A long time ago, before I came to Ottawa for the first time, my Canadian husband would tell me how cool it was to skate to work on the Rideau Canal when he lived in the capital of Canada.
But I really didn’t know what it was like until we moved to Ottawa in January, 2018. My first sight of the canal was from the car while we were driving downtown. From one bridge, I saw a bunch of people happily skating on a sunny Sunday. It looked so amazing to me!
The Rideau Canal is Ottawa’s pride and joy. Now as an Ottawa resident myself I feel proud of this gorgeous place that holds the title of being the largest natural skateway in the world. Not only that, but the canal was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007.
The canal attracts hundreds of thousands of Canadians from across the country, and also tourists from North America and beyond. The opening of the skating season is received with excitement each year by residents and others.
Depending on the year, the Rideau Canal receives from 800,000 to 1.4 million visitors annually. It’s used throughout the year: in winter as a skating rink, and in the summer for boating recreation.
Operated by the National Capital Commission (NCC), the Rideau Canal skateway goes through the heart of downtown Ottawa along 7.8 kilometers to the Hartwells Locks, including Dows Lake and passing by The Golden Triangle, Old Ottawa East and The Glebe neighborhoods.
There are about 30 staircases to the canal and 5 universal access ramps to access the skating rink. There are 5 rest areas with washrooms, heated changing rooms, and food and beverage vendors, like the iconic Beavertail, the famous Canadian pastries.
When skating on the Canal you must have a Beavertail, a fried dough pastry usually topped with sugar, cinnamon, whipped cream and other sweet condiments accompanied with hot chocolate to fight the cold. Yummy!
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, there aren’t rest areas open this year.
To prepare, open, maintain and operate the Rideau Canal skateway involves a lot of work. The preparation starts in October with the draining of the water in the canal. Then comes the installation of sets of stairs, vehicle ramps, universal access ramps, and beams at the locks to raise the water to skating level.
Then it’s time to wait for Mother Nature to do her work. When the water is frozen, there’s still more work ahead. It’s necessary to analyze the quality of the ice. 30 centimeters of good, thick ice is needed to open the skateway to the public.
The monitoring of the ice continues throughout the season. Being a natural body of water, the use of the skateway depends on weather conditions. The temperature needs to be on average -6 degrees. Usually, the skating season runs from January to early March, but global warming has been changing things lately.
All this work involves a budget of $1 million to $1.5 million a year. But the revenues are way higher. A few years ago, it was estimated that some $159 million are annually generated by tourists who come to skate and participate in the Winterlude, one of the most popular festivals in Ottawa.
The history behind the Rideau canal is quite interesting. The canal was built between 1826 and 1832 for military purposes amidst tensions between the Americans and the British who tried to defend their colonies in Canada.
The idea was to create a safe route for British ships between Montreal and Kingston, away from the American border. But when construction was completed, there were no longer any military issues between the British and the Americans, so the canal was never used for its original purpose.
Unesco said of the Rideau Canal that it is a: “masterpiece of creative genius” and “the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale.”
It is also the only nineteenth century canal in North America that is still operational and has its original structures intact. The set of eight massive locks that connect the canal with the Ottawa River, next to Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier, are still operated manually like in the 1830s!
What to know if you want to skate in the canal
· Wear a face mask.
· A green flag means that the Skateway is open while a red flag means that it’s closed.
· If you are a beginner it is not recommendable to skate on the canal due to the irregularities and cracks in the ice. You can always walk.
· It’s recommended to avoid using figure skates because the picks may catch on bumps and irregularities in the ice surface, and you can fall hard like I did once (ouch!).
· Dogs and other pets are not allowed.
· Alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
To see the access points to the Canal, check out this link: https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/skateway-access-points
To check ice conditions: https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/skateway-ice-conditions
To see an interactive map of the whole Skateway: https://ncc-ccn.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=795623808c5c49388aa7dc5f94890a40
I wish you an amazing and happy skating season! Take care.