"Skate the Lake" takes new approach for 20th anniversary in Portland, Ont.


Volunteers of a popular skating event in the village of Portland, Ontario in the township of Rideau Lakes are working on reinventing the way they have organized races for 20 years. Traditionally, Skate the Lake was held on the last weekend of January, but event organizers say the pandemic and climate change have organizers reconsidering that approach.

"Twenty years ago we picked the last weekend of January to organize an exciting weekend of speed skating races on Big Rideau Lake because it is traditionally the coldest weekend of the winter here, but the weather is so unreliable that it doesn’t make sense to plan so far ahead anymore," says John Bongers, president of Portland Outdoors, the volunteer group that is behind Skate the Lake. "To deal with the reality of frequent warming spells and rain we are going to experiment with pop-up style events where we will decide on races only a few days in advance when we have a clear picture of the short-term weather forecast," Bongers said.

Every year, Portland Outdoors prepares an impressive one-kilometre oval on the shallow bay in front of the village. This area has hosted the North American Marathon Speed Skating Championships in 2006 and 2014.

Event organizers explain that during the pandemic, Portland Outdoors volunteers switched focus from being a mostly Skate the Lake weekend-focused group to an organization focused on opening the oval as early as safely possible and keeping it open as long as possible. They continue, saying the formula of offering a safe and healthy physical outdoor activity proved a very successful combination and the Skate the Lake Challenge was introduced. The Skate the Lake Challenge is open as long as the oval is open and individual skaters track their total kilometres throughout the season.

January 2023 was the first time in three years that a Skate the Lake weekend was planned due to the pandemic, but the event had to be cancelled because of poor ice conditions, the same reason that the Ottawa Rideau Canal never opened for skating.

"We are taking our twentieth anniversary to try something new. Instead of picking a date months in advance we will look at the short-term forecast and make a call to host races when we are sure the weather is favourable, much like pop-up events are called at the last minute," said Bongers.

Portland Outdoors is hosting a meeting for any new volunteers who would like to get involved. The meeting will be at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #231 at 2314 Harlem Road on November 27th at 7:00 p.m. Organizers say volunteers with marketing, writing, and social media experience as well as volunteers with experience in running and timing events are particularly needed.

With files by CFRA's Connor Ray