I want to give up; my shins are throbbing, my eyes smart from the snow storm, my feet are aching and my back, unused to the weight of the heavy snow boots that I’m carrying, really hurts. All I want to do is lie down on the ice and stretch out. And we’re only at 3 km. Not even half way. I’m never going to make it and I feel crushed by failure. What had I been thinking when I decided I’d skate the length of the Rideau Canal?
It all began a few years ago when I heard about Ottawa’s Winterlude festival; it sounded so magical, Canadians skating on a beautiful frozen canal, drinking hot chocolate under the blazing blue skies and munching on maple syrup-drenched ‘beavertail’ pastries. It’s the world’s longest skating rink and I wanted to skate it; to whizz gracefully on silver blades, skimming under bridges and around corners. There was, of course, just the one problem: I couldn’t skate.
A chance came to visit during the festival so I put Operation Silver Blades into action: I took lessons, I bought skates and 5 weeks later, boarded the plane to Ottawa feeling confident. But, of course, a canal is not like a freshly smoothed-over ice rink. There are no handrails, no way to steady yourself before you launch onto that bumpy ice. There are cracks and there are parents pulling children in sleds. And just to add an extra challenge – there was also a snow storm – in just a few hours 15cm of snow would fall on Ottawa that day – all things I’d never experienced at the rink. And then there was me and my failing nerve; I’m ashamed to say I froze. I was overwhelmed and scared I’d fall and really hurt myself. So for what seemed like an hour, I just stood there – willing myself to just, skate, dammit! Push one foot to the side, glide, other foot down, glide, push… like I’d done for hours around and around the Denman Street rink in Vancouver.
Bambi-like, my legs wobbled underneath me as I eventually pushed off. I managed maybe a minute – and then a couple walked in front of me, I panicked and crashed to the ground, badly bruising my knees. I lay on the ice and felt defeated before I’d even begun. Getting up was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. If I’d been alone I’d have laid there and cried before crawling off to a bar. But I wasn’t – and the humiliation of giving up was greater than the shame of failing so I got up. Put one skate in front of another and painfully made it to the first bridge. Just 15 more stops to go. Oh boy.
It was curvier than I imagined, this canal, and wider too and oh, there were so many more people than I’d thought. Young children zoomed past, fell, sprawled on the ice and then jumped up and sped off again. I saw older couples skating hand in hand, teenagers madly texted as they glided by. There was a carnival-like atmosphere and a definite pattern to the ‘traffic’ of the skateway. At the points of entry the ice was scuffed up, I’d wobble and slow down, awed by the challenge of staying upright and avoiding the mobs of people, strollers and sleds all converging at once. Things would even out after a few minutes, I’d have longer sessions with fewer people around, my confidence would rise and I’d whisper to myself, ‘you’re doing it!’. I loved those moments of getting into the perfect rhythm, my skates smooth on the ice, gliding along just as I’d pictured it.
But it was hard and my muscles begged me to reconsider. I spent most of my time on the ice in a silent debate with myself over whether it was enough to have tried and failed or whether failure was simply not acceptable. There was pain written into the DNA of this canal; it was built in 1832 by immigrant Irish and French-Canadian workers as a way for British ships to avoid possible American attacks along a vulnerable stretch of the St Lawrence river. The work was brutal and many died in its construction. My creaky muscles and frozen fear were just one tiny snowflake in a blizzard in comparision.
Just after 3km I hit a mental wall; I felt used up and spat out with nothing left to give. Through the blizzard it was hard to see but ahead lay a rest spot. I made for the banners fluttering in the distance and followed the sounds of drumming and African singing. Queues of happy born-to-do-this locals cruised along with a cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. I skated to a bench and collapsed. I closed my eyes and listened to the drummers and breathed slowly; the air smelt of bonfires, braziers burned with dancing flames in the snowfall and there was a sweet scent of syrup from the boiling maple taffy that was setting on the snow at a nearby stall. I took my mittens off and pushed my hair back only to discover that it had frozen solid into little dreadlock-like icicles.
Boosted by a cup of hot, sweet apple cider, 4km came and went. Things were harder now; there were no more beavertail stands, no more hot cider and poutine stalls – this was serious skating – and I didn’t know if I could do it. The next stop was at 5km and now I admitted it; I knew now that the full 7.8km was not going to happen. I hurt too much. I was beaten. I’m told that making it to the Bronson Bridge by Dows Lake was pretty much considered ‘the end’ by locals and I have no idea if I was told that by someone trying to be kind but hell, I figured I’d take it.
It was hard not to cry when I rounded that final bend, a blend of exhaustion and driving snow in my eyes. My feet ached and face was scarlet but I had done that most Canadian of things – skated in the snow on ice. Better than that – soon I’d be taking those skates off and chugging hot chocolate. Nothing will ever taste so sweet again.
That was yesterday…
It’s only as I leave after a hectic 48 hours batting around the city that I realise that maybe the badge of failure that I thought I had isn’t mine after all. We drive along the canal and I tell my taxi driver about what I did, and that I feel I maybe let myself down. And we keep driving and it’s so much further than I thought – as we approach the 3km mark, where I thought I’d have to give up, I feel a surge of pride: I didn’t stop. I kept going. Finally we arrive at Bronson and he slows down and tells me that it’s far. That I did well. That I’ve inspired him to try with his daughter next weekend. I sit back in the car and feel as warm and happy as when I took that first welcome sip of chocolate. I did it.
At the airport, my driver stood at the kerb and called me back, “Hey! Well done!” And then he began to clap. “Ottawa salutes you! You did well.” And this time, I believe it. I skated the Rideau canal – maybe not like I’d imagined but I did it all the same. Next time, I’ll make the full distance – or maybe I won’t – the only certain thing is that I’m going to keep on falling – all I need to do is keep on getting up.
I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.