In an average year, 800,000 will skate along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, warming up at pit stops to enjoy a hot chocolate and a yummy BeaverTail. The skateway has been declared the largest in the world by the Guinness Book of Records folks.
'The canaal has become an icon of Canada's capital,' says Jean Wolff, spokesman for the National Capital Commission. 'It is part of the identify of the place.'

Lace on those skates for winter fun:
Scenic Rideau Canal skateway among Ontario's outdoor gems

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For many Canadians, tying on a pair of ice skates and stumbling awkwardly across a backyard rink or pond is one of their first and fondest childhood memories.  

Ice skating is as much a part of our Canadian culture as summers at the cottage, one that brings together the diverse range of races that make up our country. And while there are plenty of indoor arenas offering public skating, taking it outside adds a different dimension that makes us feel just that more Canadian and in tune with nature.  

First Nations people once tied the shinbones of animals to their feet with deerskin rope to allow them to glide across frozen lakes instead of slogging through deep shoreline snow. Early British soldiers skated on lakes and ponds to break the monotony of winter living in their isolated outposts. Canadian families from the Victorian era, the Great Depression and the post-war baby boom carried on the tradition and today, children whose heritage is Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, Latin American and African eagerly join our beloved national pastime.  

Some of the most familiar wintertime scenes in Canada are of a parent and child flooding the backyard rink or scraping snow from a portion of a frozen lake, or a group of youngsters dressed in hockey sweaters and skates, chasing a puck around a frozen pond. It’s just another part of our rich heritage of waterfront living.  

Today, two of Ontario’s outdoor rinks fall easily into the “world-famous” category: Ottawa’s Rideau Canal and Toronto’s rink at Nathan Phillips Square. But there are many more outdoor rinks scattered across the province, and many winter resorts offer skating on their own ponds or on nearby lakes.  

These days in Ottawa, they’re anxiously watching the ice thicken on the Rideau Canal so they can open the entire skateway for the 41st modern-era season of skating on what has been acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records people to be the largest skating rink in the world.  As of Jan. 14, two of four sections of the 7.8-kilometre-long skateway were open.

Jean Wolff, spokesman for the National Capital Commission, which oversees the canal and other publicly owned buildings and institutions in Ottawa and area, says in an average year, 800,000 people will don skates and take to the canal ice.   

“It’s looking good for the season,” Wolff told “The canal has become an icon of Canada’s capital. It is part of the identity of the place.”  

Magic number in Ottawa is 30

Wolff explained that the magic number everyone keeps an eye on is “30.” That’s the number of centimetres of thickness they look for before opening up the canal to the public. But once the ice reaches 20 centimetres — as it did around Christmas — the NCC sends out crews and equipment to begin grooming the surface and preparing for another season.  

Snow is scraped from the ice because the snow acts as a giant thermal blanket that impedes ice formation, said Wolff. Then, holes are drilled in the ice and water is pumped from the canal and spread across the surface to help make the ice smoother and stronger.  

Wolff said rather than being a stationary and stable object, the ice actually floats on the water that remains in the canal after it’s drained in the fall. The water can range from about one metre deep around the National Arts Centre, just above where the canal flows into the Ottawa River, to three or 3½ metres deep at Dow’s Lake, at the other end of the skateway at Carleton University.  

Safety is Job No. 1, said Wolff. Safety not only for the thousands of skaters and pedestrians who flock to the canal on beautiful sunny winter days, but for the commission staff who work to keep the ice well-maintained.  

The earliest date the canal ever opened was Dec. 18. That occurred in 1972, and again in 1981. The latest opening date was Feb. 2 in 2002. In an average year, the NCC stops maintaining the ice near the end of February, but if the forecast looks good for an extended season, it could keep it maintained into March.   The canal is the featured attraction of the annual Winterlude, which spans the first three weekends of February. Many of the festival events take place on, or adjacent to the skateway.  

For many, the best way to enjoy the canal is to skate its full length, between the heart of the city’s downtown, right up to Dow’s Lake. Many Ottawans look forward to the season so they can skate to work and home again. Along the way, skaters pass snack bars, some waterfront restaurants and bars, gracious old mansions, modern condos and pretty wooded areas.  

