In Ottawa, a canal that runs through the city turns into a skater’s paradise when it freezes, with some people even using it to commute. Creating the same thing along the C&O Canal, which runs through Georgetown, could be physically possible, but there are a lot of steps to get there.
The skateway runs along the Rideau Canal, from downtown Ottawa to the south, cutting through some of Ottawa’s densest urban neighborhoods.
I've been obsessed with the Rideau skateway since I first learned about it eight years ago. My wife was in Ottawa on an academic trip and skated on it. She even met a professor who commutes to the university daily by skates in the winter.
When I started working at the Georgetown BID three years ago, I moved into offices right next to the C&O Canal, which runs through the heart of Georgetown's commercial district. Some winters, the canal ice gets very thick and smooth, and skating becomes viable for a short window— granted, sometimes creaking and cracking ice makes one doubt the wisdom of this.
With the Rideau skateway in mind, and knowing that we get deep freezes in DC at least once or twice per winter, I decided to analyze whether we could establish a similar winter ice skating environment on the one-mile section of the canal in Georgetown.
According to the managers of the Rideau skateway, maintaining the surface as a safe place to skate is a bit more involved than just waiting for it to freeze. They use a wonderful application of physics and mechanical water pumping to create more ice than would naturally occur, and to keep it smooth over the course of the winter.
In terms of physics, keeping the Rideau skateway safe for skating works like this:
Sheet ice freezes from the top down due to sub-freezing air temperatures, while the water underneath has an insulating effect, and is itself insulated by the ice above it. To take advantage of this physical property, the Rideau managers drill through the ice nightly and pump water from below onto the top of the ice, flooding the surface. The cold night air then freezes the water on the surface, thickening the total amount of ice.
After a few nights of repeating this process during freezing weather, the ice gets very thick, more or less eliminating the possibility of a skater falling through thin ice.
Apparently, this technique allows the skateway to open earlier in the season than it could with just natural freezing. You can see the layering effect, and just how thick the ice is at the 10 second mark of this video about the Rideau skateway:
Upon learning this, I was encouraged that even though it freezes far less frequently (and reliably) here than in Ottawa, we might be able to manage the conditions in a way that we could create more ice than nature would on its own.
The main requirement for turning the C&O into a place where you can skate is at least a few weeks of below-freezing temparatures at night, and daytime highs that don’t exceed around 45 degrees for the same period. The good news is that those conditions are somewhat typical of our winters (this week notwithstanding), and thus the C&O could someday be managed for regular icy recreation.
Unfortunately, developing the idea further at this time is a moot point since the canal is undergoing repairs to two of its locks, and will remain drained through spring 2018.
Also, what I haven't fully explored are all of the potentially problematic insurance issues, points of access, co-management with NPS, and management costs that would be involved with such a project.
But based on what I know at this point, I remain convinced that it would be physically possible to ensure a sound skating surface for a larger portion of the winter on the C & O Canal. It’s an intriguing idea, at least, and one I have not been able to let go.