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Gliding Through Ottawa's Canal Zone

By Gaston Lacombe
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I stand immobile on the ice of the Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa, Ontario, thinking, "I need a hot chocolate!" Snow billows around me, and snowflakes melt on my cheeks, the only part of my body still exposed. The cold stiffens me. My skates refuse to start on this nearly five-mile-long ribbon of ice. I hop up and down to loosen up and stay warm. Suddenly, a gaggle of snowball-throwing teenagers descends on the ice, forcing me to wobble aside. They all have skates in their hands or hanging around their neck.

"Hey! Shouldn't you be in school?" I rib.

"This is school! Gym class," they holler back.

"Wow, aren't you cold?"

"No way!" they shout back as they squat to put on their skates, then propel themselves down the ice. All agree except one shivering sourpuss in tights and a miniskirt, who does not appreciate the wind messing with her hair.

Gym teacher Ben Seaman of Immaculata High School urges his pupils to hasten.

"Do you come out here with the kids often?" I ask.

"Every day in the winter," he answers, his breath steaming. "They get a great workout by skating a few kilometers. We are really lucky to have the canal right by our school."

Ottawa residents boast that "the largest" skating rink in the world meanders through their city like an artery. They used to say "the longest," but as of last year an ice path in Winnipeg, Manitoba, claims that title. In surface area, though, the Rideau Canal still reigns supreme.

The uniqueness of the canal's skateway lies not only in its impressive size but also in its centrality to Ottawa's city life. During winter rush hours, commuters with briefcases in one hand and boots slung over their shoulder glide their way between home and downtown offices. Tourists, school groups and babysitters pushing strollers populate the ice all through the day. In the evenings, some kids slap hockey pucks around, and couples glide romantically. It serves as a highway, a park, a sports center and an entertainment complex.

Ottawa would not even exist were it not for the canal. Canada's capital grew out of the waterway's construction. Built in the wake of the War of 1812, its original purpose was to facilitate the transport of troops in the British colony of Upper Canada. But, completed in 1832, it never ferried a military ship. Instead, it played a vital role in the shipping of goods and people from eastern to central Canada.

In the 1970s, Ottawa nearly lost its segment of the 125-mile canal when some city officials proposed building an expressway over much of it. But a different path was adopted for the highway, and the canal was restored and turned into the region's most cherished recreational corridor. In 2007, UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site.

Tourists have also discovered the canal's remarkable winter attraction, where one can skate for hours without ever having to turn a corner. "Skating tourism" reaches its peak in Ottawa every year in February, as the Rideau Canal hosts Canada's winter festival, Winterlude. This year, from Feb. 6 to 22, hundreds of thousands of visitors will don their blades for the celebration's 30th edition, complete with concerts, races, ice sculptures and food.

I return to the skateway the next morning to find sun-filled skies and a gleaming ice surface. Snow blowers and pickup trucks equipped with plows hurry to clear off yesterday's new foot of snow. On my rented skates, I feel such freedom as the blades crunch the surface and drive me forward. My only obstacle is a kindergarten crew of future Wayne Gretzkys, some stumbling erratically, others rolling around on the ice.

I breakfast on Ottawa's trademark snack, a beavertail (a lightly fried slab of pastry with cinnamon and sugar toppings) and warm apple cider. Two university students join me, enjoying a skate break between classes. An abrupt chorus of howls and squeals ruptures the peace of our wintry conversation.

"Hey! There's that journalist guy." Boys from the class I met yesterday circle around me, panting, their tuques -- that's French Canadian for a knitted wool cap -- pulled over their ears.

"Playing hooky again?" I joke.

"No, gym class! We told you, we skate every day." And they dart away, aiming snowballs at the girls and trying to push one another into the snowbanks. Phys ed never looked like so much fun.

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