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Skaters cast shadows over the Rideau Canal this past Jan. 21, the first of a four-day window when the public could use only part of the surface this year.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, commentator and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Warming oceans, flooding cities, dwindling aqueducts, burning forests: Climate change is the mournful march of the new Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Yet this is no longer just about geography, security and prosperity. Now it’s about identity, too.

Global warming is unsentimental. It poses a cruel threat to the rituals of our national life. Hiking on the (shrinking) Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park. Salmon fishing in the (warming) Fraser River. Visiting (melting) Bonhomme’s Ice Palace in Quebec City. Ice fishing on the (thinning) Saguenay Fjord. Skiing on (snowless) Grouse Mountain and Mount Washington in British Columbia.

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On Jan. 21, people pass an opening in the fence around a closed section of the canal.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

And now, skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the largest natural skating rink in the world. Celebrated at home and abroad for its size and accessibility, beloved by generations of skaters, and hailed as an emblem of the national capital, it is no longer a fixture of winter. Like the ideal of home ownership in Canada and democracy in America, this is one of those things we can no longer assume.

Climate change has come for the Rideau Canal Skateway. In 2023, for the first time in its history, the canal did not open to skaters. This year, it opened on Jan. 21 – actually, a quarter of its surface opened – and closed on Jan. 24. Three weeks on, in the middle of February, it remains closed. As I write this, the temperature in Ottawa has suddenly dropped sharply, suggesting the Skateway will reopen soon. But even if that happens, the season will be comparatively short.

Is this the beginning of the end of a half-century of skating on a historic waterway that UNESCO has called “the best-preserved example” of a canal of its kind in North America? Is the Rideau Canal following the Seine in Paris, the canals of Amsterdam and the lochs of Scotland, which all once froze? Today, Pieter Bruegel the Elder could not paint happy peasants gliding on a river in Flanders, as he did in Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters and Bird Trap in 1565. And Mary Mapes Dodge could not write the novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, as she did in 1865.

Skating may disappear from the Rideau Canal, too, though not without a fight. This is the story of a winter tradition that, yes, may become another casualty of global warming. But it’s also the story of an effort to save the skating season with ingenuity, and science in the service of nature.

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Crowds gather on the canal for a parade of NHL trophies on Jan. 12, 2012, in the leadup to an all-star game to be played in Ottawa that weekend. Warm weather kept the canal season that year to just 28 skating days; in an average year, there are about 50.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Turning part of the canal into a skateway was the idea of Douglas Fullerton, chair of the National Capital Commission, who laced up for the start of its first season in 1971. Ottawa Citizen via The Canadian Press
The skateway cannot open unless the solid ice is at least 30 centimetres deep. Even when the canal freezes, fluctuating temperatures can play havoc with it, such as when these cracks formed in 2002. Jim Young/Reuters
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Workers flood the canal on Feb. 1, 2023, before a skating season that was called off due to mild weather.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Looking at the statistical record of formally organized skating on the Rideau Canal, you might say the ice has been buckling since the day the Skateway officially opened in 1971 on a small stretch of the frozen canal downtown. But the trend is inconsistent. Some winters the canal has had long skating seasons (95 days in 1971-72); some winters there have been short ones (18 days in 2015-16, preceded by 59 days in 2014-15). The average skating season is 50 days.

A reliable winter has meant skating on the 7.8 kilometres of vast, natural ice, from Hartwells Lockstation at Carleton University to just before the locks between Parliament and the Château Laurier. From Carleton, the surface swells at Dow’s Lake and then narrows through leafy neighbourhoods, bordered by Queen Elizabeth Driveway and Colonel By Drive, a pair of Anglo-Saxon icons who haven’t been cancelled. The canal is shaded by bridges and overpasses, supported by sturdy stone walls. On a crisp, snowy day at twilight it can be otherworldly, a ballet of blades moving to a rhythm of its own, recalling the canals of Czarist St. Petersburg.

The skating rink is only a fraction of the 202 kilometres of the Rideau Canal, which was built in the 19th century linking Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River. Today the longer canal is used by boaters and cottagers in summer. In winter, around Ottawa, it is an urban tapestry worthy of Currier and Ives.

Almost everyone is on skates. Couples, hand in hand, gliding in lockstep. Toddlers on (double-bladed) “cheese cutters,” falling. Kids roughhousing. Mothers pushing babies in carriages. Civil servants in hooded parkas, carrying briefcases. Parliamentarians on their way to the Hill, like the late John Godfrey, who sported a flowing Tyrolean coat and flamboyant headwear. Truant students in vintage anoraks. Speed skaters straining in bright, skin-tight Lycra, floating over polished marble. Novices, bundled up, lurching down an icy corduroy road.

Lining the canal are red warming cabins and wooden kiosks selling hot chocolate and other treats. Dunrobin Distilleries, a local business, offers the “Northern Spike,” a cocktail of hot maple sap and a shot of whiskey. The most popular confection is the BeaverTail, fried dough dusted with sugar or dripping with maple syrup, sold by the thousands.

In good weather, on a Saturday, 30,000 to 40,000 people may be on the ice, skating, curling or playing shinny. In 2018-19, the canal accommodated a record 1.5 million visitors. It is the seat of Winterlude, an annual festival featuring ice carvings, races and concerts. In mild weather, it becomes “Waterlude” and activities shift away from the canal.

For Catherine McKenna, who was Canada’s second longest-serving minister of the environment, the canal is a refuge. She is one of its champions. It opened the year she was born in Hamilton, where she did little skating. When she moved to Ottawa from Asia and settled near the canal, she bought a pair of figure skates. Soon she was skating “inelegantly” every day to the office. One very cold morning, she hit a divot, fell and broke her elbow. The canal draws Ms. McKenna in all seasons, influencing her busy postpolitical career fighting climate change. “We have the solutions,” she says of the symptomatic challenges of the compromised Skateway. “We need to recognize what we stand to lose and act to protect it.”

