. By the 1950’s, cross-country and downhill skiing were becoming more distinct from one another, and the trail system had expanded dramatically. The Trail Riders were established to care for the cross-country trails.
The original names of the trails have historic significance. They reminded skiers of the pioneers who blazed those trails. Skiers would gather around a fire in the lodge and discuss the wildlife they spotted on ‘Doug’s Trail’, what kind of condition ‘Franks’ was in, or who they ran into on ‘Chicken Run’ or ‘Pipe Dream’. As the names of these trails were repeated around the fire for generations, so were their stories.
The National Capital Commission is a federal Crown corporation created by Canada’s Parliament in 1959. Decades after recreation activities had begun in the Park and after the Trail Riders started creating a trail system for all.
The Rider’s Roost
Camp Fortune developed a patrol that could perform search and rescue and first aid operations. The Trail Riders evolved into an adult group of emergency trained patrollers. They were the first-aid group for the whole park. In addition to first-aid services, the patrollers would be around to direct lost skiers and hand out trail maps that the Riders produced. They built their own cabin, the Rider’s Roost, in 1966, to serve as a meeting place, or to store equipment or just hang out for social gatherings.
Trail Riders of the Ottawa Ski Club maintained a 60 mile trail network between the 4 lodges (Keogan, Huron, Western, McKinstry). They used the Riders Roost as headquarters. There were young ones in green jackets without the Trail Riders crest on it, experienced Riders in green with crest and yellow jacket “old pros”.
The Trail Riders continued maintaining the complex web of trails by clipping branches, repairing bridges, removing fallen trees, and fixing hazards like holes and continued to patrol the secondary (original trail systems).
Handing over the keys
In the 1980’s, many of the activities undertaken by the trail riders around Camp Fortune were transferred to an evolving group that became natural fitness lab. New cross-country trails and biathlon facilities were build at Camp Fortune with federal government support from sports Canada, the Canadian Military and the efforts of the local clubs at the time: National Capital Division Biathlon, Ottawa racers, and the Ottawa Ski Club (Nordic). A certified 10km competitive trail system was designed and built. The site became the Canadian National Training Centre for Biathlon and hosted many North American Canada Cup cross-country, and biathlon championships. Members of natural fitness lab were an integral part of the team that build these trails and managed the Biathlon range project including securing initial funding. This site remains the only active trail system designed for competitive skiing in the park.
As the National Training Centre, the site became heavily used as a training and competitive venue for Biathlon leading up to 1988, 92 and 94 Olympics.
At the same time, the competitive ski and biathlon clubs training at the facility amalgamated into natural fitness lab who assumed responsibility for trail maintenance and operating the race trails and the biathlon range in coordination with Cross-Country Canada and Biathlon Canada. Soon after, what was effectively once the Trail Riders in the area was assumed by a not-for-profit, who then operated out of Riders Roost for the next decade. This group was later named Natural Fitness Lab in 1990.
A roller ski loop and snowmaking were funded and the project initiated but the Ottawa Ski Club disbanded in 1991 and Camp Fortune went bankrupt. In 1993, the NCC expropriated the land from the Ottawa Ski Club, all operations and trail maintenance was suspended. In 1994, the Sudermann brothers signed a long-term lease and have successfully revitalized the downhill operations.
The emergence of more competitive cross-country ski clubs and Cadet Biathlon Programs in the early 2000’s, saw increased interest in the Gatineau Park and the race facility. Our members constituted the founding families of Chelsea Nordiq and helped initiate the competitive biathlon and cross-country programs. Natural Fitness Lab and Chelsea Nordiq ran joint programs for a number of years, sharing coaching resources and sitting on each other’s executive boards. Over the subsequent 20 years, operations for the range facility and riders roost have been transferred to Chelsea Nordiq who operate the biathlon program in the National Capital Region out of Camp Fortune, and have contributed significantly to revitalizing the facility. Chelsea Nordiq now has a long-term agreement to run and operate the Camp Fortune XC and Gaetan Brosseau Biathlon Race course and coordinates use of the facilities with Natural Fitness Lab.