NEWS
10/17/2011 12:00 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Spiffy new chalets soon to be added to Ottawa canal skate experience

OTTAWA - Canada's largest skating rink is being spruced up this year with some cutting-edge chalets _ thanks in part to the global economic meltdown.

The high-tech structures, to be installed on the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa next month, were paid for by the federal government's $4-billion infrastructure stimulus fund, created to fight the recession.

The seven chalets, which provide skaters with four change rooms and three washrooms, each cost an average of $750,000 for a total investment of $5.24 million.

They're replacing some of the tattered, musty buildings that have been used along the Rideau skateway since the early 1970s, when the National Capital Commission first began to shovel snow from the canal to form a giant skating rink.

The postcard-perfect venue now attracts about a million visits a season but years' of sharp skates pounding the old wooden chalets have taken their toll.

The new, roomier structures have large, well-lit windows for better security and are more accessible for the elderly and people with reduced mobility. The new washrooms are also more family friendly and have more toilets to cut down on sometimes excruciating waiting times.

At six metres wide and 18 metres long, the chalets' open, web-steel trusses are meant to mimic the arches of canal bridges. The buildings, designed by the Ottawa firm CSV Architects, are billed as environmentally friendly and expected to last 35 years.

``I think that they're really going to enhance the user experience,'' says Jasmine Leduc, a communications officer with the National Capital Commission.

The opening of the Rideau Canal skateway, a 7.8-kilometre ice surface that stretches from downtown Ottawa to the manmade Dow's Lake, is completely dependent on sometimes-fickle winter weather. In recent years, the ice has formed reliably in January for a two-month season.

In the most recent season, the rink's 41st which ran from Jan. 8 to March 6, 2011, there was a stretch of 40 consecutive days of almost perfect skating conditions.

The giant rink also serves as the centrepiece for the National Capital Commission's annual Winterlude, scheduled for Feb. 3-20 in 2012, which includes ice-sculpture competitions and other frosty activities.

Guinness World Records in July 2005 declared the skateway the ``largest naturally frozen ice rink in the world,'' though in January 2008 Guinness also acknowledged that Winnipeg is home to the world's longest rink, which is cleared on the city's frozen rivers. The giant canal rink is equivalent to the surface area of 105 NHL rinks.

Leduc says other aging portable structures are slated for replacement or renovation over the coming years, including souvenir stands, first-aid centres and information kiosks.

The commission does not own or operate the various concession stands, which include an ever-popular outlet for Beaver Tails, the flat-fried dough treat served with various toppings.

The canal itself is managed by Parks Canada, which has already begun to lower the water level. That continues until Nov. 14, when cranes drop the chalets gently onto gravel beds so plumbing and electrical connections can be made. Water levels are then raised high enough to allow the rink to begin forming as temperatures drop.

At the end of each season the structures are removed before water levels are raised in the canal.

Keeping the ice surface clean and smooth is a round-the-clock job, helped in part by a new-fangled vehicle that spreads fresh water over a wide area, much like a Zamboni on a traditional ice rink.

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If you go . . .

_ A green flag means that the skateway is open, a red flag means that it is closed.

_ Figure skates aren't recommended because they can catch on bumps and cracks in the ice surface.

_ Helmets and wrist guards are recommended and they can be borrowed from Capital Skates locations on the skateway (by Mackenzie King Bridge and Fifth Ave.). A deposit is required.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect name for the Ottawa firm CSV Architects.