The Ottawa Citizen

Miracles on ice
For 40 years now, ‘the rink’ has been Ottawa’s salvation — 7.8 kilometres of sanity in the deepest days of winter. As Winterlude kicks off, Bruce Ward makes for the canal to meditate on an annual marvel

Bruce Ward

Senator Jim Munson’s voice rises in glee when he talks about skating on the Rideau Canal. The years melt away and he is a kid again.

“I put my skates on at home, I live right near it,” he says. “Then I put my skate guards on and go over to Patterson Creek, and away I go. My wife laughs at me. I’m like a child in anticipation of when the canal opens.”

Munson, whose senatorial designation is Ottawa-Rideau Canal, grew up in Campbellton, N.B., and learned to skate on the Restigouche River and on the ice at a school rink.

“I loved being on the ice. I never went home. My parents had to come get me. I was a rink rat. I love the smell of a rink. Some people like to go down ski hills; I can do that, I guess. But I am at home on the ice.”

At 63, Munson has a sunny disposition and can shift from the gravitas of the Senate to the simple joys of childhood in a heartbeat. When he skates on the canal, Munson is transported back in time.

“I’m like a little boy living by a waterway. That’s why I chose it (the designation).

“I’m a mere child, a childlike senator,” he laughs.

But Munson wasn’t laughing as he headed down the canal the morning it opened for its 40th season last month. The former newsman’s mind was on the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, which had happened two days before on Jan. 12.

“I was skating along and thinking, ‘What can I do? How can I help a little bit? I came around the bend near the Bank Street bridge, turned and came back, and there was the opening ceremonies for the canal.”

And Munson had his answer. “I thought we should all skate for Haiti.”

The Canadian Red Cross, the Haitian community and the National Capital Commission jumped at the idea. The Skate for Haiti is in full swing today, the first weekend of Winterlude. Events on the canal include several performances and activities by local Haitians. The weekend proceeds of all canal donation boxes will go to the Canadian Red Cross to help Haiti. Munson plans to skate 100 kilometres, and his goal is to raise $10,000.

At 3 p.m. today, those on the canal come together to form a human chain for Haiti. “I think it will be a symbolic and important gesture to hold hands with the people of Haiti,” says Munson.

“The canal may be cold as ice, but not the people on it.”

Douglas Fullerton, who as NCC chairman was the driving force behind the canal rink’s creation in January 1971, would no doubt agree with Munson’s mission.

Fullerton was a child of the Depression and worked long hours for low pay in factories before becoming an exceptionally able public servant.

When he died at 79 in 1996, his wife, Maudie, told the Citizen that 20 years after his retirement, people would still stop him in the street and thank him for the canal rink.

Chances are Fullerton would grumble at the NCC’s official “Rideau Canal Skateway” terminology. To him, it was “the rink.” It’s part of his legacy that no one who lives here calls it the skateway. To us, the correct response to, “What did you do on the weekend?” is, “We went for a skate on the canal.”

Over the years, the canal rink has seen its share of strange sights.

During its second season, the NCC lowered three new skating huts worth $10,000 onto the canal’s ice surface. Overnight, the huts sank through the ice, settling on the bottom of the canal two feet below. The huts were relocated on land near Main Street on the east side of the canal. (Since then, the shelters have been supported by gravel pads and frames that do not rely solely on the ice for support.)

In the winter of 1980, the Citizen’s Friday TGIF section put a Chevrolet Vega on two feet of ice on Dow’s Lake and invited people to guess when the ice would melt and the car would fall through. As Jay Stone wrote in Fair Play & Daylight: The Ottawa Citizen Essays, things did not go as planned.

“This contest would crack those ‘last days of winter blahs,’ we said and the first prize was $300. A few days later, somebody snuck onto Dow’s Lake at night, rolled the car to an open spot and pushed it in. The winning contest entry was picked from a hat.”

Two years ago, Winnipeg came down with a bad case of ice envy. Revving up its frontier spirit, the city contrived to extend its River Trail rink on the Assiniboine River to 8.54 kilometres in length, besting the 7.8-kilometre-long rink on the Rideau Canal.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the Winnipeg North MP, stood in the House of Commons to crow about Winnipeg’s extra-long skating rink.

“All of us from Winnipeg challenge Ottawa to beat that record or else come to Winnipeg and enjoy a wonderful skate on the longest skating rink in the world,” she said.

A dashing, square-jawed Citizen reporter took up her challenge and skated on the River Trail on a February day in 2008 when it was -33, about -46 with the windchill, at high noon.

“This rink is skinnier than a supermodel,” he wrote in a Citizen story. “It is not a rink, it’s a horizontal icicle with delusions of grandeur.”

In a pathetic retort, Wasylycia-Leis told the CBC that the canal is a “puddle-jumping rink” that’s “hardly there half the time because of the humid weather.”

Winnipeggers are a fine and spiritual people, but when it comes to outdoor rinks, Ottawa’s original is still the greatest.

As its 40th season unspools, skating on the canal is what it always has been — an annual marvel. Munson has his own system to determine when he goes skating.

“From my bedroom window, I can see the canal,” he says. “So when I get up in the morning, I take a look out the window. If I can see the top of skaters’ heads on the canal, I go.”