It might be a case of FOMO, but no matter in which country we live, El and I try to keep a tourist mentality. Why live in a cool new place if you're just going to do the same things you could easily do back home? Since we've been in Toronto, some of our Canadian friends have joked that we've seen more of their own country than they have. With some "little harder to reach" destinations like Vancouver, Calgary (+ Banff & Jasper), Kelowna, Montreal, Quebec City, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia ticked off, we decided to keep our latest mini-vacay closer to home, in Ontario. Last year, our friends Brad and Chelsea told us about how every winter the Rideau Canal in Ottawa becomes the world's largest ice rink, and people skating it can stop at food stalls and bars set up along the way. Since El has gone almost full Canadian since moving here (playing hockey every Tuesday, wearing flannel, and growing one hell of a beard), he's been counting down the days and triple dekeing his way through winter until we got to skate it. So going totally against all conventional wisdom, we decided to make the four hour 15 minute drive to Ottawa in the middle of winter.
The drive from Toronto is a pretty straight-forward and, if you take the route along the lake, scenic one. Once you start making moves away from Lake Ontario, the temp starts to drop considerably. It's not surprising for Ottawa to be a good ten degrees colder than Toronto, even if it's only a few hours away and still in the same province. As we drove through it, Canada's capital, reminded me a lot of Buffalo, NY: a pretty downtown area surrounded by colorful neighborhoods. What makes Ottawa stand out though are the impressive parliamentary and judicial buildings set along the Ottawa River. With architecture that screams British influence, you could easily get confused and think you were back in London. When I was there for work in December, the buildings were all lit up in holiday colors, and there were all sorts of people hanging around and enjoying the light show. Queen Liz would flip her knickers if they did that to Big Ben.
The Story of the Great White North
Our first stop was the Canadian Museum of History, only across the river but technically in Quebec (so I guess it's the Museé Canadien de L'Histoire?). I've been to some pretty impressive history museums all over the world, and am hella hard to impress, but the Canadian Museum of History was BAD ASS. Not only was the building massive and looked to be recently renovated, but the exhibitions were straight up awesome. There was an entire hall dedicated to First Nations history, and it was like a life-sized diorama of the different tribes who lived in different geographic locations (plains, arctic, forest, coastal, etc.). What made it really cool though was the fact that it didn't just focus on the history of the tribes; there were contemporary artifacts and stories about prominent First Nations tribe members today.
There was also a separate exhibition that focused on First Nations tribes in the Pacific Northwest. I mentioned in my Vancouver post that El and I are really fascinated by the PacNW tribes and their art, and this exhibition didn't disappoint. I don't know if this was planned, or if I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but the exhibition was in a grand hall that had a ceiling shaped like a canoe and a wall of windows that had pillars in the shape of paddles. Opposite of the windows were a couple dozen of both colorful and plain wooden totem poles. Every totem had a story, and the descriptions made me notice things I wouldn't normally have, like how the beavers depicted would have a block of wood in their mouths. Inside the great hall there were "houses" that housed different exhibits that focused on the many aspects of the tribes' lifestyles, making it seem like you were actually becoming part of the exhibition when you crossed the threshold.
The last museum section we went through was the Great Canadian Hall, which was exactly what it sounds: a tour through the Great White North. From paleo-lithic Canada (complete with a mammoth bone!) to present day, the whole exhibition did a great job incorporating multiple narratives into its chronology. It didn't JUST focus on the post-contact European perspective; it also gave an "okay, this was going on with the French colonists, but here's what was happening with the First Nations tribes" perspective. I was also glad to see they included the history of women's, the LGBTQ community's, and people with disabilities'(amongst others) rights; I recently watched a TedTalk about "the danger of a single story" (100% recommend checking it out), and the Great Canadian Hall was a good reminder about how everyone's story makes a country. I was also reminded that Quebec likes to do its own thing. Like, all the time.
Beaver Tails on ice
After checking into our hotel, we made a beeline to the Rideau Canal. There are a few spots along the route where you can actually enter the ice, so we went to the one at the beginning and right downtown. Unlike an ice rink, you climb down stairs from the sidewalk and you are ON the ice. There aren't any plastic mats to walk on to get to the skate rentals or food stalls, so I had to walk really carefully not to totally wipe out. Because it was right downtown, the whole area was really crowded and I had to wait in a ridiculously long line to rent a pair of skates for $22. El brought his own skates, so he got us two Beaver Tails to eat while we waited. Beaver Tails are a winter Canadian tradition, especially when skating the Rideau Canal, and we were told by more than one person we had to have one. A Beaver Tail is basically a fried dough flatbread topped with whatever goodies you'd like. We split a cinnamon sugar original and a chocolate topped one and almost immediately went into diabetic shock. Effing WORTH IT though.
Once I finally got a pair of skates on my feet, we set off on the 7.8km (4.8mi) route. The sun was shining, so the canal was crowded with not just skaters, but also people with walkers, strollers, and even sleighs. Winterlude was also going on, so every few kms, there were poutine and other food stalls, fire pits, hot chocolate, and music playing. The whole atmosphere was so fun, if not cut-throat. It was definitely every person for themselves, and no one was getting out of the way for other people. In my case, it was mostly because I couldn't stop. This was my first time skating on a natural waterway, and God isn't exactly riding a zamboni to keep that ice smooth. There were plenty of cracks in the ice that made it a more treacherous, and the wind wasn't exactly forgiving, but I somehow managed not to fall once. That's not through lack of my body trying though; I did the "arms flailing" thing a few times, and spent half the skate bent over at the waist b/c I was convinced a lower center of gravity would help me stay upright (ironic, isn't it?). Any time I thought I was getting into my skating groove, I quickly got brought back to reality when a four year old whizzed by me like some pint-sized Oksana Baiul. Towards the end of the route, part of the ice was blocked off for something called an "Ice Dragon Boat" race. I guess this is a thing, and I am HERE.FOR.IT! The national championships were in Ottawa that weekend, and we were lucky enough to catch a semi-final race of eight people in wooden boats use what looked like crutches to "row" their boat across the ice. It looked like some teams were supporting different charities, and everyone seemed to be having a blast. It was the most Canadian thing I've seen since.... skating on a frozen canal after eating a Beaver Tail.
After returning our skates, we rewarded ourselves with a few beers and dinner at Craft Beer Market before acting our age and hitting the hay by 10. Lame, thy name is Courtney and Elliot. The next morning, we walked around the different government buildings and got some photos in the sunshine before making our way back to Toronto. With a Beaver tail and a skate on the UNESCO Heritage Rideau Canal, our short but oh so Canadian trip to Ottawa was complete. Until next year, when I'm in the Ice Dragon boat finals...
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