If you’ve ever skated down Ottawa’s famous Rideau Canal — perhaps during Winterlude, which is on right now — you have Alain Nantel to thank for the ice beneath your skates.
While Mother Nature, of course, takes care of the basics of freezing the 7.8 km skateway, it’s Nantel, 38, and his staff that make sure the ice is just right.
“I go out on the ice every day,” says Nantel, coordinator of operations, facilities and programs for the National Capital Commission (NCC). Usually on skates, he checks out the ice to make sure it’s smooth, safe and free of snow.
He’s in charge of the contractors who shovel the canal — snow not only gets in the way of skaters, but it weighs down the ice and insulates it, causing it to melt — and those who nightly spray it with water to create a flat skating surface.
Every two or three days, he winds an auger through the ice to take a carrot-shaped sample.
He’s looking for 30 cm of good quality ice with his sample: Clear ice is the best stuff, white ice is made of water and snow, and it’s not as stable.
Nantel’s not a scientist. In fact, the Ottawa native — who grew up an avid skier and canal skater — studied business in college. His summer jobs always seemed to revolve around special events.
Eleven years ago he started working for the NCC, doing various jobs, mostly related to special events. Four years ago, he started taking care of the skateway, which is in its 39th season this year.
Critical decisions about the ice, such as when to open the skateway (Jan. 1 this year), are taken care of by the NCC’s ice safety committee, a panel of experts.
But Nantel knows his ice too, thanks to on-the-job experience, plus the help of the NCC’s comprehensive technical and safety manual on ice care. The document was created several years ago, combining information from experienced staff with scientific data.
This ice bible helps Nantel determine, among other things where to place vendors’ tents for events such as Winterlude: If they’re too heavy and too close together, they could sink or crack the ice.
When the ice is gone in spring and summer, Nantel keeps busy overseeing special events held at the NCC’s parks throughout Ottawa.
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