Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Skating the Rideau Canal

(My Obama cookie-- I'll get to that later in this entry)

Today started late and slow... a 5 am bedtime translated into waking up at 10 am, groggy and at about half speed. Still, I forced myself into some warm clothes and ventured outside to hunt out the tourism information centre. It was nice to finally go outside and get a clear picture of my surroundings-- the hotel where I am staying is wonderfully central to everything. Picture this: a castle-like structure built in 1912 hugs one side of a canal (now empty at the locks, frozen over and teeming with skaters a bit further away) while a grassy and stony hill slopes up the other side to a nearly gothic series of large buildings that compose Parliament Hill (topped with a tall spire rising from a tower.) If you look closely enough, gargoyles hug the buildings in that complex across the canal. The center city has a (as I learned today) deliberately European feel, globe-like lights framing the main thoroughfare while monuments and parks are scattered in the midst of all of the bustle.

The guide at the infocentre was very helpful, loading me up with maps of the city, top sights not to miss, and encouraging my skateway obsession by handing me the canal skateway map and commenting on how warm a day it was going to be-- -4C (Not bad, really! I had already spent the morning without gloves!) From there, it was back to the hotel to change (skating tights, kneepads, thermal pants, ski pants, underarmor turtleneck top, fingerless fleece gauntlets, jacket, knit bonnet) and off to the canal! After donning my skates and stumbling onto the smoother centre (I'm spelling everything Canadian-style while I'm up here!) ice, I followed the sage advice of quite a few Canadians who I had told about this trip-- I bought a beavertail.

Every culture seems to have some variation on fried dough: Portuguese have farturas, Spanish and Latin Americans have churros, New Orleaneans have those pillow-y beignets, Italians have zeppole, Americans have funnel cake, and the Canadians have beavertails. What I particularly like about this specific type of fried dough is that it's flat enough to make it airy and crispy, the perfect counterpoint to the maple-y gooey goodness that I ordered on top of the one that I ate. And, I'm almost ashamed to report... I ate it all!

That's okay-- I had 7.8 Kilometers plus another 5- 6 kilometers return trip to burn it all off (confusing? 7.8 km includes skating onto the little side creek and on Dow's lake. I decided to skip those detours on the return trip for the sake of my legs!

For anyone who wants to skate the Rideau Canal, here's what I've learned:

1. Non-rink ice can be bumpy-- especially at the sides, over by the concession stands (on the ice!!!), and, well, EVERYWHERE else. I have a newfound respect for those first skaters who created the jumps and spins that we know today-- it was too bumpy and uneven for me to try anything more than a simple 1-foot spin and a tiny waltz jump. It took a bit to adjust by shifting my weight slightly more backwards to avoid toe-pick face planting and to fight all that I've been taught and keep my eyes downwards to avoid cracks and lumps and grooves. Hockey skaters have a slightly easier time on the canal.
2. They don't take credit cards at the concession stands. Bring cash!
3. Layers, layers, layers, especially on a particularly warm day, like today. By km marker 5, I had already doffed my coat.
4. The beginning of the canal is the roughest part. It smooths out a bit after Km marker 1.
5. Bumpy and rough ice also means that you need to work harder than traveling the same distance on manicured/zambonied ice. I'm in great skating shape with good stamina and my legs were BURNING early into the skate! Be ready for a buns-of-steel style workout!
6. Also be ready for some fellow skaters who make the canal even more of a joy to skate-- the guy skating in a business suit while on lunch break, another one who was skating and strumming a guitar at the same time, the group of guys who had rigged up literal skateboards (with skate blades)... you never quite know who you're going to pass.
7. Getting to the 7.8km marker is a major high:

8. Followed by a major low when you realize that (if you're crazy and insist on getting the "full" experience) you have to now skate back that whole way. Normal people, of course, may choose to just change into their shoes and get off of the canal at any time.
9. Have a goal to skate towards. Mine was to get my hands on:

(a bacon bunner, only seen at around Km marker 2 or so. Canadian Bacon + bread= yum. Picture #2 is of my sandwich while I'm seated at a picnic table -on the ice! See my skate at the bottom?

10. And get a maple taffy made on the snow! (yum)

So, two things that I've observed so far on this trip-- first, that Ottawans (and Canadians in general) are incredibly clean. Let me tell you that I -know- that if this canal was in NY or Philly or even D.C., it would be full of litter. Here, there was no clean up crew and the only things that I saw were very few random cigarette butts and a lost receipt. The city is just as clean, not a bit of litter in sight. Second, the fact that Canadians are just so freakishly nice has been reinforced quite a few times in the past 24 hours (is it something in the water? Can we ship that stuff south?) Starting with the airport, where random strangers were offering to pick up coffee for each other or offering doughnuts to all of us, up to this afternoon when I had just found out that the concession stands didn't take credit. I had asked the stand guy (salesperson?) where I could find an ATM that worked (I did a quick run down of the fact that I had arrived last night, that the ATM he had mentioned didn't take my card), then, waterless with no ATM prospects, started skating away when this woman skated up beside me, said she overheard the convo, and asked if she could buy me something! I told her no, thanks, but I was REALLY touched by the gesture. Later, in the hunt for an ATM that would take my card, I saw this kind of helpfulness left and right.

Anyway, I digress. After I had my fill of skating, I left the ice at Confederation Park, where I was able to enter the "Rogers Crystal Garden", a host of ice sculptures carved by people all over the country and the world. I particularly loved this one from Japan:

and, shades of Narnia, anyone?:

(Jadis, the White Witch, would love that sofa)

There were dragons and chimera all delicately carved in ice, a fountain surrounded by ice sculptures. A fantasy garden with an ice troll, ice mushrooms and a unicorn was also flanked by knitting graffiti (google it. Yarn bombing is the alternate term) An ice lounge with ice tables and chairs and an ice bar. I know that last one is actually being used at night!

And... then it was back to the hotel to change out of the skating clothes. I had been hoping to visit Parliament, but when I got inside they told me that the last tour was at 3:30 and it was already pushing 4 o'clock. Knowing that I'd probably have the same problem with most of the government sites, I took a day 2 plan (Byward market area) and shifted it to today. I stopped at Rideau Centre to see if i could find any good Olympic-goodies, was sorely tempted by some of the Hudson Bay Company swag (but stopped myself) and ended up getting a cute little t shirt from another shop (for $7) with maple leaves and "Go Canada" printed on it (I almost, but didn't get the "Canada... eh" shirt. That made me giggle) A stop at Tim Hortons to pick up a warm hug in a cup (see entries from PEI. I'm an addict. Possibly because they're the only place I know where a small coffee is actually small and not a large in disguise), then back outside.

If I have time tommorrow, I have to return to the market in daylight. The main market reminded me of a small version of the Reading Terminal Market-- shops, food places, everything with a slightly funky vibe. I picked up some maple tea (another addiction. Thanks, Canada) and then saw...

The Obama Cookies! Apparently, he had visited this bakery, they had given him a "Canada" cookie, he said, "I love this country" and the rest is history.

A little bit more wandering where I passed the US Embassy, the National Art Gallery and the Peacekeeping Monument, and then my poor legs just decided that they had enough. Not surprising, since I'd been going nonstop for... hmmm... eight hours. By six thirty, I was back in the hotel for a long shower and now I have my legs propped up to ease the pain.

I hope I can walk tommorrow, because tommorrow is Parliament/Supreme Court/ everything else in that direction day!

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