Martin in Gatineau Park

Martin in Gatineau Park

Friday, 10 February 2012

Penguin Hill

Skiers ascending Penguin Hill to the point where it is joined by Trail 30

Today I dropped Sue (exhausted from 5 days’ skiing) and Helen (exhausted from 2 days at work) at the Spa in Chelsea, then parked up at P8, a few metres down the road at the other end of Chelsea.

This put me in a great position to try out part of the 51 km Gatineau Loppet route.  Don’t worry, I only went 32 km today, but I did check out the steepest of the hills on the Loppet route, the 200 metre ascent of Penguin Hill, pictured above near the point at which it is joined by Trail 30.  As you can see, the sun beat down yet again and the temperature rose to a positively balmy 2C.

You might wonder, like I did - ‘Penguin’ – seems an unusual name for a geographic feature lying about eleven thousand kilometres from the nearest penguin habitat.

Apparently it used to be called Excelsior Hill, excelsior being the Latin for ‘higher’.  But it seems that the road currently known as Gatineau Parkway (a ski trail in winter) follows the route of something called the Penguin Trail, and that name has devolved to the steep hill that comprises the start of the trail currently known as trail 1, leading steeply up to Ridge Road.

Skiers in the 1920s were looking for a way to avoid bushwhacking from where the bus dropped them off, to a lodge at Camp Fortune that was used as a base for cross country skiing.

To fill this evident need, in stepped Joe Morin, the Ottawa Ski Club’s Director of Trails.

Continuing with one of Charles Hodgson’s well researched pieces:

“The Penguin Trail was short, spanning considerably less than a kilometre, but it was memorable. This is because Joe Morin claimed to have found a penguin in the snow just as they were finishing the trail. He caught it, put it in his backpack and skied it in to Camp Fortune where he and his Night Riders nursed it back to health. They made a sort of mascot of it and claimed that it must have walked from the southern hemisphere and that’s why it was so tired. Other people were sceptical and arranged for a visit by — as the 1943 Ottawa Ski Club Guide puts it — “learned and bespectacled ornithologists” to disprove the unlikely claim. The bird however, having regained its strength, flew out the window before the bespectacled doubters could inspect it and Joe maintained his claim that it had indeed been a penguin.”

He goes on to observe that:

“Modern day Park users may be aware that a penguin is a flightless bird. This undercuts Joe’s authority in the event of the bird leaving on the wing, though it may give a small degree of support to the “walking-thus-tired”  theory.”

Charles provides further fascinating historical background here, which can be summarised along the lines that a ‘pingouin’ was perhaps found – that’s the French name (and the location is in French speaking Quebec) for a Razor billed auk, a bird that can fly but which looks much like a penguin and inhabits the north east Canadian coast, sometimes getting lost and finding its way quite far inland — albeit perhaps not walking.

The ‘Razor billed auk’s trail’ or ‘Razor billed auk Hill’ would sound a bit odd wouldn’t it?

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