After years of warning visitors to Gatineau Park to stay on the trail, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has begun converting many so-called rogue hiking and biking trails into legitimate routes .
Beyond the 200 kilometers of official forest trails maintained by the NCC, park managers estimate that there are more than 300 kilometers of unofficial trails.
The number of such trails has skyrocketed in the age of mobile mapping apps like AllTrails, and starting in 2017, the NCC began taking the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach.
Off-piste misadventures have become commonplace at Gatineau Park in recent years.
Last November, a hiker was injured on a cliff face and had to be rescued by firefighters from several of the townships that border the park.
Not long after, another visitor ventured off a designated path, got lost and required rescue.
“It’s always tricky and it’s at night,” said Chelsea Fire Department Chief Charles Ethier, noting the risk to rescuers.
“There is a possibility of falling, so it is always a difficult procedure.”
Even if a lost hiker’s phone has reception, simply sending the coordinates to rescuers may not help if there’s no record of the trail the visitor followed in their situation, Ethier said.
Pierre-Olivier Dorego, Gatineau Park’s outdoor recreation manager, admitted that the proliferation of new paths through the forest by map app users has caused new headaches for park authorities.
Still, planners have tried to take a philosophical approach.
“We have to keep in mind that these trails are there for a reason,” Dorego said, adding that DIY trails often connected residential neighborhoods to the park or offered a recreational experience not available elsewhere.
Starting in 2017, the NCC held public consultations with users about which unofficial trails deserved to be official.
Hang gliders, horse riders, snowmobiles, hikers, bikers and other groups spoke at a series of public meetings.
In the end, around 100 kilometers of the 330 kilometers of uneven routes were accepted, often with modifications, and the DIY trails were evaluated based on their recreational value and environmental impact.
Dorego said some proposed routes had to be scrapped out of hand when they charted a course through sensitive and legally protected habitats for animals like peregrine falcons, western chorus frogs or hickory trees.
Others caused unacceptable fragmentation in the range of larger mammals like deer.
But in many other cases, the park has allowed users to take the lead.
“We hope that these will provide the experiences people are looking for on unofficial trails and we can close unofficial trails that are problematic from a safety and environmental standpoint,” Dorego said.
Phase 1, completed in 2019, made about 14 kilometers of trails official. Incorporated trails 41, 42, 43, 66, 67, 68, 76, 77, 79, and 80 at Gatineau and Chelsea into the NCC canon.
Phase 2 added 53B, 58, 59 and 72B, some 17 kilometers in total, in the Wakefield area.
WATCH | Why the NCC is giving official status to some unruly Gatineau Park hiking trails
Volunteers have donated thousands of hours of their time to trim, prune and open roads that are approved by the NCC.
Dorego estimates that by the summer of 2024, 100 kilometers of crowdsourcing routes will appear on official NCC maps.
It’s music to the ears of Patrick Hannan, who confessed to riding his mountain bike on “unofficial trails” and having frequent conflicts with hikers who were also on the off-limits trails.
“By making them official, they know that it is a shared path. I get fewer insults or comments,” she said.