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Love winter? Like to skate? Then you need to know about Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway, a four mile frozen canal system that connects suburbs to the heart of the Canadian capital. Dubbed “the world’s largest skating rink,” it’s a cultural attraction and also an emissions-free mode of transport for outdoors-loving Ottawans, who can often be seen commuting on blades to work at downtown offices and to classes at the university.
Last year my wife and I spent an exhilarating weekend there during a brutal February cold snap. It was skate-able for a record 59 days in 2015, a good long season, but alas, the Skateway hasn’t been fully open for much in 2016 due to freakishly warm temperatures brought on by El Nino and climate change, which has caused many high temperature records to fall. After opening most of its length by late January as usual, it was then closed again due to thin ice.
On weekends during normal winters, the ice is mobbed with courting couples, hockey games and families of multiple generations. One can rent skates and also big Santa-style sleds, into which are loaded anyone who can’t skate, like babies and grandparents, so their families can push them along, often at a good clip. Hot drinks, food and the ubiquitous “bear claw” sweets are hawked by vendors whose stalls are towed out on the ice. There are even ATMs out there on skids for those low on cash.
To celebrate this popular local asset and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city grooms the ice all winter and also puts on what it calls “Winterlude,” a 3-week canal-side celebration from late January to mid February with events day and night, from ice sculpture competitions to late night reggae shows in sub zero temperatures. This year’s thin ice problem led during its brief closure to the unfortunate moniker “Waterlude,” however.
The El Nino winter is surely a disappointment to the many Ottawans who love this institution—each year it enjoys 900,000+ visitors, including many foreigners who love to skate. So many folks use the Skateway daily that ice conditions are even announced on local radio stations as part of the traffic report.
Happily, the Canal is almost fully open again (check here for conditions) and many people will come for the many Winterlude events happening between now and Feb. 15. In fact, the warmer temps have probably led to greater attendance at outdoor events, organizers have noted with some irony.
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