Skating on The Rideau Canal

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New Year has arrived and gone. The holidays is almost over and many people have already returned back to their dreaded work and life in general. But in the city of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, the fun is only about to start. A few days from now the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink will open in the scenic Rideau Canal that flows through the heart of the city.

Opened in 1832 as a precautionary military measure against a rumored U.S invasion, the canal is used today primarily for pleasure boating, with most of its original structures intact. During the winter months when the canal freezes, a 7.8 km section is marked off as a skating rink drawing an average of 20,000 visitors every day. This becomes a popular tourist attraction and recreational area, and is also the focus of the Winterlude festival in Ottawa. All along the way, food vendors sell hot soup, hot chocolate and other snacks and beverages in kiosks on the skateway, including the famous Ottawa invention, the BeaverTails pastry — a deep fried, cinnamon and sugar, beaver tail-shaped pastry.


Photo credit: Vince Alongi/Flickr

Preparation for the Skateway starts as early as mid-October. At the end of the boating season, the water is drained at the Ottawa locks near Parliament, and the water is allowed to freeze naturally in the winter. When the canal has built up a sufficient ice thickness, snow is removed from the ice surface and it is flooded in order to make the ice even more thick and smooth. Samples of ice are tested for quality and thickness. When it is found to be safe to skate on, the Rideau Canal Skateway is opened for the season. This usually happens in mid-January, and depending on the weather, the Skateway can remain open till February end or even until March. The skating season was the longest in 1971–1972, when it stayed open for 90 days. The shortest was 35 days in 2001–2002.

Rideau Canal has been used as an impromptu skating surface by Ottawa residents for years before it was made into an official skating rink and tourist attraction. But in 1970s the city had almost lost the historic canal when a decision was made to pave over the canal so that an expressway could be made. The federal government's ownership of the canal, however, prevented the city from pursuing this proposal. It was Doug Fullerton, chairman of the National Capital Commission, who first he proposed a recreational corridor around the canal, including the winter skateway between Carleton University and Confederation Park. The plan was implemented on January 18, 1971, despite opposition by city council. A small section of ice near the National Arts Centre was cleared by NCC employees with brooms and shovels, and 50,000 people skated on the canal the first weekend. Today, the skateway has an average of one million visits per year. The canal’s skateway has an equivalent surface area of 90 Olympic ice hockey rinks making it the largest naturally frozen ice rink as well as the largest skating rink in the world.


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