Guerrilla Ice Skating in Washington — A How-To Guide

An <i>NJ</i> reporter navigates D.C.’s frozen waterways and (barely) lives to tell the tale.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 9, 2014, midnight

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Ice skat­ing on Geor­getown’s C&O Canal is nev­er a good idea. The ice isn’t all that thick, it’s littered with sticks and leaves, and there’s no easy way to climb out should the frozen sur­face give way. But with the po­lar vor­tex drop­ping D.C. to once-in-a-dec­ade tem­per­at­ures, I tried it any­way.

And des­pite a few dicey mo­ments, I sur­vived.

Past Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have ice skated on the Lin­coln Me­mori­al Re­flect­ing Pool, but that would-be rink is cur­rently drained. On the oth­er side of the Mall, the Cap­it­ol Re­flect­ing Pool is frozen over, but a quick check with the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol con­firmed skat­ing is not a sanc­tioned activ­ity. Even the Po­tom­ac River is frozen to some de­gree, but not quite ready for skat­ing.

So where to skate? It turns out, the an­swer was closer than I thought. Loc­als on Twit­ter aler­ted me to the fact that Geor­getown’s Ches­apeake and Ohio Canal — a short walk from Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Wa­ter­gate of­fices — was frozen over, and ap­par­ently leg­al for skat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice hand­book, “[i]ce skat­ing is per­mit­ted at your own risk park-wide, ex­cept where pro­hib­ited by sig­nage.”

Tues­day night, after the deep freeze had some time to do its work, I headed over, ac­com­pan­ied by NJ video­graph­er Reena Flores. The easi­est ac­cess point looked to be at a lock near the Foundry Build­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, the wa­ter still run­ning over the lock por­ten­ded the weak­ness of the ice be­hind it. A quick kick with my shoe to test its strength sent cracks run­ning in all dir­ec­tions.

I moved away from the run­ning wa­ter, hop­ing the stil­ler sur­face at the cen­ter of the canal would of­fer bet­ter-frozen ice. Tak­ing a few hes­it­ant steps with my shoes, I de­term­ined it would sup­port my weight. After get­ting my skates on, I left my wal­let, keys, and cell phone on the bank. Then, real­iz­ing I’d prob­ably want a dry coat to put on in case I fell through, I re­moved that, as well as my scarf, hat, and gloves.

My ad­ven­ture didn’t last long. After a few strides and a loop or two, I was stopped in my tracks by an echo­ing, thun­der­clap-like BOOM. Tip­toe­ing as fast as one can on skates, I made my way to the wall and heaved my­self over, heart still ra­cing. The fresh sliv­ers in the ice ex­ten­ded al­most all the way across the canal.

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The next day, we re­turned, hope­ful that an­oth­er be­low-freez­ing night had strengthened the sur­face. The site of the pre­vi­ous night’s ex­ploits still bore the evid­ence of my close call, with long cracks still run­ning nearly from bank to bank. But fur­ther up­stream, past a frozen-in-place canal boat, a long stretch of wa­ter between locks looked more in­vit­ing.

I ven­tured out with even more hes­it­ance, last night’s near-miss still in the back of my mind. The bank here was even high­er, which meant it would be more dif­fi­cult to get out if I fell through. I hoped the wa­ter was shal­low, but not as much as I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. Des­pite my fears, the ice held up, and didn’t crack when I gave it a kick.

So I put on my skates and stepped out, slowly at first, but with gradu­ally grow­ing con­fid­ence as I de­term­ined the ice would sup­port me. I picked up speed — too much speed. My skate went over a stick frozen in the ice, and, un­able to catch my­self, I went down hard. As I fell, I pic­tured the im­pact break­ing through the ice, send­ing me un­der the fri­gid wa­ter. But the ice held up ad­mir­ably, and I slid to a stop, heart once again ra­cing.

After a few more minutes of skat­ing, we called it a day, point hav­ing been proved. It was fun, ter­ri­fy­ing, and, giv­en the warm tem­per­at­ures about to roll in, not something I’d re­com­mend for any­one with much san­ity.

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