Please help keep this Site Going

Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet

‘A part of winter is missing’: Ottawa grieves over lack of canal ice for skating

‘A part of winter is missing’: Ottawa grieves over lack of canal ice for skating

Every winter for more than two decades, Chris Macknie has laced up boots, clipped on skis or slipped on running shoes to compete in Ottawa’s Winterlude triathlon.

The event, held in dead of winter, has hundreds skate along the frozen Rideau canal, swapping out their blades for nordic skis and then finish with a run.

“Where else in the world can you race through the heart of the city, doing these three sports one after another?” said Macknie, who has competed through blizzards and blistering cold.

But this year, erratic weather – frigid spells bookended by balmy, spring-like days – has closed the famed canal to skating.

When racers took to the starting line on 5 February, they had snowshoes strapped to their feet, a Winterlude first, trampling along the course instead of gliding gracefully along the ice.

“You feel a part of Ottawa and a part of winter is missing,” said Macknie. “Without the canal, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Last week, the National Capital Commission (NCC), which is responsible for development, urban planning, and conservation in Canada’s capital region, made official what everyone knew to be true: the Rideau would remain closed for the season for the first time in more than half a century.

The closure has raised larger questions about the future of the world’s largest ice rink as the climate crisis increasingly foils outdoor winter activities.

To achieve an ice thickness safe enough to hold tens of thousands of skaters each day, the city needs temperatures to hold at or below -10C for at least two weeks.

And every year since the early 1970s, that cold has eventually come. Some years, it comes weeks after the Winterlude race. But when the cold finally arrives, crowds descend on to ice to experience the thrill of skating through the nation’s capital.

The act of skating is simple: a sharpened blade cuts into ice and with a push, one hurtles forward. And yet the basic sequence of movements elicit deep feelings of elation, freedom and, in the case of this year’s closure, grief.

The canal holds a singular place for residents, with memories of skating to class or work on frigid mornings, or eating BeaverTails, a pastry of fried dough topped with sugar and cinnamon, sold from the kiosks along the canal edge.

A person walks past a closed gate to the Rideau canal skateway.

As hopes dimmed, the local paper, the Ottawa Citizen, asked readers to pen love letters to the canal. Residents responded with memories of their youth, stumbling along the ice with parents or nervously out on a date with a future spouse.

The former columnist Kelly Egan altered WH Auden’s Funeral Blues, lamenting the canal’s absence from winter. “Our noon, our midnight, our talk, our song,” he wrote. “We thought your frozen heart was there forever. We were wrong.”

There is a magic to a morning skate that residents eagerly chase, when the glistening sheet of ice shifts from a cold hue to the warm orange glow of dawn. The canal is silent, the only sounds are the grind and tear of skate blades.

“If I’m lucky, the canal has just been resurfaced. It’s pristine glass. And there’s almost nobody else on it. There’s nothing better than skating and seeing the sunrise,” said Macknie. “It’s calm and tranquil, but you can also be moving really fast.”

The lure of unspoiled ice is thanks to the Froster, a modified Zamboni with extendable arms that sweeps the width of the canal. The Froster represents only a fraction of the millions of dollars invested by the NCC each year, meant to keep the taxpayer-funded rink in operation.

skip past newsletter promotion

It takes hours for the rumbling Froster to cover the canal’s nearly five skateable miles and its daily journey reflects an immense efforts needed to keep the canal open. But the record-setting warmth of recent weeks has laid bare the unpredictable realities of the climate crisis.

Despite this year’s warm temperatures, officials at the Winterlude – an annual winter festival held in Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec – had to delay the race by a day because a cold blast of air was set to descend on the city. It was a day Rick Hellard, an organiser, feared would be “super dangerous and highly uncomfortable” if competitors gathered on the starting line. Three days later, it was 11C in Ottawa, a swing of nearly 40 degrees.

That last-minute shift to snowshoes cost organisers more than a dozen racers, and Hellard said every year the canal did not open in time for the race, they lost racers.

“We’ve been calling [the race] the ‘Winterlude Whatever’,” he said of poor conditions that scrapped the skating, which is seen as the event’s biggest draw. “People love the ice and every time the canal opens early, we get a surge in registrations. They’re just so excited to be out there.”

Shawn Kenny, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carleton University, is leading a team to help the skating rink adapt to a changing climate, a task that has forced increasingly creative solutions.

This year, the team successfully tested a “slush cannon” to help the ice form earlier in the season, but Kenny said it had a “very finite window” for when it could be deployed.

Prof Shawn Kenny cleans snow around a mini weather station set up on the Rideau canal in February.

Snowfall has alway been the enemy of canal workers and this year has been particularly bad, with more than double the average amount piling up on the ground. A natural insulator that limits ice growth, even a moderate amount of snow requires a swift and immense effort: for every centimetre of accumulation, crews have to move nearly 136,077kg (300,000lbs) of snow from the canal.

Working with the NCC, Kenny’s team hopes to pilot autonomous robots next year called “snowbots” to clear snowfall when vehicles cannot yet safely drive over the ice. They also plan to test heat exchange systems that cool the ground and water, similar to the tools used to prevent permafrost melt in the Arctic.

Kenny, who sees the work as a convergence of “art and science”, feels that despite the investments and work needed, the canal has a future and is worth fighting for.

“When I’m skating on my own, I see the technical aspects of it. But when I’m out with my family, there’s really just a pure enjoyment of being out there,” he said. “And if there’s any silver lining to the closure, it’s that I’ve eaten far fewer BeaverTails and poutine this year.”

Please help keep this Site Going