Ottawa is a city that is not simply resigned to being northern. It revels in it. It does not dread the onslaught of winter. It celebrates it. Ottawa smiles somewhat condescendingly at all the snowbirds who flee to the south at the first signs of frost. With hundreds of kilometres of skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing trails, Winterlude, and literally scores of public outdoor rinks, it is a place that defies one to dislike winter.
Today I enjoyed my first skate on the Rideau Canal Skateway, which has to be unique in the world. The canal, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is converted into a 13-km skating rink stretching from the Ottawa River down to Dow’s Lake. Ottawa does much more than simply watch it freeze. Right on the ice the skater can enjoy many amenities: public washrooms, skate rentals and sharpening, restaurants, picnic tables, park benches for resting and donning the blades, stairways leading down to the ice from street level, street signs and kilometre markers. There are even canal medics on the prowl all day, ready to skate to one’s assistance when needed. On a good day–and today was a good day–thousands of Ottawans strap on their skates and glide to work or school, chatting merrily away on their cell phones; many forgo lunch at the office in favour of a half hour of exhilaration.
My, it was good to be out there again and hear the chukka-chukka-chukka of newly sharpened skates under me and all around me! I passed people of all ages in everything from Olympic-quality speed skates to old leather hockey skates that have been around since Lord Stanley. White-haired women flew past me, some going backward, and aspiring NHLers in snow pants staggered along between their parents. Skaters pulled children on toboggans or pushed them in those high-end chariots. Everyone seemed to be having just a whale of a time and the insanely cold weather didn’t faze them a bit. In fact, when I got back to the university library where I was studying, there were a number of bicycles in the rack, their tires in several inches of snow.
I skated my lunch down to a nearby oasice. Who knows–perhaps I just coined a word here–but I think this is an apt description of the collection of picnic tables clustered in front of the food huts and washrooms and even bordered by some nice little fir trees that are placed right on–or in–the ice. Here one can enjoy a good cup of coffee at an obscene price or, if one has one’s cardiologist on speed dial, a good Ottawa meal of poutine (Quebec-style french fries smothered in brown gravy and then covered with melted cheese curds) sausage on a bun and hot cocoa. Then, to finish it off, one has to indulge in a beaver tail. This local pastry is a slab of crispy-chewy dough–about the size of a beaver’s tail–that is then slathered with any of a number of outrageously decadent toppings. To leave Ottawa without trying a beaver tail is like going on a Caribbean cruise and missing every sunset or climbing K2 and not bothering to go to the top.
On a winter day like today in a city like this city, the term, “Great White North” makes perfect sense.