Lack of snow in southern Quebec is driving cross-country skiers nuts

'I can go swimming and cycling but it's not the same thing,' says winter sports lover lamenting lack of snow

Since 1976, Montrealer Ranjan Roy has hit the cross-country trails at Mount Royal Park every chance he's gotten, in search of tranquillity and peace of mind.

Working at McGill University nearby means the park is often his go-to spot during his lunch break.

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"You need to focus on yourself so you've got to be very centred so that every stride counts, so you're really in a meditative state," said Roy, who works as a laboratory technician.

"I come back to the lab and I'm like 'okay, this broke down, that broke down,' but I'm like totally relaxed at that point in time and I've got that huge boost of energy."

This year, Roy and many other winter sports enthusiasts haven't gotten much of a boost.

Quebec skiing/Submitted by Ranjan Roy via CBC

Ranjan Roy, right, says he's been going to Mount Royal Park regularly since he was about nine years old. (Submitted by Ranjan Roy)

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Blame it on the lack of snowfall in November and December followed by what Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips describes as rain and snow "duking it out" in January, with rain winning the battle thanks to unusually warm weather.

"You've got the snow but the rain and the warm temperatures — especially the warm temperatures —they assaulted the snow," Phillips said.

"It didn't look like winter. It didn't feel like winter."

Those weather conditions and the sense that sloppy, abbreviated winter sports seasons are becoming more common are leaving many people wondering about the future of their favourite pastimes and even worrying about their physical and mental health.

"It has been terrible," Roy said, brushing off his disappointment with a laugh.

Skiing/Kim McNairn/CBC

A young skier tried to navigate one of the trails at Mount Royal Park on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (Kim McNairn/CBC)

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"I can go swimming and cycling but it's not the same thing. Skiing is amazing. It's like a rush."

As far as Jean-François Racine is concerned, southern Quebec went from autumn to spring directly.

And it's thrown him off.

"My system is a little out of whack. I want to go to ski, but instead I took out my bike," said Racine, who's also a Montrealer. "I almost didn't do anything during my time off during the holidays because I'm just stunned by the whole situation.

"I couldn't believe it."

Quebec skiing/Submitted by Jean-François Racine via CBC

Jean-François Racine, seen here in a photo taken in 2021, says he's trying his best to make the most of this winter season, despite the weather. (Submitted by Jean-François Racine)

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A warm and snowless holiday season

When Raluka Kirk left Australia to settle in Montreal eight years ago, she thought she had landed in a "paradise for winters" and that she'd be able to ski as much as she did when she was growing up in Romania.

This was supposed to be the first winter where she could introduce all three of her young children — ages seven, five and two — to cross-country skiing.

With cross-country trails having taken a serious beating due to the warm temperatures, she opted for alpine skiing outings as a family, which are much more expensive and rely on artificial snow.

The kids had a blast, she said, but she couldn't help but think they were missing out.

"I'm like 'oh my gosh, this snow is just awful, I can't believe this is what I can offer my children in Canada," she said. "This is worse than Romania!"

Quebec skiing/Submitted by Raluca Kirk via CBC

Raluca Kirk wants to share her love of cross-country skiing with her children, but winters like the one many Quebecers are experiencing right now don't make it easy. (Submitted by Raluca Kirk)

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If people are less enthused about hitting the trails, that means ski resorts are also feeling it in their bottom line.

Plein-air Sutton, a snow sports centre in Quebec's Eastern Townships run by a non-profit organization, has been hit hard by the lack of snow.

Its cross-country skiing trails were essentially closed between early December and mid-January, including the holiday season and that's a big reason why there's a serious dent in the non-profit's operating budget, according to Pascal Vinh Nguyen, its executive director.

The resort sold $12,000 worth of season passes during last winter's pre-sale period, a smaller than usual number. This year, that number dipped to $5,000.

"People are getting scared to make the move now," Nguyen said. "They don't trust that the winter is going to come."

The more people are confined to their homes, the more they're compromising their health, Nguyen said.

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"They're not working their cardio. They're not working their muscles," he said. "Without practising, there's a possibility of injuries the time you are going to go."

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'Hesitantly optimistic'

The lack of snow this winter in southern Quebec and Ontario is part of a pattern in recent years, but this year has been particularly rough, according to Natalie Knowles. She's a PhD candidate in climate science at the University of Waterloo who is also a member of Protect Our Winters, a climate advocacy group made up of winter sports enthusiasts.

"The season's coming later and later," Knowles said.

That trend has some wondering about the future of winter sports in places like southern Quebec.

"I'm hesitantly optimistic," Knowles said, adding that she thinks Paris Agreement targets are achievable, but falling well short could have "scary" consequences.

Quebec skiing/Submitted by Natalie Knowles via CBC

Natalie Knowles, a PhD candidate in climate science, says she's somewhat optimistic about the possibilities of minimizing the effects of climate change on winters in places like Ontario and Quebec. (Submitted by Natalie Knowles)

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"One or two degrees can really make a huge difference especially when it comes to whether it rains or snows."

For now, it's time to think of potential Plan Bs.

Nguyen of Plein-air Sutton said winter fat biking — which doesn't require as much snow as cross-country skiing — has been a hit with customers.

Roy believes the winter seasons will continue to shrink, but he expects to find a way to stay active, whether it's through roller skiing or other activities. As for Racine, he thinks he might need to jog or ride his bike more often during the winter.

Despite this season's disappointment, Kirk, the mother of three, is hoping that two to three months of winter sports in and around Montreal will be possible for years to come.

"It's a huge part of my life," she said. "It's very important for me to teach my children and to do it as a family."

Thumbnail courtesy of Michael Hilke via CBC.

The story was originally written by Antoni Nerestant and published for CBC News. It contains files from Erika Morris.