Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Renfrew – There is nothing quite like throwing on the skates and heading out for a family skating day on one of the smoothest outdoor ice surfaces found anywhere in the Ottawa Valley.
And that’s exactly what members of the Freemark family did Sunday on the popular oval ice track at the Mateway Activity Centre in Renfrew.
Although the wind made the day feel like -20 C, it didn’t deter the Freemarks or others from enjoying the 400 meter circular track, an emerging hidden secret. The arena has been closed since early January leaving one less location where public skating is usually held.
However, these are unusual times due to COVID-19 that has resulted in all municipal facilities being closed. Prior to the most recent provincial lockdown, the interior skating rink was a popular destination. Jo-anne Caldwell, Program Developer with the Town of Renfrew’s Recreation Department, said the installation of the track is proving to be one of the most popular recreational attractions in the area.
“We had a skating oval last year and it was on the Bluegrass camping area,” she told the Leader. “While it was well used and loved in that location, when we asked for feedback, the most common response we heard was the desire to have nighttime lighting so the users could skate at night. We do not have power on that side of Ma-te-Way Park so the oval was moved to its current location and the response has been phenomenal.”
The one comment heard over and over from those who have skated on the oval is the quality of the ice surface. Unlike most outdoor rinks that are quickly filled with holes and ruts, the oval is incredibly smooth and Ms. Caldwell credits this to the recreational staff.
“Building and maintaining the pristine condition of the ice surface is not a one-time effort,” she said. “The skating oval is situated on the 400m running track so it is approximately 400m. The outdoor ice is maintained on a daily basis with flooding occurring twice during the day and additional floods once the oval is closed. Staff are really able to work on the oval when it’s cold out. When it drops to -14 Celsius and colder, those are the best nights for us.”
Unfortunately, it seems almost every function or event that is held requires the need to take into account all aspects of proper COVID precautions in order to make it as safe as possible for users. Unable to use the indoor skating rink and moving public skating to the large outdoor track seemed like an easy transition. However, Ms. Caldwell said the rec department involved the local health unit each step of the way to ensure a fun and safe outdoor activity.
“We worked very closely with the Renfrew County and District Health Unit throughout the pandemic and were able to open the arena to the public in August,” she said. “At that time, the limit for the arena was 50 people and there were a couple of days when we came close to that number. Public skating continued indoors throughout the fall. However, with the skating moved outdoors, there is far more space for social distancing. In addition, the oval is monitored on an hourly basis and we keep records of the number of users.”
On Sunday, the Freemark family had no worries of social distancing when they laced up the blades and practically had the entire oval to themselves. Even with the thermometer dropping to -18, and even colder when you take into account the wind chill, the three generations took advantage of the cold weather and raced around the ice much to the delight of the entire clan.
The family agreed this would be the day that five-year old M.J. O’Reilly would take the plunge and skate around the entire track on a pair of skates. As proud grandmother Kathy Lindsay agreed with the idea, she just could not resist pushing her grandson around the track on what could best be described as mini-coach.
Ms. Lindsay, who is much more accustomed to having a paddle in her hands as one of organizers of the annual Celebrate Our Rivers paddle events along several Ottawa Valley rivers, joked that whether it is ice or water, it is important to get out and enjoy the fresh air.
“Oh sure I think I would rather be paddling, but this is a rare time that we have three generations of our family out for a family skate so I am certainly taking advantage of it,” she said.
Sarah Freemark could not stop smiling as she skated several laps on the rink and was thrilled her hometown was also home to such a well maintained ice surface.
“The pandemic can make family feel far away even when we’re all so close,” she said. “Skating at the oval allows three generations of our family to get outside, get active and safely spend time together. As well, we managed to get M.J. up on skates for awhile, but he is still learning and what a way to learn.”
It is that type of feedback that motivates Ms. Caldwell to promote the ice oval as a means to stay active in the age of COVID-19.
“Since the oval was opened on December 18, more than 3000 people have come out to use it,” she said. “That takes into account it was closed from December 24 through December 30 due to bad weather. It may seem like COVID has made recreation and exercise even more difficult to do, but this ice track just goes to show that even on the coldest days of the year, people want to get outside and stay active, and the oval certainly offers a unique chance to do just that.”
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader