Ottawa -- Creating a chip off an old block has never sounded like much fun. Chisel in hand, I step up to a hunk of ice the size of a small freezer and decide to try for myself. Soon, ice shavings are flying off in a satisfying whoosh of spray. Although my ice-carving technique is more Frosty the Sno-cone Maker than Michelangelo, it's inspiring enough to make me want to meet a real pro.
Fortunately, Ottawa's Winterlude Festival, happening February 3 to 19, is the home of the One-Block Challenge. From February 3 to 5 at Confederation Park , you can see expert carvers from around the world face off in an extreme version of ice-carving. They have only two hours to create a sculpture out of a 140-kilogram block of ice.
"There is love behind this event," says Manoj Khorugdharry, who's been competing for five consecutive years. "Many of us are friends who meet up once a year just to do this." His project, The Snake Garden, draws its theme from his homeland of Mauritius.
"It can take a year just to develop the design," adds another carver who's straddling a large block of ice. I lean closer just as his chainsaw blasts into action inches away from my face.
"We've got only a few hours to design, chart and complete our works," he says in apology.
Wearing leather chaps to protect themselves, the carvers look more like Hell's Angels bikers than Santa and his elves. Tattoos and rippling biceps make carvers seem more ready to brawl than sculpt a masterpiece.
But brawn is an important part of winter festivals. In pagan times, boisterous outdoor activities were intended to demonstrate Nordic hardiness. Winterlude, Ottawa's annual celebration founded in 1979 by the National Capital Commission, attracts over 650,000 revellers to its four festival sites.
Deciding to slice the ice a different way, I head to the Rideau Canal Skateway, officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest naturally frozen ice rink in the world. This year marks its 36th season of skating. At Dow Lake, I rent a pair of skates, planning to skate the rink's entire 7.8-kilometre length.
With arms flailing and body teetering, I only get a few metres before I have to stop. I've arrived at the Ice Café, surrounded by a sculpture gallery made from 166 blocks of ice. Inside, at an ice bar where hot beverages are served, I talk with Marc Corriveau, chief of operations of the NCC.
"Ice is like an elastic," he says. "It rises and sinks depending on weight and weather conditions. The weight of 15 people equals 1 ton."
Deciding it's safer away from the crowd, I resume skating. Despite a few melted spots of open water, the ice feels surprisingly solid. The NCC's ice safety committee ensures it's at least 25 centimetres thick before skating is allowed.
Ice conditions are one thing. Having enough stamina to finish is another. Rubbing my sore ankles, I realize it's been decades since I wore my white leather Dorothy Hamill skates with their pink faux fur skatecovers. When a three-year-old whizzes past, creating a wind tunnel that sends me spinning, I consider turning back, but decide it's time for an energy boost.
Fortunately, the Rideau Skateway offers plenty of opportunities to grab a cup of hot chocolate and a taste of Winterlude's favourite snack beavertails. These sugary doughnut-like pastries are enough to propel me onward.
Finally, as the sun dips low, my skates slice toward Rideau Street and I reach the home stretch. Music greets me from the Snowbowl, the site of the evening's festivities, and snow falls on the turrets of Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
I may not be Hans Brinker with his silver skates, but I'm celebrating winter as only a Canadian can.