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Volume Ten, Number Two   March 2005

West Coaster Discovers Real Canadian Winter

John Hughes

A few columns back I wrote of the virtues of a Canadian winter without NHL hockey.  With the  lockout ending the 2004-05 season, my previous wintry commentary seems especially relevant now.  The overpaid men who play a boy’s game have indeed pulled Canadians from their armchairs into the national deep-freeze, looking for real seasonal experience rather than settling for vicarious televised enjoyment.  As a Vancouver-based writer, my experience of the frozen wastes north of the 49th Parallel had previously been very limited.  The occasional winter afternoon of trudging through rain-soaked streets to a nearby skating rink or driving up one of the local mountains to take in frigidity most Canadians walk out their front door to feel summed up anything distinctly wintry and Canadian I had done until now.  

WinterAll that changed for me when I flew to the nation’s capital on assignment two weeks a go.  I had been back east in the winter before but it was only for about a week and it was during one of those global-warming inspired periods when the temperature hovered around a balmy –2 degrees.  I remember thinking at the time that local stories of 30 or 40 below zero were mere folk tales, dreamed up to fool gullible West-Coasters.  No such luck.  When I touched down in Ottawa in late January it was 20 below and snowing.  The following week saw temperatures actually dip to minus 30.  I was in shock but I adjusted quickly.  I knew that if I did not want to be identified as a Westerner, and thus scorned for living in the Canadian tropical belt, I would have to blend in.  And I did just that.  Sort of.

I soon discovered that Ottawa’s Rideau Canal is, apart from perhaps Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, the best thing about winter in Canada.  Hundreds of people – teenagers, old folks and families head down to the Canal on weekend afternoons to glide along the frozen waterway.  It is a uniquely Canadian experience as the air is filled with equal parts Francophone and Anglophone voices.  Near frostbitten faces zip past each other on the ice and people line up to buy the shapeless fried dough and sugar concoctions known as ‘beaver tails.’  As much as I loved taking in this spectacle, I knew I’d have to get skating soon or be found out for a Westerner.  Owing to the dubious quality of Vancouver-area community centre rental skates and general clumsiness, my skating skills are, at best, nascent.  If I was to fool anyone I would need a ruse.  Happily, there was one ready made for me on the canal.  My sister lives in Ottawa.  She is eight months pregnant and a little too far along in the process to do a whole lot of skating.  As such, she required a sleigh to be pushed along the Canal in.  My brother-in-law would have been perfectly content to push her in the sleigh but, as a competent Ontario-bred skater, did not need the thing to hold him up.  Of course I was a different story altogether.  I happily used the sleigh with my sister in it as ballast, cruising along the frozen surface at a decent speed looking very much like I knew what I was doing.  It was pure genius!  I did not fall down once and managed to propel the sleigh at a decent pace.  I am still in Ottawa and my cover is not yet blown – my luck may run out soon enough though.  I still have one more trip to the canal planned and anything is possible.
The Rideau Canal was, in early February, submitted as Canada’s choice for enshrinement as a United Nations Heritage Sight.  The Canal competed with a centuries-old Basque whaling station and the Klondike gold-rush trail for the honour.  It will take some months of voting and processing to find out if the world’s longest skating rink will be officially mentioned in the same breath as the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids.  Bizarre as it may seem, UN honchos are actually going to an international poll on this.  While the Rideau Canal may not yet enjoy the same status of the world’s best-known mausoleums, it is a living historical monument to all things cold and Canadian.  It was completed in 1826 as a quick military link between Ottawa and Lake Ontario with the memory of the war of 1812 against the Americans in mind.  It was never used in this capacity but soon became a haven for skaters and, as the century drew to a close, shinny matches.  Shinny developed into full-on hockey games and by the late 19th century, many Ottawa area hockey teams challenged for the Stanley Cup.  In 1905 the Ottawa Silver Seven won Lord Stanley’s mug.  The victorious squad drank and made merry on the banks of the Canal.  Most hockey players at the time were also rugby players and one of them, in a liquor-advised moment, thought it a fine idea to drop kick the cup across the frozen lake-connector.  Fortunately for a century’s worth of hockey players and fans the cup was recovered in a hungover haze the next afternoon.  Today hockey players do not usually frequent the Canal; it is zoned exclusively for skating.  It has, however belatedly, filled its original purpose of acting as a transportation device.  The Rideau extends from the outskirts of Ottawa all the way downtown.  Every weekday morning a hundred or so skaters will avoid rush hour traffic by donning their skates and flying to work down the icy connector.  On the strength of these environmental advantages a vote for UN Heritage status does not seem so crazy after all.

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