"I’m 53 and have been skating here every year since I was 16... It’s something I cherish. I just love it."

—Ottawa native Francoise Lavigne

The calendar may say otherwise, but for many Ottawans, winter only officially began on the weekend.

Residents, out-of-towners, longtime skaters and toddlers on their first pair of blades flooded out to enjoy the opening weekend of the Rideau Canal Skateway.

For many, winter in Ottawa wouldn’t be complete without a skate along the outdoor rink that has become an icon of the capital.

“Skating on the canal is a tradition for us,” said Mike Roper.

“We live nearby — just on First Avenue — so we make as much use of the canal as possible,” said Roper, who often skates the canal after work. “There’s so much fresh air and the temperature is nice. We’re really spoiled.”

Thousands of skaters added up to a “busy” first weekend on the skateway, said National Capital Commission spokeswoman Kathryn Keyes.

“The conditions were good and we look forward to more cold weather so we can open additional sections.”

The first section of ice to open so far is less than two kilometres long. But Ottawans weren’t fazed by news that the City of Winnipeg had opened a skateway along its Red River that stretched more than eight kilometres, challenging Ottawa’s record for the world’s longest outdoor skating rink.

Even if Ottawa lost its title, it wouldn’t bother city resident Jack Klein at all. “This would still be my favourite,” he said.

Skating on the canal is what makes an Ottawa winter worthwhile for many.

“I’m 53 and have been skating here every year since I was 16,” said Ottawa-born Francoise Lavigne. “It’s something I cherish. I just love it.

“We like to come down here and look around and enjoy the atmosphere,” she said. “There are a lot of people, a lot of kids.”

While skating is a longstanding tradition for some, Arnprior resident Alex Taylor and his kids were just starting one yesterday. Taylor took his son Lucas, 5, skating for the first time.

“We’re just introducing him to it and this is a good place to start,” he said.

Gatineau resident Cora Capurro also stood in skates for the first time yesterday.

Supported by Ken Donaldson, Capurro wobbled in her brand-new skates near the edge of the skateway.

“I was excited for the opening,” said Capurro. “I bought skates so that I would have to learn.”