Capital News Online

A group of tourists skate along the Rideau Canal near Parliament Hill [Photo © Matthew Horwood]

OTTAWA – The best skating rink in North America according to USA TODAY, officially opened for its 48th winter season on Jan. 5, but with two closures in January due to warm temperatures and rain, skaters may be wondering whether 2018 is going to be another in a recent list of lean skating seasons.


The Rideau Canal Skateway has been operating for nearly 50 years, bringing tourists and locals alike to skate the 7.8 km canal through downtown Ottawa, but it was not always used for leisurely skating.

History of the Rideau Canal Skateway

David McGee is a historian and the founder of Lost Ottawa, a Facebook page and website dedicated to documenting Ottawa’s rich history and changes in recent pictures and old photographs. He is also author of a book by the same name. McGee says that the tradition of skating as a social event each year dates back to the early Governor’s General in the early 19th century, who used to have their own rink and would host skating parties which people would be dying to get invites to.

But even if in the 1930s and 1940s the canal was mainly used in the winter for dog sled racing, it remained a popular winter destination. McGee is hopeful this will continue long into the future.

“I’m sure people will always be interested in skating on the canal, but the National Capital Commission (NCC) needs to keep on preparing the canal, having Winterlude and promoting it,” says McGee. “We need something to do between December and March or we’ll go crazy from hibernation!”

A woman ties her skates in preparation for skating on the canal, near Parliament Hill. [Photo © Matt Horwood]

In the past decade the uncertainty of the weather has taken its toll on the number of visits the skateway gets each year.

Climate change and its affects on the skateway

There were more than 1,000,000 visits in each of the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons but only around half that in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons.

This can be attributed to the significantly lower number of skating days in the past two seasons because of weather fluctuations. John Stone, an adjunct professor and climate change expert in Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, says that due to the global temperature changes, Ottawa should be expecting this kind of fluctuation as the new normal.

“Now there’s even less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles. This means that the jet stream, which usually circulates very strongly around the polar region, is breaking down and allowing more cold air to come down that normally wouldn’t” says Stone. “So now we’ll tend to get greater fluctuation and greater variability in temperatures and the weather we see every day, which in turn affects the reliability of the weather and thus the reliability of the canal.”

Within the past 10 years, the Rideau Canal Skateway has seen its shortest seasons in 2016 and 2017. Last year, the official skating season spanned only 36 days (the time between the official opening and closing), but the canal was only open for skating for 25 of those days. But it was 2015 and 2016 that proved to be the shortest skating season on record, lasting for 34 days with only 18 skating days available.

A section of melted ice is fenced off from canal skaters. [Photo © Matt Horwood]

Cédric Pelletier, a strategic communications advisor for the NCC, says that a there are a lot of different things to factor in when deciding on the opening day of the canal, in order to make sure that it is safe for the public to use.

“The skateway opens to the public once the ice achieves a minimum thickness of 30 centimetres of good quality ice,” says Pelletier. “We require a period of 14 consecutive cold weather days (-15C to -20C) to get a good quality ice that is safe for skaters, but factors such as above 0 C temperature or rain will have a negative impact on the ice growth. Also, snow actually acts as a thermal blanket and prevents the ice from thickening.”

Even after the skateway has achieved good quality ice, there is still a lot of daily maintenance that needs to be done.

“Ice samples must show that there’s a sufficient thickness of good quality ice, and we make sure that we have a clean, smooth surface free of possible hazards,” says Pelletier.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is, after all, a natural ice surface free floating on water, which is at the mercy of Mother Nature.

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