If you find yourself on the canal, don’t forget to stop for one of Ottawa’s signature BeaverTails, a heavenly deep-fried dough finished off with one of several delicious toppings. U.S. President Barack Obama tried one on his first trip to the capital in 2009.  

As you glide along the canal, remember that you’re travelling along a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 202-kilometre-long canal was opened in 1832 to link Ottawa with Kingston. It is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America.  

Trent-Severn Waterway also offers outdoor skating

The Rideau isn’t the only canal where skating is popular, however. On the Trent-Severn Waterway, hockey players can often be seen enjoying a game near Peterborough’s Maria Street swing bridge, as families and couples skate nearby in front of the Peterborough Lift Lock. City workers maintain a 400-metre stretch of ice below the lift lock as far as the swing bridge. Benches and lights are provided.  

Down in Toronto, the rink at Nathan Phillips Square is able to maintain a longer season due to the ice being produced artificially. The big event of the season there is the New Year’s Eve celebration. But Toronto has other excellent outdoor rinks, including the Natrel Rink on the shores of Lake Ontario at Harbourfront, located at Queen’s Quay.  

Besides being open for free public skating, the Natrel offers learn-to-skate classes and special DJ skating nights with music themes. Visitors can cozy up to one of the firepits and grab a snack or a hot drink. The rink is easily accessible by public transit, with streetcars dropping you off right at the front door. Skate rentals are available.  

Toronto also offers outdoor skating on Grenadier Pond in High Park.   Many of Ontario’s waterfront communities clear snow from natural ponds, and some even flood them to improve the ice quality. The lovely lakeside city of Kingston boasts 16 outdoor skating rinks, some supervised and with snack bars. The best known is the Springer Market Square rink, right in the heart of the historic downtown near Lake Ontario.  

Barrie also has an outdoor rink, at Circle in the Square at City Hall. And in Windsor, not far from City Hall and two blocks from the Detroit River, Charles Clark Square is an irregularly shaped outdoor rink with built-in seating.  

In Niagara Falls, Rink At the Brink is an outdoor rink with direct views of the famous falls. Entertainment is offered every Thursday, and there is a cover charge.  

Hamilton offers free outdoor skating on a rink at Pier 8 on Hamilton Harbour. Right next to the rink you can warm up at Williams Fresh Café. Next door to Hamilton at the north end of the Burlington Bay Skyway Bridge, you’ll find Burlington’s downtown gem, Rotary Centennial Park. Here, you can skate outdoors on a rink that overlooks the city’s beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline.  

In Owen Sound, the Good Cheer outdoor skating rink in gorgeous Harrison Park is now open for the season. The  “HOSE" rule — Hockey on Odd days, Skating on Even — is in effect to keep the rink open to all. 

Enjoy nature and a skate in provincial parks

Among Ontario’s smaller waterfront communities, Cobourg boasts the beautiful outdoor rink at its Rotary Waterfront Park. Accessible by public transit, the rink is bordered on two sides by attractive waterfront condos and on a third side by the town’s recreational harbour.  

Provincial parks offer their own brand of outdoor skating. Bronte Creek Park on Lake Ontario in Oakville maintains an Olympic-sized outdoor rink that’s equipped with washrooms, change rooms, snack bar and skate rentals.  

At Rondeau Park south of Chatham, you can skate on Lake Erie’s Rondeau Bay. Farther north in the Muskoka Lakes, Arrowhead Park’s outdoor skating rink offers beautiful Arrowhead Lake as a scenic backdrop.  

And at Point Pelee National Park in nearby Leamington, you can glide across the cattails along the frozen marsh. Every Friday and Saturday while the marsh is open for skating, park hours are extended until 9:30 pm., when the rink is lit and a heated change room is available.  

Many private resorts also provide outdoor skating on their own ponds, or even on the lakes they border. Some even provide complimentary skates. For example, the Couples Resort, in Algonquin Park near Whitney, maintains a rink measuring 12 by 25 metres. The rink is lit at night so that guests can enjoy skating under the stars.  

Click here for a list of other Ontario resorts where ice skating is offered. — January 2011