Guerrilla Ice Skating in Washington — A How-To Guide

An NJ reporter navigates D.C.'s frozen waterways and (barely) lives to tell the tale.

National Journal

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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.