If you have ever been spent time in Canada’s Capital as a visitor or a resident, then you likely know of the Rideau Canal. The narrow channel weaves through Ottawa landmarks and neighbourhoods along an 8km stretch, connecting the metropolitan’s two universities while delivering the most picturesque scenery a city can provide.
Many of us living here see the heritage waterway as a commonplace fixture in our community, forgetting that it has been in existence for nearly 200 years! It forms an integral part of life in Ottawa, with many celebrations and rituals planned around it, including the capital’s Winterlude festival, and the annual football match between Ottawa and Carleton Universities that sees partisans from both teams march and parade along the canal to meet at the halfway point on the neutral ground of Landsdowne Park where the game is played. Notwithstanding those special events, as you move about your day you most likely have to travel along it or over it, or you may be one of the thousand people who use it.
In the winter, when the canal freezes over, it becomes one of the world’s largest skating rink and people lace up skates for a few hours of leisure and fresh air, or skate vigorously along it to travel a few blocks downtown to get to work. In the summer, boats and leisure crafts of all kinds come through it while many others run, cycle or walk on its paths.
A canal is an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland and while people associate the Rideau Canal with Ottawa, many would probably be surprised to learn that only 10% of the waterway actually flows though the capital.
The Rideau Canal system spans over 202 kilometers (125 miles for my US readers) well beyond the Ottawa city limits. It was built more than 185 years ago after the war of 1812 between Canada and the U.S. as a strategic military defense, linking the Outaouais River in Ottawa to Lake Ontario in Kingston.
The Rideau Canal is a National Historic Site and the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, and in 2007 it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing it as a work of human creative genius.
The thinking at that time was that should the US ever invade the St-Lawrence Seaway, the country would have an alternate route to allow safe passage for ships and merchandise coming from Montreal and the St-Lawrence River to travel further inland by way of the Outaouais River (Ottawa) then southwest to Lake Ontario. Thankfully, the canal never had to be used for its intended purpose and has served mostly as a recreational waterway once rail become the standard for travel and shipping goods, but its construction played a pivotal role in the early development of Canada.
Only 10% of this waterway consists of manmade canal cuts and locks, the rest follows a natural waterway of lakes and rivers.The Rideau Canal uses a lock system that is still fully functioning, There are a total of 45 locks at 23 stations along the canal, and most of them are still hand-operated. The gates that let boats in and out of the locks are made of Douglas Fir and last approximately 12-15 years. They are mitre-shaped to ensure a tight seal due to water pressure.
Its winter again in Ottawa, and despite temperatures hovering around the 0 degree Celsius mark, the waterway is slowly freezing over. In time, depending on how cold it will get over the next few weeks, it will once again become the city’s ice rink, and clusters of families and individuals will don warm apparel and make use of it, stopping along the route from the National Arts Centre all the way to Dow’s Lake by way of Lansdowne Park to warm up at one of the many fire pits along the way, sampling a delicious Beavertail and a cup of hot chocolate.
When the season turns to sweaters and snowflakes, cozy blankets and hot cocoa, Ottawans get out their skates, boots and mittens. In Canada, if you chose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life, but still the same amount of snow.
It’s better to make the best of it and with a world class skating rink at your doorstep, why wouldn’t you!