My Travels: Skating on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal
Strapping on ice skates and gliding down Ottawa’s Rideau Canal is a Canadian rite of passage. For this writer, it also conjured up happy childhood memories of runny noses, frozen toes and family skating lessons.
As I drove along the glorious, winding road leading away from Toronto and towards Ottawa, I could feel the tension from a month of challenges at work melting away in the warm air blasting from the car heater. Lost in the beauty of the Canadian countryside, I contentedly drove by meandering rivers, frozen lakes and snow-capped trees towards my destination.
The pink light of the setting sun was melting away over the far horizon of trees as I pulled into the driveway of my friend’s country-cottage home. I frowned momentarily as I thought of the last-minute bombardment of paperwork that had delayed my arrival by an hour and prevented me from seeing an unobstructed sunset from her front kitchen window, which overlooks an open country field. I tried to conjure up an image of the majestic sight I had missed as I grabbed my backpack from the trunk.
My good friend Stefany welcomed me and, after I freshened up, we grabbed a late dinner at a Chinese restaurant in town. The atmosphere of the small Renfrew establishment instantly brought me back to my years teaching English overseas in Beijing, China. I breathed in the familiar aromas of garlic broccoli and other stir-fries as Stefany and I caught up on our news.
Early the next morning, we were on our way into Ottawa, where we were joined by Stefany’s sister Kat, to enjoy the winter festivities. Scattered throughout the city were ice sculpture competitions in progress and parties hosted at restaurants. The city was buzzing with excitement and we followed the electricity towards the frozen canal.
The Rideau Canal freezes over in winter and locals skate it for fun and as an alternate route to work or school. I was told that, on occasion, you would see a business person gliding along the frozen river to work, briefcase in hand.
We strapped on our skates and joined the crowds already skating, sliding and stumbling along the ice and past booths where you could buy cocoa, soup and Beaver Tails; the scent of the pancake dessert wafted in the air, trying to entice us to skate over and buy some.
As we gracefully skated towards the heart of activity, I caught glimpses of the happy faces of people as they whirred past me in the oncoming lane of skating traffic. My parents, keeping with Canadian tradition, had made sure that I had my first pair of skates as soon as I was stumbling-walking. As children, we would skate no less than three times a week at the local community centre or on a friend’s backyard rink. I was signed up for figure skating lessons long before I was attending school full time.
My education started on the cold ponds of Canada, where I experienced “toe freeze” and runny noses, and learned how to properly bundle up to protect against the winter elements. Then, as a young teenager, my mother decided we should all enroll in speed-skating lessons. Every Friday night for three years, my older brothers and I would load into our station wagon and together, as a family of five, we would learn another great Canadian tradition. As a result of all of my years on skates, I could easily navigate the roughest ice; thus, where the river nearer to Ottawa’s downtown region got choppier from the greater number of skaters, my body instinctively picked through the ice with ease.
The sun was nearly setting as we walked off the ice, skates slung over our shoulders and our feet happy to be back in boots. The air was cool, but we were both warmed through and through, thanks to our invigorating skate.
I smiled back at the skaters and holiday-makers still on the canal as we grabbed a cup of cocoa and walked up the staircase back to the car. French music, blasting from a booth below, reminded us that the celebrations would go on well into the night, as we continued with our outing.
Tired, warmed and relaxed, we were content to wander into a few shops before heading homewards to cuddle down into our warm beds for a long sleep and to dream of what else we might do the rest of our Canadian winter weekend.