The Rideau Canal cuts through the centre of Ottawa, from the Ottawa River, past the Parliament Buildings, through the downtown core, residential neighbourhoods, and on down past Carleton University’s locks. It extends 200 km in total, connecting lakes and rivers all the way to where it meets Kingston at the St. Lawrence River.
It was built in the early 19th Century, and opened in 1832, as a precaution in case of another war with the US, the first (and only, as it turned out) being the War of 1812.
Though never used for war, it was historically mostly used to transport goods. Now, however, it is used primarily for recreation.
Throughout the summer, canoes, kayaks and motor boats coast up and down between its picturesque, tree-lined banks.
In the winter, it is transformed into the largest skating rink in the world, at 7.8 km (4.8 mi), and is a UNESCO heritage site.
I love seeing people skating down the canal and, more than that, I love skating down it myself. Each year, in those first minutes out on the ice, I smile at my son like a crazy person and exclaim, as though I’ve never said it before, “this is the greatest part of this city!”
I was never a skater as a kid; I was a skier. But along with a resolve to teach my son to skate, I discovered within myself a deep love of the sport. Now, I would pick skating over skiing every time.
Well, skating on the canal, that is. Skating round and round in interminable circles on a rink is a different experience entirely.
Being on the canal in the winter is like being part of a different world.
A world of opposites.
It is busy yet quiet.
It is below and set apart from the city yet it runs up through the heart of the city.
It is a magical place that can be cold and warm at the same time, whether the snow is falling or the sun is shining. And all the time, the biting wind whistles along.
Maybe the magic of the place comes from the sugary treats and the hot, sweet drinks. Or the smell of the strategically placed spruce trees and log fires that scent the air like Christmas held over and call to mind cottages, nestled in the snowy, forested hills nearby.
Here and there, children play and glide and race. People smile and hold hands, talk, meet and skate away alone again.
It is also a transportation route, an opportunity for commuting workers to be outdoors in the fresh air before donning a suit and tie and heading to the office for the day. They skate from home, up the canal to the closest cross-street to their work, briefcase in one hand, boots in the other. And what better way to clear your head after a day at a computer than to skate home in the fresh air, down the long canal, lit by century-old lamp posts and the moon overhead?
Though it seems at first glance that the world is only white down on the canal, when you stop and look, you realize that it is as bright and colourful as a rainbow; full of red hats and green jackets, purple pants and the bright yellows and oranges of Nordic skate boots. There is a stretch of blue overhead during the day, which deepens to indigo as night falls and the crowds begin to disperse.
Whatever happens above and beyond in the city is muted and separate. A different world. Down on the canal, you are in a different realm and, while you are there, it seems as though it is the only place that exists.