Winter wonderland for skiing, skating and snowshoeing when the mood strikes and the weather is perfect. Nature-made snow sculpturing. Little birds buffeted by wind in their brave search for seeds and suet. Nights with clear skies, millions of stars overhead. Sometimes eyes stream from the cold. Absolute beauty. Makes you glad to be alive just so you can see it.
Where is this paradise? At home. Open fields perfect for cross-country skiing with flat expanses and some small slopes to add a little thrill – spills too. Step off the porch, put your skis on and go. No strapping skis to the roof of a car or wrestling to put them inside then having to drive home again with wet, cold clothes and dogs.
A small spring-fed stream makes a skating rink. As long as the snow isn’t too deep, the wind is your zamboni. It’s not the Rideau Canal, but it’s enough. A milk crate provides a seat for putting skates on.
Snowshoes get you through the fields and into the woods to check on trees and animals. Silence. The snow baffles noise. Just you and Nanook of the North, wearing Poodle camouflage.
Three winters here, each different. One with snow and sun, wind and storms spaced out as if planned by a tour guide. Second – snow, melt, snow, melt. A crust of ice thin enough to break when walked on but thick enough, when cracked, to trap a foot. Impossible for arthritic old dog legs. Third winter, no mild spells to melt snow before more piled on top. Snow mountains from the plow, rounded snow bluffs made by the wind. Walkways for dogs, people too, made with the snowblower.
Sometimes the wind blows so hard the house howls. Snow drives straight across hard from the northeast. You bend sideways to keep upright. Maybe you have to go out, maybe you don’t. But you go out anyway, just to feel it and then feel the warmth when you come back inside.
The hens stand in their coop doorway, wanting to go into the sun. They do, but quickly run back inside. Still too cold. Birds not seen since last year return to the feeders.
The days get longer. Daylight savings time soon. It is nice to have the light, but I mourn the end of winter.
All the snow had gone, even the mud had started to dry up. Then bang, last night, a snowstorm. A mixture of rain, freezing rain and snow making big heavy piles of snow on wires, trees and fences. Beautiful. Our backyard late last night. Today, a snow day. At the dog park, only one other person there with his dogs.
Then Pinafore Park, only a few people there. Another man taking pictures. Another woman walking her Boxer in his winter coat. A young couple bringing their kids to the playground. They didn’t stay long. The pheasants were toddling around their cozy enclosure, seemingly not aware or caring about the snow outside it.
Stores were pretty empty all day, so a couple store clerks told me. But Tim Hortons was blocked with people, inside and in the drive-through. It was definitely a doughnut and coffee or hot chocolate day. And definitely a day for playing in the snow.
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
Later I moved to Ottawa. A friend and I rented an apartment off Elgin Street near the canal. She was from my hometown. She had taken skating lessons. She owned two pairs of skates.
So to the canal in winter. She held my arm until I was steady. She showed me how to push and glide. She glided alongside, holding my arm. Then 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.