English: Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada, Janua...

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Every winter, shortly after Christmas, begins the Ottawa festival known as Winterlude.  It centers around a huge rink on the Rideau Canal, itself a UNESCO world heritage site, which winds it way through downtown Ottawa, through some of Ottawa’s oldest and most venerable neighbourhoods, to its end at Dow’s Lake.  The total length is 7.8 km, with a small off-shoot at Patterson Creek, and a fine expanse of skating surface at the lake at the terminus.

The actual dates of the approximately two-week festival have been moved around a bit; it is always a trade-off between having it late enough into the season that we’ve had sufficient cold nights to freeze the ice and have the surface manicured nicely by the National Capital Commission (NCC) staff, and not too late that we start to experience an unplanned warm snap that turns the surface to mush.  Invariably, no matter what the dates in the last few years, we’ve managed to have a day or two of rain during Winterlude, and sometimes that’s made the skating venue literally a wash-out.  Climate change, anyone?

This year’s festival started at the first of February, and we’ve been lucky,because since then, it’s been ccccccold.  The ice conditions, updated daily on-line with a map, are reported to be either “good” or “very good”, which is great because we’ve already had one +12°C day in the week leading up to the start of Winterlude, which plays havoc with the ice surface.  But one of the benefits of living in the nation’s capital is the NCC, whose staff work tirelessly each evening to sweep and flood the canal surface once the temperature is low enough to do so.

My skate this morning was a classic – it was my first of the season, and as usual, since I am a lousy skater, it took me several minutes to get my “ice legs” (kind of like sea legs, only different).  The great thing about skating on the world’s biggest skating rink is that you don’t have to have any technique – there are rarely any confined spaces where you need to know how to stop, and my trips generally involve only one turn which comes half way through the skate when it is time to head back to the car.   To execute my turn, I point myself towards the edge of the canal (watching out for other skaters coming up on the inside), let myself slow to a stop and then push myself off the wall in the return direction.  So with all that straight skating and one simple turn, it is a bit of a mystery to me how I managed to fall while passing under the Highway 417 bridge about three-quarters into my route.  But fall I did, executing an inelegant roll in the process, followed by a short slide.  The good news was I was fine, nothing injured, as they say, except my pride.   Some kind soul called out at a distance to ask if I was okay, and I gave the universal thumbs up, before carefully climbing to my feet again and continuing on.

The canal on a fine weekday in Winterlude is the ideal time to skate, and today was no exception.  The sun sparkled brightly, trying only partially successfully to warm up the -17°C temperatures.  The crowds, unlike the weekends, were light, really only concentrated at both ends of the journey and at the Pretoria bridge where some school kids playing hookey had gathered to put on skates and generally roughhouse on the ice’s surface.  The skaters were leisurely, generally, and for the most part solo.  My favourites are the older men, the good skaters, who blades swish, swish, swish through the ice like butter, their hands relaxedly clasped behind their backs.  Being the poor skater I am, I could no more skate with my arms behind my back than run without bending my knees – I tend instead to teeter.

The canal during Winterlude is a great destination – we Ottawans have got this winter festival thing sorted out.  It starts with numerous entrances to the ice surface, each handily equipped with several benches at which you can sit and take off boots and put on skates.  (There are also heated changing areas for the wussies amongst us.)  The NCC has helpfully anchored groups of cut pines and other conifers (salvaged Christmas trees from the compost program?)  in mounds of frozen snow where they act as windbreaks for the benches.  At all the main entrances are heated washrooms as well.   It is a miracle to think of all the plumbing and electrical work that gets done on this enormous outdoor surface.

Dotted along the length of the canal are the concessions that make Winterlude what we’ve come to love here in the city.  The first involves the delicacy known as “beavertails”, a kind of flat doughnut shaped, unsurprisingly, like the tail of beaver and topped with either sweet or savoury flavours.   Addictive.  And copious quantities of hot chocolate are sold on the canal – you can tell by the number of brown splashes on the ice, too rich to be coffee.   So if you find yourself peckish or cold, it is only a few minutes skate to somewhere where you can allay that problem.

But for my money, the best part about the skateway is the skateway itself.  Its icy surface, cracked and rutted in spots but shining off into the distance, is calling you to pick up those blades and go.

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