By Brian Preston
On the fourth weekend in January every year since 2004, the little hamlet of Portland in eastern Ontario hosts what has become an annual winter outdoor tradition — the International Big Rideau Lake Speed Skating Marathon, also known as Skate the Lake. One of its founders, Marco Smits, who hails from Holland, is an avid speed skater.
Canadian winters can be spent in hibernation enjoying indoor pursuits, or, as many of us prefer, embracing the delights of snow and ice. Here in Portland, it’s an opportunity to make use of Big Rideau Lake and get both the community and visitors out on the one-kilometre ice-skating oval to enjoy a recreational skate or even participate in an officially recognized international speed skating competition.
Portland is a small community and doesn’t have an indoor arena, but it’s probably the only little town that owns a Zamboni to lay down ice that looks like glass on the huge open expanse of the lake.
It’s amazing to see the preparations for the big weekend. Volunteers are out all night sweeping the snow off the lake’s surface with their trucks, while the Zamboni helps create the beautifully smooth ice surface needed for speed skating.
We get skaters from all over North America and several have even come from Europe in past years. Events consist of a five-kilometre race for kids, a relay race, an adult five-kilometre race, 10 and 25-kilometre races and, the granddaddy of them all, a 50-kilometre race for really serious competitors
Back in 2009, Rick Mercer attended the event and filmed a hilarious segment for his popular TV show.
Canadian Olympic medal speed-skater Tania Vincent was there as well. The weekend offers activities for everyone, including a separate kids’ hockey rink, a curling rink where the stones consist of stainless-steel bowls filled with cement and make-shift handles. There are hay bales and firepits on the ice and tents and kiosks where you can buy hot food and drinks, including the hallmark Dutch green pea soup called “snert” and much more.
It really has a community festival feeling and everyone is welcomed with a big smile and encouraged to participate in all the free activities. After the races, people can skate on the oval at their own pace and the rink is maintained and kept clear for several weeks after the event. This year, Skate the Lake is planned for the weekend of Jan. 28-29, so mark it on your calendar and we’ll see you there.
Visit skatethelakeportland.com for more info.