When it's cold outside: Skate on the C&O Canal

Conditions were right recently for skating on the C& O Canal near Chain Bridge.
Conditions were right recently for skating on the C& O Canal near Chain Bridge. (Lavanya Ramanathan)
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Decades ago, before the rinks at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Wheaton Ice Arena and the National Gallery of Art, Washingtonians boldly made their figure eights on the frozen surfaces of the Potomac and C&O Canal, even the Reflecting Pool.

Locals have long since migrated to the few highly dependable, oft-Zambonied rinks around town. But every icy winter, a ragtag few still seek out the thrill of skating in a more natural setting; they flock to the C&O Canal, where, from Carderock down to Chain Bridge and into Georgetown, the water can be shallow -- and, yes, the skating is legal.

There, on a couple of recent 30-degree days, you could find children skating with moms and dads, men playing hastily arranged shinny hockey games, and even a dog slip-sliding down the ice. They were a brave hundred or so who came for the excitement of doing something that felt maverick.

"It's really a rare occurrence to be able to come down and skate on the canal. It's great because you skate the distance, you're out in nature here," said Tom Eldridge of Chevy Chase, who came for the first time with his family. "Everyone has a sense of wonder about it."

Trying to plan a skate on the C&O is a little like trying to anticipate a flash mob. There is no schedule, and there are no signs. The folks who come hear about it from friends, who have probably heard from ancestors.

But they have their unwritten rules:

You must bring your own skates, hockey sticks and pucks, and you might consider bringing your own shovel, too (in case you need to smooth out the ice, which is decidedly bumpier than what you'd find at a rink). You must be ready to go, at any time; the rule of thumb to be sure the ice is solid, skaters said, is to wait for at least a week of consecutive days with below-freezing temperatures. Some years, that never happens.

But a couple of weeks ago, near Chain Bridge, the water seemed frozen and was just deep enough that only the occasional rock jutted out and moss and leaves could be spied beneath the surface in some spots. And serendipity occurred; the faithful, after driving a stretch of the canal in search of skaters, had seemed to find the sweet spot.

"We just saw all these other knuckleheads out here skating," said Jim Pirozzoli of Arlington, "and figured it was all right."

For details about skating on the canal, visit http://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/iceskatingandsledding.htm or call the hotline at 301-767-3707.

-- Lavanya Ramanathan

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