#Unearthed: Ice Skating In Canada

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. 

This month's 'buried treasure', entitled "Ice Skating in Canada", comes to you from the October 1885-March 1886 issue of "Outing" magazine. The author is James Macdonald Oxley, a Halifax born lawyer and adventure writer who studied at both Dalhousie and Harvard Universities.


It is a glorious winter afternoon, and, having left the smoke and din and dust of the city far behind, we are standing together at the foot of the first of the Dartmouth lakes. Straight before us, and spreading far out on either hand, lies a glistening expanse, whose polished surface flashes back the cheerful sunshine. Three unbroken miles in length, and more than one in width, this icy plain awaits us in its virgin purity. It were strange then did not our fingers tremble with impatience and our "Acmes" snap with feverish haste. They are on at last and now for the supremest luxury of motion. The crisp cool air is charged with electricity; every answering nerve tingles delightfully, and the blood leaps responsively through the throbbing pulses. Once out upon the ringing ice, and we seem to have passed from the realm of solid flesh and blood to that of "tricksy, dainty Ariel."

We have broken loose from the bonds of gravitation, and, as with favouring wind we speed away to the farther shore, every stroke of our steel-shod feet counting good for a quartette of yards, the toiling and moiling of the work-a-day world seem to have found at the margin of the lake a magic barrier beyond which they may not follow us, and with spirits light and free we glide off into a new sphere where care and labour are unknown. Mile after mile flashes past, yet our muscles weary not; nor does the breath grow short. But what is this? Is our flight already ended; and must we turn back so soon? The fir-clad shores, which were a little while ago so far apart, have drawn together, until they seem to meet not far ahead, and put a bar to farther progress. A cunning turn, a short, quick dash over the dangerous spot, where the current runs swiftly, and the ice bends ominously, and, behold! We are out again upon a second lake, still larger than the first, and dotted here and there with tiny, evergreen islets that look like emeralds in a silver setting. For three miles more our way lies before us smooth and clear, and then at last, as, having reached the limit of our enterprise, we throw ourselves upon a fallen tree to rest our now tired limbs and catch our diminished breath, I ask, which, of wheelman, horseman, yachtsman, sculler, or skater, enjoys the finest exercise?

Lord and Lady Lansdowne skating at Rideau Hall, circa 1884. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada. Credit: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-033916.

No country in the world presents better facilities for indulgence in the luxury of skating than Canada. Holland may with propriety boast of her smooth canals, Norway of her romantic fjords, Scotland
of her poetic lochs; but, for variety of lake, river, canal, pond, and frozen sea, from the majestic St. Lawrence to the humblest stream that affords delight to the village red-checked lads and lasses, Canada is unsurpassed. It is no wonder then that the Canadians are a nation of skaters, and that
the skating-rinks should be as indispensable an adjunct to every city, town, and village as the church and the concert-hall.

With a season extending over four, and often five, months, the managers of rinks can count upon receiving profitable returns upon their capital; and so these institutions multiply. Owing to the great quantity of snow which every winter brings, the season for out-door skating in Canada, is very
short, consisting usually of the middle weeks in December, when Jack Frost, by thoughtfully anticipating the snow, allows of a fortnight’s skating in the open air before the mantle of winter hides his handiwork from sight and use. As a natural consequence, Canadians are not remarkable for long-distance skating; and two winters ago the swiftest flyers of our land had to lower their banner before Mr. Axel Paulsen, the renowned Norwegian skater, who made a triumphant tour through Canada
and the United States.

On the other hand the long season enjoyed by the rinks enables all who will take the trouble, and do not shrink from a novitiate of bumps and bruises, to become exceedingly expert at fancy-skating; and
it is hardly debatable that the rinks of Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and St. John can send forth skaters, who, for grace, precision, and intricacy of movement, would find no superiors in the world. When Mr. Paulsen attempted to teach the Canadians fancy-skating he was somewhat chagrined to find himself soon reduced to the position of a learner. As an ice-acrobat he did indeed perform one or two feats that were novel; but they had only to be seen to be immediately copied; while some of the Canadians were able to open his eyes to possibilities of  "didoes" which he thought it not best to hurriedly attempt. His visit was of permanent value, however, because it awakened a deeper interest in long-distance skating; and one may safely venture the prophecy that, should Mr. Paulsen come this way again, he will find the defeat of his opponents at long distances not quite such a holiday task as on the occasion of his last visit.

