Thrawn: Skating when it's 40 below

The winter gods have a sense of humour. Last week, the temperatures were so warm, the Rideau Canal Skateway was covered with meltwater and had to be closed.  This weekend, it opens once more, but the thermometer drops to minus-29 and, with the wind chill, minus-40.

But it's the last weekend of Winterlude.  You've got to get out there! And the Scots have a word for it:  the twisted, pig-headed determination to do something in spite of all the evidence that this is a bad idea.  They call it thrawn.

And at first, it doesn't seem that there's many other skaters thrawn enough to be out there when it's 40 below.  The woman who took this picture after removing her skates was reluctant to hold the smart phone. Amazing how cold those things get in sub-Arctic temperatures. But as you can see, there's not many people around to take pictures.

But skate a couple of kilometers toward town and you can find someone who displays even more ... uh, thrawnness... thrawndom... thrawnicity...  This is David Aiken, aka the "Checkerboard Guy."

The National Capital Commission has hired him to entertain the crowds at Winterlude and there's no way that minus-40 windchill is going to put out his fire -- even if his audience prefers to huddle close to theirs.

He asks the audience whether he should stand on the table to perform his stunt. He asks them whether he should stand on a trunk on top of the table. He asks them whether he should set the trunk up lengthwise. At first, the crowd is too cold to respond, but by the time he steps up in the 20 kph wind, he has our attention. With help from the audience, he lights his torches.


He begins to juggle. Then he asks the crowd if they want him to stand on one leg, on top of an up-ended trunk on top of a picnic table, in a 20 kph wind making the temperature 40 below.  Needless to say, we were impressed!

But David Aiken, the Checkerboard Guy, was not the only thrawn individual out on the skateway this afternoon.  This gentleman was on his way to Dow's Lake and the Arboretum where he planned to go snowshoeing.  Yes, those are his snowshoes at the back of his pack.  It looks like he's planning to camp for the winter!

It seems that people of all ages can be thrawn enough to go skating on the coldest day of winter.

At the downtown end of the skateway, the crowds get thicker.

But the biggest crowds are gathered around the changing sheds.


There's so many people waiting to change their skates and boots inside the shed...

...that's it's easier just to brave the freeze on your fingers and change outside.

That's where you meet the most interesting people, of course:  thrawn, every one of them!  This couple had driven from Aurora, Ontario, to enjoy Winterlude and 40-below wind chills were not going to dissuade them.  But how cold was it?  It was so cold that the blade on this man's skate snapped off! The plastic just couldn't handle the temperatures. It was only the second time he had used these skates. The price tag was still on the sole.

With boots back on, and skates tucked inside the backpack, it's just a short walk to Confederation Park for some of the off-ice attractions of Winterlude ...

-- including free hot chocolate and cookies.

When it gets this cold, the line-up for Beavertails isn't very long.

And the live performances have been cancelled, but people still gather by the fire pits.


But they do line up to see the ice sculptures.  There's an international competition.  In honour of our friend Homero, here's the Mexican entry.  It probably looked better a couple of weeks back before the warm weather came. It looks quite comfortable in this kind of cold though.

Folks love to get their pictures taken with the giant ice sculptures. This one commemorates the 100th birthday of the National Research Council of Canada.

A quick and cold walk across downtown and it was time to meet friends and the Royal Oak pub.  How cold was it? When the time came to take a commemorative shot of our gathering, the camera was so frozen it could no longer function. But a hot rum toddy and some good conversation, and it was time to go back to the canal again...

For the long, thrawn skate home.