The Canadian capital city of Ottawa is a stunning destination to visit. Full of history, culture and beautiful architecture. Winding through the city is the Rideau Canal. Although beautiful in the summer – in winter it turns into the world’s longest natural ice skating rink. Ottawa’s canal system is 7.8 km (4.8 miles) long and weaves along Downtown Ottawa. You can walk alongside the canal most of the way on Queen Elizabeth Drive. It is a popular route for joggers and dog walkers and beautiful in the fresh snow.
The canal was originally built as a supply route from Kingston to Montreal and was finished in 1832. It is the oldest continuously operating canal system in North America and has been named a UNESCO site. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Rideau Canal opened for ice skating. Every year nearly one million people experience skating on the Rideau Canal!
The Rideau Canal ‘Skateway’ includes the canal and ends Dowes Lake. The total skating surface area is 165,621 square meters, larger than 105 national hockey league rinks or 90 Olympic sized hockey rinks! Underneath the ice rink, the water is frozen between 1 and 4.3 meters thick. The Rideau Canal Skating rink is checked regularly by safety teams and Froster’s.
What is a Froster?
A Froster is someone who is charged with maintaining the surfaces of the lake, 24/7 throughout the season. They will flood the top layer of the canal with fresh water. This will then freeze on top of the building ice. This repairs damage by skates and helps to thicken the surface.
Using a special drill, they dig into the ice and examine the core that is removed (about the diameter or a can of pop). They do this at various points along the canal and if any parts are not safe, they simply won’t open that part.
To get a really nice surface on top they then use a machine, commonly called a Zamboni after the inventor. They are specially made for the purpose of flooding the canal and have a reach of 60ft wide. It takes just one minute to fill the Zamboni with water, making the machine between 15/17 tonnes in weight! The machine floods around 400 meters of canal at a time and levels the surface. This practice is commonly done after 11 pm when the canal is quiet.
When you are skating on the Rideau canal, you don’t have to worry about food or drink. Concession stands are at hand selling Beaver Tails (like a flat donut with toppings, not actual Beaver!). Fast food, skate rental, sleighs and rest areas line stretches of the canal. Skate rental is reasonably cheap at around $11 an hour (plus a $50 deposit) and the atmosphere is amazing. Children of all ages, and adults, learning to skate with friends and family. Once open, the skateway is available 24/7 and totally free to use. If you have your own equipment, you can enjoy skating on the Rideau Canal for free all season.
During Winterlude festival, all sorts of other activities can be seen on the Rideau Canal or Dowes lake other than Skating, including a winter triathlon and dragon boat racing! We also spotted a mobile DJ booth and disco on the ice!
We go Skating on Rideau Canal!
We had planned our trip to co-inside with Winterlude festival and we were desperate to go skating on Rideau Canal. We had some setback with our planning as we had so much to fit in. If we were off doing something else, the Canal was open and the weather glorious. If we had a day in mind to go skating, the Rideau canal was either closed due to strangely mild temperatures melting the surface or it was snowing so heavy you couldn’t see!
We walked or took the bus past the canal every day whilst we were exploring the city of Ottawa. We were always on the look out to see how it was doing and amazed at the more advanced skaters. Commuters would just be zipping down the canal to and from work! How many people can say they ice skate to work – it is breathtaking.
A couple of days before we flew home we were lucky enough to find a break in the weather and our schedule where we could actually have a go.
Face your fear
Stood at the edge of the canal, rented skates in hand… we looked at each other and took in the enormity of what was about to happen. We had always been told not to stand on frozen water as it could crack but here we were, about to join hundreds of people along the canal, and all stand on it at the same time. I was feeling nervous but the fact there was a 4×4 parked about 100 meters away on the ice filled me with some comfort that I wasn’t going to be too heavy etc.
We sat on a bench in a marque that had been erected, children of school age are being rallied together to get their skates off. A family with a toddler only just used to walking, is being fitted with his first skates by his Canadian parents. They are blue just like his all in one outfit to keep him warm and his crash helmet to protect his head. I look at him and wonder if he is as scared as I am and know he will be skating better than me by the end of this session!
It is then, once the boots are laced, that I remember I haven’t skated in about 20 years and have completely forgotten how to stand up – this is straight onto the ice, there are no matts or carpet like in Streatham ice rink!!!
Step and Glide!
Cautiously, I stand up, and move to the poles holding the marquee up. They look sturdy enough for me to hang on to for a second and then I remind myself there are little kids watching and try to look confident. I step and glide, step and glide, catch some ice, stumble about looking like a windmill and manage to stay on my feet. Once we get past the area by the marquee the ice smooths out nicely and there are less jagged patches to catch.
There are no railings to hold on to, and people are slipping and sliding about all over the canal but the air is full of laughter. People of all ages and abilities are there mixing and enjoying the sunshine even though it’s -14 today. Markers lining the canal tell you the distance from the city centre in kilometres and we aim to get down to one of them.
Once we finished skating, we took our boots off for some well deserved relief and then went for refreshments. We were so tired from trying not to fall over and can report that we stayed upright the entire time!
I can’t believe we can say that we have Skated on Rideau Canal. Something I never thought we would do but had the most amazing experience doing it. Honestly – it will be a memory we will treasure forever!