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Catherine McKenna, in a red hat and shirt, arrives at a 2018 news conference after paddling the Rideau Canal to kick off the official Parks Canada season.David Kawai/The Canadian Press

For me, skating on the canal is social history. As a student at Carleton in the late 1970s, we made frosty weekend pilgrimages there, followed by dinners of chili, beer and laughter. As a professor, I kept skates in my office, steps from the canal, and occasionally laced up at lunch.

The quality of the surface and the length of the season were matters of Talmudic debate among us. We knew the shifting nature of the ice – where it heaved, sighed and rippled, where we found “the rough places a plain,” as the prophet Isaiah says in a slightly different context. We knew good ice (clear, colourless) and bad ice (white, cloudy). We knew floating ice the way traders know floating currencies. With the canal closed for much of this season, enthusiasts like myself despair. It is the loss of another certainty in a world no longer certain, leaving a sense of longing.

For Ottawa, the canal is not just about playing, exercising or commuting. It is about tourism and jobs, too. Residents had skated on the canal informally for almost 150 years before Douglas Fullerton of the National Capital Commission (NCC) proposed a designated quarter for skating, cleared initially with brooms and shovels. But creating a proper skating rink was a capital idea, the beginning of this long avenue of imagination winding its way through a grey, frozen capital.

It has made Ottawa more than a city that has failed to build reliable light rail or develop its Lansdowne Park with creativity. A city so mismanaged that it allowed truckers to paralyze its downtown for three weeks in February, 2022, becoming an international embarrassment.

The Rideau Canal Skateway, though, is the best of Ottawa. It allows the city to aspire to be a Nordic capital, finding inspiration in its outdoors, and perhaps architecture and culture, too, looking to emulate Oslo and Stockholm more than Washington and London. If skating on the canal were to disappear, it would rob Ottawa of that piece of identity, leaving it to its glorious Gatineau Park and other natural wonders, but also to its tired ByWard Market and forlorn Sparks Street mall.

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Workers with a chainsaw adjust a stairway to the canal this past January. Making the canal safe for winter use is a months-long undertaking that may not pay off if the weather is poor.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Tobi Nussbaum, chief executive officer of the National Capital Commission, which manages the Skateway, sees the challenge. The NCC maintains the canal for skating, which requires an army to install cabins, ramps and staircases in the autumn, then clear the snow and create the skating rink. It costs $1-million a year.

“At the NCC, we think of skating on the Rideau Canal as not only a quintessentially Canadian activity but core to our identity as a northern nation with a winter capital,” says Mr. Nussbaum, who was a career diplomat and city councillor before his appointment in 2019. “By being active and outside in a public space, no matter the temperature, often with family or friends, we evoke resilience, courage, community and good cheer.” Mr. Nussbaum’s responsibilities include overseeing federal lands, parks, pathways, ceremonial avenues and six official residences, including 24 Sussex Dr. Climate change has shaped his thinking as the NCC reclaims the shores of the Ottawa River, offers new multipurpose trails, renews facilities and expands access to recreation.

It is 9.9 C the day we meet in early February, a record high for the date in Ottawa, after the world’s warmest January. The convivial Mr. Nussbaum arrives on his bike, lightly dressed, an early harbinger of spring.

He explains the strategy: Rather than leaving the ice of the Rideau Canal entirely to the weather, as helpless as the fading snows of Kilimanjaro and the ebbing waters of the Dead Sea, the NCC plans to adopt new ways to save skating here.

One is creating a fleet of robots to address the snow. The purpose of the machines, designed by engineers at Carleton and the NCC, is to assess the condition of the ice and sweep the snow when the surface cannot support heavier equipment. These “snobots” – now a prototype – would each weigh about 50 kilograms, resembling a remote-controlled toy truck and a tiny snowplow.

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A skier and their dog enjoy the powder along the canal at Dow's Lake after a snowstorm this past December.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

The reason for this delicate clearing is that snow is the enemy of ice. It acts as a blanket, preventing the surface from freezing and supporting skaters, says Shawn Kenny, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Carleton. Snow slows the rate at which ice grows, he explains. The idea is to use the machines earlier in the season, helping the developing ice thicken.

Knowing the canal needs at least 30 centimetres of ice to support skating, the NCC is exploring how to meet challenges such as surface-water runoff, road salt, and heated water from underground pipes emptying into the canal.

Mr. Nussbaum talks of diverting the warm-water sources and using cannons to shoot slush onto the ice, helping it congeal faster. Another possibility is thermosyphons, a passive heat-exchange system that brings the cold in and pushes the hot out.

The big job remains removing snow, fundamental to exposing the ice to the air. It’s daunting. Every centimetre that falls generates 125,000 kilograms of snow to deal with on the canal.

Still, science can only go so far. Cold has to happen, water has to freeze, ice has to form. Technology can coax what nature has delivered for the past half-century, but it will take time.

Skaters are impatient. On the day that part of the canal opened last month, for the first time since 2022, thousands of giddy burghers lined up at 9 a.m. like early-bird bargain hunters on Black Friday. When the NCC delayed the opening, they rebelled. They breached the fence and poured onto the ice, a mass act of civil disobedience shocking in a staid government town.

That rush to the ice, exercising what journalist and professor Randy Boswell eloquently called “the freedom to skate,” shows anew the appeal of tradition in the hollow of winter. It’s simple recreation, but it’s something more: an expression of conviviality, character and country.

“The struggle to keep the Skateway open not only lays bare the climate crisis,” Mr. Nussbaum says, “it feels like a battle to conserve a critical part of our collective understanding of who we are as Canadians.”

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