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Sliding and gliding the Rideau Canal

It was about this time last year when the warm winter was getting to me that I decided a trip was in order.

It was about this time last year when the warm winter was getting to me that I decided a trip was in order. Although there was still a decent snowpack in the high alpine, the brief winter wonderland we had enjoyed in the Whistler Valley early in the season was becoming a wistful memory as puddles grew to murky, unknown depths in the village, and January cherry blossoms in Vancouver  made a mockery of what we call winter.

Thus, it seemed like a good time to fulfil my long-stated desire to experience Canada's capital city during the canal-skating season. A friend from another North American capital (Washington, D.C.) agreed to meet me for the first weekend of Winterlude, Ottawa's annual winter festival. After hearing an excess of rejoicing about the warm weather from other Vancouverites, I was ready to be among people who embrace winter with new and old ways to enjoy the snow and ice.  

When I spoke on the phone with my stepbrother in Vermont about the upcoming trip, he said I should check out "clackers," which he explained were a kind of skate that you can clip onto your cross-country ski boots.

A bit more searching led me to some websites that described what I was seeking. Most commonly called nordic skates, the basic setup consists of a pair of long (40-50 cm) skate blades with cross country ski bindings mounted on top. You get the efficiency of the free-heel clap skate design with the comfort of your nordic ski boots (preferably skate skiing boots for better control than the softer classic ski boots).

According to David Dermott, a Nova Scotian winter enthusiast who has compiled some highly informative web pages on various endurance sports, nordic skates are the way to go if you want to cruise long distances on ice.

"In every aspect these skates are vastly superior to hockey skates for skating on outdoor ice — comfort, warmth, stability, speed, convenience," Dermott's website says. He also informs us that, not surprisingly, nordic skating as a sport derives from Scandinavia, particularly Sweden and Finland, where members of skating clubs go on tours of up to 100 km on frozen rivers and lakes.   

Of course, the Scandinavians are not the only ones with a history of long-distance tour skating. The Dutch have a long tradition of skating on their canals whenever the weather is cold enough to create ice of a suitable thickness, a scenario that occurs with diminishing frequency as our planet warms.

Regardless of who we have to thank for this winter activity, I was intrigued, and became determined to get my hands on some nordic skates to try out on the Rideau Canal Skateway, Ottawa's 7.8-km long maintained ice skating route through the heart of the capital city.

In Ottawa, it wasn't hard to find a ski shop that sells and rents nordic skates; the day after I arrived from Vancouver, I had my very own pair with bindings to fit my skate skiing boots, and a crisp, sunny -18 C day on which to hit the ice (hopefully not too hard).

I hadn't done ice skating of any kind in about five years, so I was a bit apprehensive about the crowd I found on the downtown end of the canal that Saturday afternoon.

It was a bit like taking your first ski run in years on Upper Whiskey Jack during a holiday weekend. But it was a friendly crowd, and skating truly is like riding a bike when it comes to muscle memory doing the right things. And even though this was a new form of skating for me, my immediate impression was how easy it was to build up some nice momentum with long, gliding strides.

A playful grin came across my partially frozen face as I cruised past kilometre markers and BeaverTails stands. There were a couple of close calls with other skaters, but nothing as scary as the skier-meets-snowboarder near misses that can be pretty commmon.

A casual skate of the route, with a few stops to take pictures and admire the scene, took about 45 minutes. I passed by the hot dog stand at the end of the route, turned around, and skated back, happily immersed in the festive winter scene.

Winterlude of course offers plenty to see and do other than canal skating, and if you don't mind the cold, it's a lovely time to visit Ottawa. There were ice sculptures, food stands, free musical entertainment, a snow playground and art exhibits. At night, we travelled mostly by foot from the city centre, equipped with a list of good pubs and restaurants that had been provided by a co-worker who used to live in the capital city.

We were not disappointed in what we found; a couple of my favourites were Murray Street Kitchen and The Manx Pub. Along the way, we discovered that the lobby of the Fairmont Château Laurier was a fine place to take a warm-up break between downtown and the Byward Market.

I had two more opportunities to skate the entire Rideau Canal route during my visit. The final outing was on a snowy Monday morning. In contrast to the weekend afternoons, when there must have been a few thousand people on the ice, the canal was almost empty when I stepped onto the ice for one more chilly lap before flying back to the then sodden West Coast.

Despite the cold wind blowing at the time, it was a joy to skate through the otherwise quiet snowscape in the middle of the city. This was the stuff of Joni Mitchell songs. I noted that the handful of skaters out on Monday morning seemed to be more of the hardcore set, including more nordic skaters than I had noticed on the weekend. They were leaning forward, with hands behind their backs, like long distance speed skaters. Although my technique and speed were not quite up to par, I felt like an in-the-know local.

I returned to Vancouver's non-winter with nordic skates in my suitcase, feeling the need to seek frozen water surfaces in order to get a return on my investment.

I hear there is a 30-km skateway on Windermere Lake in B.C.'s Columbia Valley — sounds like an excuse for a road trip.