When planning this trip to Ottawa, I vowed that I would lace up the skates and glide regally (or not) down our capital’s frozen byways. But today, I just couldn’t pluck up the courage. I’m not proud of the reason – with the wind-chill factor plunging the temperature to almost minus 20C, it’s darn cold out there!
As we skidded our way from the airport last night, the taxi driver wryly observed that we had come at a good time. “It was minus 40 last week. You just missed it!”
We’re in Canada’s capital for a few days and besides the stately, gothic grandeur of Parliament Hill, the city is famed for its outdoor ice rink – almost eight kilometers long and claimed as the largest in the world. In reality, it is the Rideau Canal, elegantly wending its way through downtown, attracting nearly one million visitors to skate its smooth serpentine surface. And that’s not counting hardy locals who might use it as a congestion-free commute.
I really did have every intention of taking part in the iconic skate when we left our hotel for a late Sunday brunch. Knowing I could rent skates on the canal, I had ‘layered-up’ in anticipation.
As we step out of the hotel, the polar vortex hits me like a force ten from the tundra. The wind whips and swirls as we march our way to our brunch destination – shoulders hunched, faces embalmed in scarves like mummies.
“Do you skate on the canal very often?” I ask our waiter, midway through my eggs benedict.
“It’s like most people here,” Austin confesses, “one and done. We take it for granted living in the city, but I know the skate is on people’s bucket list. Good for date nights though!”
Hmmm, the ‘bucket list’ surprises me, yet by this time I’m melting in my umpteen layers and believe that I just might be up to the challenge. After all, the cold will feel refreshing I promise myself.
We step back outside and immediately we’re pelted with hail and icy swirling winds. Still, undeterred we press on, passing ice sculptures chiselled for the Winterlude Festival, knowing the canal is close as skates draped over people’s shoulders becomes the norm.
Once there, I confess I’m bemused. The canal is absolutely pulsating with people. Despite the bitter cold, it seems entirely normal to be out here skating, or just strolling the ice. And it’s wonderful… families, groups of young people, and clearly some couples on one of those skating dates! We snap a few pics, yet despite my layers I’m shivering and feel my will crumbling. Who can blame me, I rationalize. All those years of living in warmer climes…
“I don’t know,” I say to Bruce. “Remember the National Gallery isn’t open on a Monday. Maybe we should do that today and see what tomorrow brings. And it just might be a little warmer.”
“Let’s do it,” he agrees, taking pity on me. Just as we’re about to climb the steps from the canal, I hear a youngster crying to his father.
“Dad, it’s cold out here.”
But the father’s having none of it. “Son, this is fantastic. This is on people’s bucket list. You’re fine!”
There it is – confirmed – what more could one want on this mid-winter Sunday than to skate this iconic canal, yet it is the Gallery that calls to us. We spend three absorbing hours in the bosom of its resplendent art (and warmth) yet only manage to get through half of it. At closing time, we step back into a wind-chilled Sussex Drive, and this time I embrace the sheer breathtaking majesty of it all.
Dusk is upon us and a thick blanket of snow embraces the city in its crisp, elemental cocoon. It shimmers against the naked trees and the statuesque buildings. It’s a sight to behold. We wander arm in arm, decide it’s time for a glass of wine and find a cozy bar.
Gazing out to the now gently falling snow, Bruce gives it one more try.
“You know the canal is open twenty-four hours for skating,” he chides me. “We can still do it?!”