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Winter/Snow: Winter Brings out Ottawa's Best for Families

I was still a teenager growing up in Ottawa when Douglas Fuller, chairman of the city’s National Capital Commission, did what everyone said couldn’t be done - He froze the waters in the Rideau Canal, turning this 7.8 km. of canal winding its way through the city into the world’s longest ice skating rink. Civil servants could be seen each weekday morning arms stretching forward and heads into the wind as they glided along the surface on their way to work; on the weekends, parents would edge their kids along the ice, holding toddlers’ hands and pulling babies bundled into sleighs. But at night, the canal curves were a perfect spot for groups of young people. It may have been freezing out there (as one travel writer reported, when it comes to the world’s coldest capital cities, Ottawa is second only to Mongolia’s Ulan Bator). But it provided an ideal place for teens on Friday and Saturday evening. It was cheap, it was lit enough for you to see what the boys who were skating around you actually looked like, but dark enough that your parents had a hard time searching you out. Thank you, Douglas Fullerton!

For years, I promised to take my kids to skate on the world’s longest skating rink. But weather often precluded this family activity. We would travel up at Christmastime only to find the canal still resembling a swimming pool. By March break, the ice would often be starting to crack. It was too dangerous for little skaters to attempt it. Conclusion: The time is now to throw the family’s skates into the trunk of your car and head up the 401 toward the nation’s capital. Winterlude, Ottawa’s annual festival with 150 activities related to snow and ice is unfortunately over, but you’ll have no parking problems, no wait for Beavertails (those delicious deep-fried dough concoctions topped with cinnamon, lemon and sugar, raspberry jam, or even cheese and garlic butter), and the ice surface will be roomy enough that you can help along a kid that is just learning to skate or keep an eye out for one who decides to suddenly take off a mile or two up the canal as one of mine once did. They say that the total surface of the ice is equal to 200 Olympic-size skating rinks; some kids (and adults) just can’t resist zooming up the Canal to skate around Dows Lake.

In case the toes start to numb, warming huts are placed along the canal where you can wiggle your toes in front of a woodstove, use the washrooms, or rest weary legs on the benches. Sustenance is easily found at the fudge houses, the stands offering hot apple cider or hot chocolate, or the booths where hot maple syrup is thrown onto snow or rolled around popsicle sticks to make a delicious maple candy.

We learned from a nursery school teacher that the easiest way to teach a two- or three-year-old to skate is to let them push a small chair. When they tire, the parent can take a turn pushing them. That’s one possibility. But on a nice weekend day, the canal is filled with all manner of pushing and pulling devices. Parents pull babies in sleighs or children on toboggans. We’ve even seen people riding on shovels. There are also large and small sleighs with handlebars that you can rent to push either grandparents or children. These charming old-fashioned chairs with runners can be rented for $12 ($50 deposit) for two hours. Handicapped services, first-aid care, and skate patrollers are available.

This year, because the cold weather came so late, the Canal just may stay open until March break. “We let Mother Nature shut her down,” says the National Capital Commission’s Suzanne Amos-Kinsella. If warm weather has made skating an impossibility, then spring skiing, either cross-country or downhill, is available just minutes from the city. Gatineau Park offers hut-to-hut skiing for the first time this year as well as trails reserved for snowshoers. Cost: $3 for a half-day; no cost for using the trails. Downhill families can be on the hills at Ski Fortune or Edelweiss within 45 minutes.

If the weather does not co-operate, kids can still enjoy the National Museum of Science and Technology with its crazy kitchen, and its huge antique trains, the Canadian War Museum with its tank perfect for climbing on (though the sounds in the re-created trenches may scare some) and the farm animals in the barns of the Central Experimental Farm (where my five-year-old wanted to buy a cow thinking the numbered tag in his ear was the price). Also a must-see is the Canadian Museum of Civilization just across the river in Hull. Longhouses and totem poles, reconstructions of historic settings, and the expanded children’s wing will fascinate kids and adults. Museums are free Thursday evenings between 5 and 8 p.m. Also fun for the whole family is to go to Question Period in the Parliament Buildings and see your local representative in action. Free passes can be obtained from your MP in advance. Except for a break in March, the House is open to visitors every weekday at 2:30 p.m.

Reasonable accommodation is easy. The Chateau Laurier(a castle-like structure beside Parliament Hill) the Delta Ottawa, with its two-storey water slide, and Novotel, (our kids praised the free buffet breakfast) all offer special rates for families during February and March. The Albert at Bay Suite Hotel offers a March weekend rate of $79 including parking and hot chocolate for a one-bedroom suite with dishes, dishwasher and microwave - all the comforts of home. Because the building was originally an apartment building, the rooms are big. Good bets for meals are Bagel Bagel for brunch, Paddy’s Place Pub for Irish fish and chips or Zak’s Diner, a 50’s-style diner with booths, chrome and music from that decade.





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