“Closed For Winter” is a common metal plaque affixed to intricate staircases in Ottawa. Some places just aren’t walkable in the snowy months. There isn’t yet (nor is there likely to be) a snow removal budget that will hire a team to clear those corridors we ignore half the year.
However, if on a winter’s morning you were to look past the chain blocking the passage and see it cleared of snow but otherwise unchanged, you’d be seeing the work of urban skiers. Like the shoemaker’s elves, they come quietly in the night… with a gas generator powering halogen lights. They set up tripods with cameras focused on an unforgiving metal beam they send their meat flying onto. Locking their metal ski edges to the rail, they stabilize their bodies with as little movement as possible, and dismount at the other end with a 270 degree spin. Then they pack it up and leave only boot prints, taking only video.
To ski on a rail is to jib. To film someone jibbing is to get a shot. Young freeskiers get shots because it’s incredibly self-rewarding. Their footage also attracts sponsors, just as a ski racer would with a great time through the gates. Old freeskiers, whose knees give out from the incessant pounding of cement in ski boots, jib for the hell of it. They are, after all, still in their early 20s.
It’s part of the cycle. This includes kids watching feature-length ski movies made by professional athletes and catching the bug. The advancement in film technology and personal cameras has only pushed amateurs to make their own movies, to spark the passion in even younger generations.
Case in point for Guillaume Paquette-Jetten, a cinematographer who runs a Gatineau-based ski film company called The Stoke Factor. Here’s someone whose passion in skiing pushes him to take part in the community by filming. His mission: to promote skiers from the Outaouais.
“I really try to show off athletes from the region,” he said. “Last year, Dominique Desrosiers and Samuel Clairoux, two of the main skiers I worked with, were huge motivators for our crew. We toured around. We did park because it’s more accessible but we still did a lot of urban. Those are the shots that get you noticed.”
This video of exclusively urban skiing features suburban gems, which are now the best places to hit something no one else has before, and well-known landmarks like the Rideau Canal and Nepean Point.
There’s something rebellious, even illegal, about urban skiing that robs it of respect amongst snow sports. Those who go to Camp Fortune or Edelweiss don’t really understand those who grind their ski edges on public property. Paquette-Jetten agrees that the subjects of his films often just have to go trespassing. It’s up to them to convince people who want to call the cops that they’re not vandalizing or destroying anything.
“It’s when you clean up and respect the area that people think it’s cool,” said Jessy Desjardins, a young skier from Gatineau who skis with several film crews, including Gapers Gone Wild and TwoBees Media. “We encourage anyone who comes up and asks what we’re doing to see how much fun we’re having. We’re not damaging property.”
So usually it’s a speed game. Sculpting the run-in, or constructing a drop-in platform, clearing the steps, inspecting and smoothing the rail, preparing the landing, setting up the camera, practicing a few times, and ultimately getting psyched up to hit it with style and grace – it can all be for nothing if security shows up and tells them to leave. Late at night, in the dead of winter, the skiers with the frozen eyelashes and numb toes and fingers win simply by outlasting the uniforms who wouldn’t dream of leaving their vehicles.
It’s also wicked fun. Injury, bylaw and police are just occupational hazards that you try to avoid much like the fire hydrant at the foot of the retaining wall you just hucked off.
According to filmer and skier Matt McEnery from the now defunct Highland Productions crew, the city’s architecture is great for jibbing. The Portage Buildings in Gatineau are a perfect example of the brutalist ‘60s architecture that’s rife with features. Freeskiers find patterns in all aspects of infrastructure. Nowadays, the most challenging rails have already been skied by professional crews from the States like Level 1 or Stept. Amateur crews for the region have to find hidden spots or perform original tricks to justify the risk of getting a fine.
But law enforcement of the region isn’t really focused on this kind of thing.
“American city cops are much more severe,” said McEnery. “Still though, once we were trying to do some summer urban at the Archives flat down rail when a couple of guys came up and straight up asked if we had narcotics. I said, ‘we got a lot of snow!’ and they whipped out their guns and started yelling at me to get down on the ground before I could even open the van doors.”
What was supposed to be a mound of cocaine turned out to be the by-product of a local rink’s Zamboni. Arena snow is a go-to for late spring or early fall jibbers.
Desjardins is usually willing to wait for true winter to get his shots. He finds the imagery of snow covering all more pleasing when you’re watching a ski movie. And that’s ultimately the end product of a season of filming and jibbing — feature-length movies that skiers add to their portfolio.
“And it’s a team effort,” he said. “Some might think we’re just screwing around with urban but an enormous amount of prep work goes into it. We look for spots all year round where we can show some skill, some good camera work, and have fun.
“We’re usually laughing the whole time. Then we get to sit down together at the end of a long shoot, three spots in one night if we work really hard, and we appreciate the work we put in together.”
If that hard work was as admired as it should be, the metal signs on chains would be changed to read “Closed For Winter Sports.”