Axel Paulsen

What is known in England as "figure-skating," and there very ardently indulged in by well-to-do members of the various clubs, who can afford to acquire the art in Norway or Scotland, is but little practiced in Canada. It is not suitable for rinks, as it requires so much room, and can only be done to advantage in large, open spaces, which the "figurists" may have all to themselves. Figure-skating is undoubtedly very effective and striking when executed by a band of well-disciplined skaters who thoroughly understand one another. But it is so elaborate, and takes so much time both in preparation and performance, that it is not suited to the latitude of a colony where the majority of those who skate
have no surplus of leisure, and want to make the most of the time at their disposal for recreation.

There is one phase of figure-skating however which does flourish throughout Canada, to wit, dancing; and it would delight the heart of Terpsichore herself to watch a well-skilled quartette of couples gliding through the mazes of the lancers or quadrille, or sweeping round in airy circles to the music of the waltz. The evolutions of course differ somewhat from the steps taken on the floor, but the identity of the dance is far from being lost, and the pleasure of the dancer is greatly enhanced through the surpassing ease of motion. This dancing on the ice may be seen in its perfection at Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, which, being a garrison city, enjoys the unique privilege of military bands; and the officers, as a rule, becoming enthusiastic skaters, the ladies who grace the fashionable rink by their presence have a grand time of it gliding entrancingly about to the bewitching strains of delightful
music, and bringing all their artillery of thrilling eyes, tempting cheeks, and enslaving lips to bear upon the gallant sons of Mars, who often times find the slippery floor more fatal than the tented field.

The finest rinks in Canada are those in Montreal, Halifax and Saint John. The rink at Halifax is really the Crystal Palace of the exhibition grounds, and for size, appearance, and convenience is surpassed by none. One of the most cheerful sights imaginable is this vast building on a band-night when the snow-white arena is almost hidden beneath a throng of happy skaters, youths and maidens, circling round hand-in-hand, the maiden glowing with pride at her admirer's dexterity, the youth enraptured by his charmer's roseate winsomeness. Here doth Cupid bid defiance to the chilling blasts of winter, and although the poets and painters have conspired to confine him to a garb appropriate only for the dog-days. the sly wielder of the fatal bow must in winter enwrap himself with furry garments, and
like a tiny Santa Claus, perch his chubby form unseen among the rafters, and from that coign of vantage let fly his shafts thick and fast into the merry company beneath.

Fancy Dress Skating Carnival party at Montreal, circa 1882. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-218 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

One of the chief attractions of skating, for the ambitious disciple, is that there is practically no limit to its possibilities in the way of invention and combination. It would be extremely difiicult to prepare for
any skating tournament a hard-and~fast program which would meet every requirement. Hence in competitions of this kind the custom is to lay down some twenty or thirty of the best-known feats,
which every competitor is supposed to do, and then leave each contestant to add thereto such marvels of skill as he may have picked up or invented. At the same time, of course, there may be almost as
many degrees of skill represented in the execution of the set program as there are competitors, and the judges must take this fully into consideration when making their award, and not allow their judgment to be dazzled by some particularly striking "extra."

Skating tournaments, however, are not as frequent as they ought to be. While every other recognized sport has its regularly recurring trials of proficiency, skating has hitherto been inexplicably neglected. Surely nothing could be more interesting or attractive than a gathering of accomplished skaters of both sexes vying with one another in the ease and grace with which they can illustrate the intricacies of the "grape-vine," the difficulty of the "giant swing," or the rapidity of the "locomotive." Trials of
speed are common enough at all rinks, and are undoubtedly more popular and exciting than trials of skill, but the more refined and less demoralizing competition should not be entirely neglected.

The speed attained by those who race in rinks, it need hardly be explained, affords no criterion whatever whereby to judge of what fast skaters are competent to accomplish. The incessant turns, the
sharp corners, the confined area, all tend to materially reduce the rate of progression; and only out on some broad lake or long-extending reach of river can the skater do his best. I have no records at
hand as I write, but my own experience justifies me in venturing the assertion that a champion skater in perfect form, and properly equipped with long-bladed racing-skates, would prove no mean antagonist for Maud S. herself over a measured mile, while at longer distances he would have
the field to himself.

Like all other amusements, skating in Canada waxes and wanes in popular estimation according to the mysterious laws of human impulse. One winter skating will be voted "not the thing," and the rinks
will be deserted. The next, they will be crowded, and even the heads of families will be fishing out their rusty "acmes" from the lumber-closet, and renewing their youth in the icy arena. As a means
of exercise during the long weary months of winter, when the deep snow renders walking a toil devoid of pleasure, and the muscles are aching for employment, the skating-rink is an unspeakable boon, especially to him whose lot it is to endure much "dry drudgery at the desk's dead wood." An hour's brisk spinning round will clear the befogged brain, brace up the lax frame, and give a keenness' to the appetite that nothing else could do.

