Weekend before last, when the earthest freeze-up in years struck an astonished Washington, Manuel and Pat Munoz dusted off their ice skates and took a drive to one of the prettiest places in town, Fletcher's Boat House.

The ice on the C&O Canal was flawless, a sheet without a wrinkle. The couple, neither of whom is any whiz on skates, set off on a downstream glide. In a half-hour they were in Georgetown and a few minutes later they were sipping hot soup in the Markethouse on M Street, their skates slung over their shoulders.

Now that's romance.

Once every decade or so something wonderful happens in Washington. The Canal freezes thick enough to skate on. This is the year. Fortunately, it also coincides with one of the times since Hurricane Agnes eight years ago that the National Park Service has seen fit to build a little dam and keep Washington's section of the Canal partially full.

But only partially. As one woman skater commented last weekend as she slid along above Chain Bridge, "If you could skate all the way down to Port O'Georgetown and have a brandy, that would really be something."

You can't. As it is there's an earthen dam just above Key Bridge that keeps the canal full upstream from that point, but it's still bone dry in the busy area of Georgetown proper where reconstruction work is underway on the old canal bulkheads.

That leaves two excellent close-by points-of-entry with parking for skaters -- one at Fletcher's and one just above Chain Bridge on Canal Road.

You have to be a little daring. "The skating here is at your own risk," a gray-haired woman said last weekend as she sat on the snowy banks, switching from cross-country skis to ice skates. "The Park Service won't bail you out if you fall in, so be careful."

By then the glistening, sheer surface the Munozes had enjoyed the week before had been marred by a light snowfall. It made skating a little harder but opened the way for the ski crowd. The grey-haired woman was sharing time with a friend.

"We switch off," she said. "I skate while she skis, then she skates and I ski."

When the wind-chill factor (one more meaningless bureaucratic number to ignore) is down around zero, things start slowly on the Canal, even on a brilliant, sunny day. At noon on Sunday there were three or four people buzzing around at Fletcher's and a couple dozen, including two hockey teams, near Chain Bridge.

The folks at Fletcher's had cleared the snow off a small square of ice. At Chain Bridge the work was better organized, an effect of the hockey teams, which can't function with a snow cover.

If it seems unlikely that hockey players could get along side-by-side with figure skaters and stumbling neophytes, the Canal experience proved otherwise. The puck people got the work done, sweated and steamed and chased each other around for an hour or so and then abandoned their perfect rinks to whoever was left.

The abandoned rinks were connected by little paths carved out by adventurers, and in all the whole system worked, unlike most things in life.

Someone rustled around in the woods between the Canal and the Potomac and came back to the towpath with an armload of wood, which soon became a warming fire. A teenage girl with braces practiced graceful camels under Chain Bridge.

A woman named Janie from Massachusetts introduced a wobbly-ankled man from Takoma Park to a woman named Cubby from V Street who said she might be able to help him skate backwards. She pushed him around for awhile, which is something he was used to.

Late in the afternoon a tall, slender blond woman and a man in a cowboy hat showed up. They laughed about the bumpy condition of the ice, then she glided out in an open stretch, a ballerina in an overcoat, and danced across the slick surface as if she were born on skates.

"That's it," said Janie from Massachusetts. "I'm gonna boogie on out of here. I can't compete with that."