I was certain I would break an ankle when I stepped gingerly onto the frozen Rideau Canal on Jan. 14, the first day of the 2022 skating season for the 7.8 km-long skating rink. My laboured breath was misting up in front of me. Through fogged-up glasses, I could see the local populace laughing and enjoying themselves in footwear designed to make you fall.
I thought stilettos were bad. I was wrong. I’d never done this in my life, and only entered Canada a month earlier. I heard so much about the canal, I wanted to be a part of it. To belong, to understand and to learn. But my legs wobbled below me like a those of a fawn. What madness drove me to do this alone as a 30-year-old?
For seven weeks, I spent almost every evening on the Rideau Canal learning how to skate. I wanted to. I needed to. And I had to dig deep to muster up the courage to get out on the ice. But once I did, I realized it was transformational.
I am not from here. My coldest winter in Mumbai, India was 20 C. Yes, plus. The closest I got to ice skating was rollerblading two decades prior.
My father taught me how to rollerblade when I was 10. He says I was more courageous back then. Skinned knees and bruised elbows didn’t stop me. But I was young, dumb and blindly trusted my parents.
Rory Friend, a classmate, has similar stories. His father put him on the ice at a young age. “He would tie my legs together, so I was forced to do the hockey stop if I wanted to slow down,” he says, laughing. Questionable means, but certainly effective.
Starting early seems to be the key to comfortable skating. Tyler Major-Mcnicol, a classmate and former hockey player, intends to put his two-year-old daughter Emma on the ice as soon as she can run.
Skating is so ingrained in the culture here, the question of not doing it doesn’t arise. It’s merely a matter of when and how. As a foreigner, I saw it as my inroad to acceptability in society. It wasn’t a desire to be loved, but a need to be seen as an equal; as someone who can understand and be understood. And skating was the language.
It had been an agonizing wait for my skates to arrive – the Bauer Expedition Lifestyle. A few weeks of skating had convinced me to get my own blades instead of the outrageous $24 for two-hour rentals – my pair cost $99. I was on a video call with some colleagues when I tore into the box – everyone burst out laughing seeing me being a kid under a Christmas tree. They fit snugly. They looked beautiful – matte black with thick glossy silver accents and deep red laces. I strapped them on with the blade guards and strutted around my carpeted apartment, and called everyone I knew.
Ice skates generally have blades with two edges. What looks like a single edge, is actually concave – shallow for speed and deeper for agility.
As to why you can slide on ice? Friction melting. When something moves on ice, it generates heat, melting and creating a nanometres-thin layer of water between object and ice to slide on.
None of this scientific information helped me skate, though.
I related it to riding a motorcycle – something I love. For starters, vision matters. Look up to where you want to go, and your body will do the rest. And the old racing adage continues to hold true – slow is smooth, smooth is fast. But above all, spend as much time as you can on the ice. I did, and it worked.
I was going to skate roughly 3 km to the Cineplex at Lansdowne Park on this -18 C evening. My rapidly numbing nose was leaking into my moustache, causing it to freeze solid (and taste salty). But I needed to prove I could do this as a means of conveyance and not merely play. And that evening, it was. The woman who checked my ticket openly ogled the skates in my hand, nodding her approval. It was the sort of validation I needed.
By the second half of February 2022, I was comfortable on the ice. I hadn’t fallen once since I started, and I could text or drink apple cider while skating. I was finally confident enough to skate with friends. Magan Carty’s parents are professional skating coaches and it shows in the way Magan skates, so it felt great when they validated my very beginner skill. And I was more comfortable on the ice than some friends from college – born and raised in Canada.
But this progress represented something far more important – acceptability and acknowledgement. Skating is integral to the culture – akin to learning a local language. And when Ottawans see an outsider do something obviously foreign to him, they welcome with open arms. I saw that change in small and subtle ways.
As I skated up to a Beavertails on the canal – the one on Fifth Avenue is my spot – the woman at the window commented, “You seem to be having a good skate today.” Another time, a young boy saw me slide to a stop and said, “Hey, that wasn’t bad. Good job.” Those might be genial comments, but to me they reflect that they saw me as part of the local fabric. A sign I am now seen differently. Not only do I believe I understand this society better, but this society believes I understand it better.
It’s March 5th, 2022. The National Capital Commission tweeted that the canal would close permanently for the season at 10 p.m. and I went for a farewell skate as the sun set. I love the canal at night – beautiful, peaceful and lonely. Loud chatter is replaced by the swish-swish of blades. An island of solitude nestled in the urban rush. And every bridge you skate under is a sight unto itself. Pretoria Bridge is my favourite, with its stone columns. I love the Bank Street bridge, too, and its wide archways lit with yellow lights. Flora Bridge is more modern art than a walkway. All heartachingly beautiful, lit up under a black night. It was a bittersweet skate, that last one. I stopped for a final Beavertail and an apple cider, slowly breathing in the cold air of the night. I didn’t realize how much the canal means to me. I am new to this country, but out here on the ice is where I feel most at home, connected to this society.
Sure, it is just skating, but it is where I don’t feel like an outsider.