Low-flying on glass, long swooping strides pushing you along. Wind at your back propelling you. Wind coming at you, slowing you, your legs pushing forward into its face. It’s you and the power and glory of winter. From the National Arts Centre to Carleton University. It’s skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
I never learned to skate when I was a kid. I spent my very first years and my early teen years in a small Ontario village where the arena was the centre of town. Girls figure-skated, boys played hockey. Everybody cheered the local heroes – the Junior D hockey players with NHL dreams. It happened for a few. They left on hockey scholarships, went to farm teams. Mostly, they came back. Probably they play in the old-timers games at the arena now.
We didn’t live in that village during those formative years that would have given me proficiency on the ice. When the village kids started skating lessons, we’d moved to a city. Organizing skating wasn’t so easy. I never took lessons. Public rinks were scary places full of people who knocked you over as you stood wobbling on narrow blades.
Living near the canal
So to the canal in winter. She held my arm until I was steady. She showed me how to push and glide. Then she glided alongside, holding my arm. Gently she let go. I panicked, but I didn’t fall over. One foot, swoosh, then the other pushing ahead, swoosh, then again. I was skating. It was like flying. In daylight and in dark – swoosh, glide, glide, swoosh.
It was the beginning of my love affair with snow, cold, ice, winter. I moved away after that year. Next winter, I lived near a large pond that froze solid. I bought skates. I can skate! No. Skates on, totter on the ice, fall over. Stand up, fall over. Take a step – no swoosh, no glide. Just bruises. Skates got hung up, eventually lost.
Fifteen years later, back in Ottawa. Living on the other side of downtown this time. But treks to the canal in winter. You could rent skates there now. Fearful, maybe it had all been a dream, maybe I’d make a fool out of myself. There with another friend who couldn’t skate. I wasn’t going to be able to help him. He gave me courage: we’d made fools of ourselves in enough places, we might as well do so on the canal.
Skates on, stepping fearfully out on the ice. Step, swoosh, glide. Glide, swoosh, glide. I did it. So did he. I helped him balance a few times when he tottered. We fell a couple times. But so what? We swooshed and glided the whole length of the canal. It was just as magical as it had been before. I felt like Toller Cranston.
The canal was a different place then. The ice was kept clear all the way to Carleton. Hot chocolate and beaver tail stands were all along the length of it. Other skaters also were. But you still didn’t feel crowded, you didn’t feel like a rat in a lab maze.
A skating Nanook of the North
When I’d first skated there, only a rink-sized patch of ice was kept clear near the Arts Centre. The rest was left to the wind Zamboni. Your ability to skate the length of it depended on the wind and your skill in navigating ice bumps and snow. There were no lights, no hot chocolate-filled oases along the way. You were on your own in the elements. It was nice, especially at night, the feeling of being alone in the frozen tundra.
But the lights, hot chocolate and fellow skaters of 15 years later was also nice. You didn’t feel like Nanook of the North, but you did feel part of a Christmas card world.
I’ve never tried skating again. I don’t know if I could or not. I own skates. They hang in the closet and, when I look at them, I hear the swoosh swoosh sound of the blades and feel the crisp winter air of Ottawa. It’s ok with me if the Rideau Canal is the only place I can skate. It makes it magical. In Ottawa, I can be Joanie Rochette.
The top and bottom two photos are from the blog Images of Centretown, the 2nd is from Wikipedia, the 3rd is on the Via Rail site and the 4th is from Let’s Go Ottawa (Dec. 6th 2010). Thanks for reminding me!