By 9:59 p.m., the throngs on the frozen Rideau Canal have thinned out, but diehard skaters linger long after nightfall. A half-dozen boys criss-cross in and out of pools of lamplight, cutting each other off by the narrowest margins. They don’t put the grey-haired couple who glide elegantly out from under the arches of the Bank Street Bridge off their stride. The last of the day’s tourists snap cellphone pictures commemorating their visit to the world’s largest skating rink.
Few of the skaters realize, though, that a celebrity of sorts is being prepared at that moment to join them for its nightly tour of the canal. The “Froster,” a new ice resurfacer introduced to acclaim this winter, is being pumped full of water from a hole drilled in Dows Lake, the southern tip of Ottawa’s famous 7.8-km “skateway.” The machine looks like an outsized version of the familiar Zamboni, except the Froster features retractable wings that spread out at ice level on each side, allowing it to distribute water evenly across a span of nearly 20 m.
It was designed by Robert Taillefer, of nearby Gatineau, Que., who won the canal ice-maintenance contract with the National Capital Commission five years ago. The skateway, which the NCC says attracts 20,000 skaters on an average winter’s day, had always been kept up by flooding it with hoses overnight, using water drawn by portable pumps from some 250 holes drilled along the canal’s length. For four winters, Taillefer did it that way, spending many dark, bitter hours gripping an icy firehose. “When I was flooding at night, 30 degrees below, it was just inhuman,” he says. “I thought, there has to be a better way.”
But he discovered that nobody makes a machine suitable for flooding such a long, wide rink. The conventional Zamboni-type resurfacers used in arenas don’t hold nearly enough water, and cover a strip far too narrow to be practical on the canal’s expanse. So Taillefer designed his own solution, hiring his friend Sylvain Fredette, a welder, to build it. They used a lot of lightweight aluminum, so that even when filled to its 1,000-gallon capacity, the Froster won’t crash through the ice. The machine’s wings drag mats that leave behind just enough water. “It’s like a giant squeegee,” Taillefer says.
And it makes better ice. Flooding the old way with a hose filled cracks unevenly, and the water often froze in ripples as it spread. The canal ice this winter is markedly more even, with fewer deep fissures to catch an edge and send a skater tumbling. Taillefer, 38, tests it the only way that counts: “I skate every morning myself to make sure everything’s good, and I see the skaters smiling.”
At 10 p.m. sharp the Froster is full and starts rolling slowly across Dows Lake to where it narrows and joins the historic canal. To reach the far end will take at least five hours. Two spotlights on each side of the machine are trained on the wings. The freshly flooded trail left behind is turned silvery grey by a half moon. Skaters allow barely enough time for freezing before they zip out to test the new surface. The popular verdict: better than ever.