Skating group at Rideau Hall, circa 1886. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada. Credit: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-027079.

Then the rink has its social as well as its sanitary advantages. During the winter months it affords both sexes a pleasant and convenient rendezvous, where, unhampered by the conventionalities of the ballroom, and aided by the cheerful inspiration of the exercise, they can enjoy one another's society with a frequency otherwise unattainable. On band-days, indeed, the rink becomes converted into a spacious salle d'assemélée, where the numbered program of musical selections enables Corydon to
make engagements in advance with Phyllis, and thus insure the prosperous prosecution of his suit.

A carnival on ice - and every rink has one or more during the season - affords a rarely interesting and brilliant spectacle. For these occasions the building dons its gala dress, the gaunt rafters are hung with
banners, the walls are hidden beneath variegated bunting, and festooned with spruce embroidery, lights gleam brightl from every nook and comer, and the ice is prepared with special care. Then, as
the motley crowd glides swiftly by, one may behold representatives of every clime and nation mingling together in perfect amity. It is true the tawny Spaniard, the dark-eyed Italian, the impassive Turk, the appalling Zulu, the soft and silent Hindoo, and others whose home lies beneath the southern skies, betray a familiarity with the ice which seems to cast some doubt upon their genuineness.

But when his Satanic Majesty himself, with barbed tail and cloven hoof, confesses to an intimacy with the mazy evolutions of the "Philadelphia grape-vine," the incongruity attaching to the visitors from cooler climes appears less striking, and they may go on their way unchallenged. Sometimes masks are de rigeur at these carnivals, and then the inevitable clown and harlequin have unlimited license, till even Quakers and friars, infected by their bad example, vie with them in mad pranks, and the fun soon waxes furious. Masked or unmasked, the carnival skaters have a joyous time, and the hours steal away with cruel haste.

Such are some of the phases of ice-skating in Canada. If this article has seemed to be devoted principally to in-door skating, it is because that can be pursued through so much greater a portion of the winter than the out-door kind. Skating, in its perfection, is of course only to be had in the open air, and my most delightful recollections are associated with the Dartmouth lakes, of happy memory. Connected with the same lakes, however, there is a recollection too thrilling to be delightful, and which, in view of what might have been, brings a shudder even now when I rehearse it.

It happened in my college days. I had been skating all the afternoon, and, as the dusk drew on apace, found myself away down at the head of the second lake, full six miles from the point where I had got
upon the ice; so, girding up my loins, I set my face towards home, and struck out lustily. After going about one hundred yards I thought I heard the sound of my name come faintly to me over the ice.
Wheeling sharply about I saw nothing except a dark form some distance away, which through the gathering gloom, resembled a log or tree-branch, and I was just about to start off again when once more my name was called, this time so clearly as to leave no chance for doubt, the sound evident-
ly coming from the seeming log. Hastening over to it with all speed, I was startled to find the professor of classics at my college - who did not allow the loss of an arm t debar him from the pleasure of skating - lying on the ice, with his left leg broken sharp and clear a few inches above the
ankle, the result of a sudden and heavy fall. Here indeed was a trying situation for a mere lad to cope with. We were alone, in a wilderness of ice, and six miles away from the nearest house. The shadows of night were fast closing around us. Those six miles had to be gotten over in some way, and there was not a moment to be lost. Hurrying to the shore I cut down a small spruce-tree. Upon this the helpless sufferer was laid as gently as possible, and bound to it with straps. Then upon this rude ambulance I slowly dragged him down the lake, while he, with splendid self-control, instead of murmuring at his terrible agony, charmed away my weariness by his unconquerable heroism. It was a toilsome task, but help came when we reached the first lake, and, once the shore was gained, a long express-wagon filled with mattresses made the homeward journey comparatively painless. "All is well that ends well." The broken leg soon mended, and the following winter found the professor skating as briskly as ever. Yet I cannot help wondering sometimes with a shudder how it would have fared with the interpreter of Greece and Rome had not that first faint call reached my ears. A bitter-cold night, a wide expanse of polished ice, a solitary man lying prone upon it with one arm missing at the shoulder and one leg broken at the ankle. It were little less than a miracle if ice-skating in Canada had not been clouded by one more catastrophe that winter night.

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