Column: Flurry of Rideau Canal activities make frigid weather bearable

By Dana Granville

Rush hour has just begun, and people are starting to make the trip home from downtown.

Middle-aged business people in suits are, for the most part, all moving towards home, many with suitcases in hand. Mothers are trying to corral groups of children, and school-aged kids are pelting each other with snowballs. The recent cold snap has broken, and instead of hustling, people seem to be lingering outside to enjoy the outdoors.

Instead of sitting in a car on the highway, lost in a long line stop-and-go traffic, these people have chosen a faster, more cost-effective route home. They’ve slapped on their skates, and are skating along the Rideau Canal.

The canal is one of the city’s major attractions. In the summer, joggers run beside it, while boats cruise up and down. However, the winter is where the canal gets it’s time to shine.

Due to Ottawa’s extremely cold winters, it is, for the most part, a summer-centric city. Most of our attractions are best viewed in the strong sunlight of summer. Winter on the canal, though, becomes a world of fun. And it’s a Canadian tradition.

The Rideau Canal is one thing that makes those frigid winters bearable. It opens when everything else closes. It encourages people to get outside and mingle, when weather would usually keep them barred inside. Instead of plunking down in front of the TV with a hot chocolate, people flock outdoors.

“It’s such a nice day out,” remarks a slow-skating woman wearing a matching set of purple ski pants and jacket.

“Absolutely,” says her companion. “I think this is the warmest it’s been since Christmas.”

“We should do this more often,” laughs the first. “It’s good for us.”

The canal seems to bring out the best in people, too. Kids are laughing and chasing each other around. Couples are holding hands.

For the most part, people seem to be obeying the unwritten traffic rules. And when a rule is disobeyed it is usually rectified by a shouted apology. There doesn’t appear to be much road rage.

People are exercising, without the usual Stairmaster grimace. It’s transportation and exercise rolled into one. And it’s fun.

A little boy, attempting to walk on his skates, pushes a chair in front of him for balance.

“Dad!” he yells. “Look!”

“Good job, Alex,” the father says, with pride in his eyes. He speaks with a heavy accent, and his short, hesitant stride indicates that he most likely didn’t grow up skating.

The canal draws all walks of life. It isn’t just full of athletes drawn to the outdoors by their love of nature and physical activity. It is a microcosm of the city. There are toddlers, barely stable on their skates. School-aged kids weaving in and out of traffic, laughing loudly as they make human pylons of anyone in their path. Pierced teenagers dressed entirely in black whiz by.

Middle-aged and elderly people skate with varying degrees of efficiency. It seems as though skating on the canal is the great equalizer. Anyone can do it with a bit of practice.

The canal seems to have a culture all its own. It even has its own food. Beaver Tails, while available year-round, are associated with winter and the canal. The deep fried pastries, most often topped with cinnamon and sugar, are sold out of green-roofed huts that line the sidelines of the canal.

“Come on, have one,” urges a twenty-something woman to her friend.

“My diet,” mutters her friend, rolling her eyes.

“Come on, you have to have one. It’s like an unwritten rule,” she says.

Her friend laughs, hands the vendor some money, and takes a bite.

It’s a great introduction to the great Canadian pastime of skating.

The canal is a substitute frozen backyard pond or neighbourhood skating rink for those who don’t have one of their own.

The canal is Ottawa’s winter delight. It’s exercise, social, and a way to enjoy Ottawa’s harsh winters. Besides, Beaver Tails just don’t taste right in the summer.