CAPITAL WINTER FUN IN OTTAWA:
The sun is out, and the day is cool, crisp and beautiful, and I am doing something I’ve loved to do since I was a toddler – skating. I am not just skating in circles around the local arena, mind you; I’m off with my family, gliding along the longest skating rink in the world, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. The iconic skate-way is one of the must-do activities in Ottawa, and one of those things I have wanted to cross off my bucket list. We laced up our skates in the warming hut at the south end of the ice-way, by the Dow’s Lake Pavilion near Carleton University, and headed out to skate the full 7.8 kilometres frozen route into downtown Ottawa near the National Art’s Centre.
One million people skate this ice-way every winter, and many locals use it to commute to and from work and school. We pass skaters with knapsacks and brief cases – it sure beats taking the bus! There are tiny two-year olds learning to skate for the first time, parents pushing youngsters in sleds, and older couples skating amorously hand-in-hand. My wife and I skate arm in arm, not that I am so romantically inclined, but my wife insists on having me to lean on. I watch my kids with envy, as they disappear into the throng of skaters, and then return, laughing and darting this way and that, like water bugs on the smooth ice surface. The cold and the winter wind have put a glow on their cheeks.
There are hockey skates, figure skates, and speed skates worn by the odd fanatic apparently out to break some obscure canal speed record. We are not in such a hurry. Winter in Ottawa means Beaver Tails, the delicious addictive whole-wheat pastries which are hand-stretched, fried and served piping hot, then topped with butter and your choice of delectable flavours. They can be enjoyed at stands built along the Rideau ice. With all the exercise I need some sustenance, so I stop and try the Maple Bacon. If you'd prefer something a little more regal, at the north end of the skate is the Chateau Laurier's stately turrets, which welcome visitors with “High Tea.” A three-tiered cart of tasty selections includes ice wine-marinated strawberries and maple tart, accompanied by tastings of exclusive tea blends. Unlike the Beaver Tails, you can’t eat here with your skates on.
Preparations for the skate-way begin in October when the canal is partially drained and facilities are installed; including shelters, chalets and access ramps. At night workers drill holes in the ice and pump water onto the surface to flood it, and Zambonis allow smooth sailing for skaters each morning. The canal is open for skating 24 hours a day and it is free. Skates can be rented at Dow’s Lake or at Capital Skates on either the Mackenzie King Bridge or on 5th Avenue. The canal season varies from winter to winter, depending on Mother Nature’s mood, but usually you can count on it being open from early January to early March.
The Rideau skate-way becomes a focal part of Ottawa’s annual Winterlude festival, which will run this winter from January 29 until February 15, 2016. Billed as North America’s greatest winter celebration, the city turns itself into a winter wonderland with awe-inspiring ice carvings in Confederation Park and snow sculptures and ice slides in the Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park. The Winterlude mascots, the Ice Hogs family, are reputed to live under the ice of the frozen Rideau. This worries me a bit, and I keep an eye out for any hog-size holes, but fall through nothing on this day.
If, after your skate on the canal, the kids still don’t seem tired, try some hiking, snowshoeing or Nordic skiing in nearby Gatineau Park. Located just 15 minutes north of downtown Ottawa, Gatineau Park offers over 165 kilometres of trails. There are more than 25 kilometres of trails especially for snowshoers, and 10 kilometres of trails compacted once a week for winter hiking.
Perhaps you are a curling fanatic, and want to combine a skate on the Rideau with another on-ice sport. The Brier, the Canadian men’s curling championship, will be hosted in Ottawa March 5 – 13, 2016 at TD Place at Lansdowne Park. This rowdy tournament comes complete with a raucous fan celebration area known as the Brier Patch, located within the historic Aberdeen Pavilion.
Canada’s capital city gets a good dose of winter every year, which locals and visitors alike celebrate with gusto. Skating through the heart of Ottawa is very amazing, and just so Canadian.
IF YOU GO:
Find out What’s Up in Ottawa at www.ottawatourism.ca
PHOTOS: By Jamie Ross
1. Skating on the Rideau
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