Imagine 125 Olympic-sized rinks strung end-to-end, a ribbon of ice winding through a scenic little city. Canadians have such a thing: It's a national treasure called the Rideau Canal Skateway, which cuts through the heart of Ottawa, the nation's capital. You can skate for 7.8 kilometers—nearly five miles—on the canal without breaking stride. On winter weekday mornings you might see briefcase-toting commuters skating to work, or groups of college students skating to class. Later come moms chatting as they skate side by side, pushing bundled-up babies in strollers. And "on the weekend it's almost like a boardwalk," says Ottawa resident Jaap Schouten, who often skates to and from his downtown office. "You meet your friends there."
Though the canal dates back to 1826—it was built as an inland link between Ottawa and Kingston—skating on it began only 27 years ago. The proposal to clear the canal for skating was made by former National Capital Commission chairman Douglas Fullerton, but it drew criticism from engineers who feared damage to the concrete walls of the waterway, which is used for pleasure boating in the summer. Fullerton persevered, and in 1969 the Skateway opened. It now stretches from the shadows of Parliament Hill to the Hartwell Locks at Carleton University.
Maintenance of the Skateway, which costs the commission about $375,000 (U.S.) a year, requires up to 50 full-time employees and a fleet of snowblowers, plows, tractor-mounted augers and other equipment—but not a single Zamboni. Green flags above the canal signify the best skating conditions; yellow flags, fair to good conditions; red flags, unsafe conditions and closed for skating.
The 1993-94 season had the most consecutive green-flag days in the Skateway's history (41) between opening day and the start of Winterlude, an annual celebration over three consecutive February weekends that features snow and ice sculptures, barrel jumping, figure skating demonstrations and winter triathlons. Most years the canal opens between Christmas and New Year's Day, and the skating often continues well into March. As many as 750,000 skaters use the canal in a season. But no two years are the same.
"Every year you learn something," says Steve Estabrooks, chief of canal operations since 1980. 'The ideal start is when you get cold, cold weather early. In a couple of days you can grow seven, sight inches of clear ice that you can see right through. It's just like a bottle. Then if you get some snow on it, the first piece of equipment down is a pickup truck with a plow."
Snow is a most unwelcome insulator. It not only hampers the ice from growing downward but also turns the skating surface into mush. To keep the surface smooth, workers flood the canal almost nightly. First, sweeper trucks spinning six-foot nylon-and-steel brushes push the skate shavings to the snowy shoulder. Then the flooding crews plunge intake hoses through holes that have been cut in the ice—each perforation the size of a salad plate—and pump out a smoothing layer of water that freezes in minutes. End to end, the job takes eight hours.
Along the canal there are warm chalets, in which people can change into their skates before setting off. There are also skate-sharpening and skate-rental trailers, heated rest rooms, and food stands serving hot chocolate, cider and beavertails. This last item, an aptly named puff pastry, is served hot and sweet, most often topped with cinnamon sugar and a squeeze of lemon: perfect fuel for the return leg of an end-to-end canal skate.