“Just as we went under the Chain Bridge in the middle of the channel heading north, the ice gave way and the three of us fell in.”


Ed. Note: If you disagree with the OPs about the safety of skating on the canal please do so in a civil and respectful manner. Thank you.

“Dear PoPville,

A note of thanks to some good samaritans and a warning for those going skating on the C&O Canal:

On Sunday morning, two friends and I went skating on the canal, dropping in from the parking lot just next to Chain Bridge. We were heading down toward Georgetown and throwing a puck around, but by about 12:30 the ice in some places was beginning to look at bit wet so we turned around. Just as we went under the Chain Bridge in the middle of the channel heading north, the ice gave way and the three of us fell in.

Fortunately some very kind people passing by on the trail managed to fish us out. We are all fine — albeit a little scratched and bruised — now that we have dried off and warmed up. The only casualties seem to be two hockey sticks, three hockey gloves, a tube of Chapstick and three iPhones (though each of those is now snuggled in its own bag of rice — fingers crossed).

However, in the excitement and the cold, we never had a real opportunity to thank those people who helped us. So to the two men who pulled us out, and probably got very wet and cold in the process, a huge thank you. The same to everyone else who stopped and offered warm clothing — we really appreciate all the kindness that people showed to us today.

Even after all of this, we would all skate on the canal again. Don’t take this incident as a reason not to. It’s is a beautiful way to spend cold winter morning. But be careful of the ice underneath the bridge, which apparently gets soft easily because of the runoff from the roadway above. Stick to the river side of the canal where at least if the ice does break, it’s only knee deep.

And if anyone happens to pick up two hockey sticks and three hockey gloves from the canal, please let us know. We admittedly wouldn’t mind getting them back!

Thanks again,

Jenny, Mai and Rachel
(The C&O canal swim team)

P.S. Our apologies to the Park Service for littering. It certainly wasn’t our intention.”

Ed. Note: Georgetown Metropolitan has previously posted that it is legal to skate on the canal – from C & O Canal National Historic Park:

It’s that time of year and weather when Park visitors may go ice skating.

The ice skating issue is addressed in the Park’s rules (reprinted in the C&O Canal NHP Volunteer Manual):

“Ice skating is permitted at your own risk park-wide, except where prohibited by signage.”

There are signs at Widewater, where the water is so deep it never freezes enough to be safe.

Our role is to advise visitors of unsafe conditions when we become aware of them.  Do so nicely.  Elsewhere, the canal is usually safe because it is so shallow.  People may get wet feet and be cold, but this is rarely a life-threatening emergency.  If you are not sure, telephone dispatch and talk to them about it.

If person goes through the ice at Widewater or other deep water area, call 911.  No heroics; without the right gear, you will just be another casualty.   If an animal goes through the ice, no humans should be put at risk to save it, but you could call dispatch and ask what they recommend.

46 Comment

  • You have to have a good month of below-freezing weather to have a body of water like that be safe for skating. I’m glad you and your friends were okay, OP. Be wiser next time, please!

    • The rule I learned back in the great white north is that you had to have at least two weeks of solid below-freezing temperatures (that is, nowhere near the thaw line even during the day, because the sun can warm things up to the thaw point) before you go out on the ice.

      • I’m not totally familiar with the canal, but adding to what you said, if it’s a moving body of water you should wait longer.

        • You should get familiar with it, if you’re going to share your wisdom — please!

          People have been skating on the canal for years.

          • Be nice, not snarky. Meg may not be a canal expert, but she seems to know that flowing bodies of water take longer to freeze.

            She didn’t insinuate that people shouldn’t skate on the canal, only that they should wait.

          • Well put, Anon 3:29.

        • Aglets

          Agreed. Growing up we would wait for 3 weeks if we wanted to venture out to the middle of a pond near our house.

  • Perhaps I learned this having grown up in the Midwest where people drive and haul ice houses out onto lakes – and thus there is frequent discussion / news coverage of the danger of falling through – but skating in above-freezing temperatures just doesn’t seem like a bright idea. It was about 36 F yesterday at 6 a.m.

  • Glad everyone made it out safely.

    I don’t know how accurate it is. But, when I was a kid, the neighborhood Dads insisted on 4″ of solid ice before they would let us skate on the ponds.

    So, someone’s Dad would go with a drill and measure the thickness before we could play pond hockey.

    My guess is that ice will never be 4 inches thick in DC.

  • I respectfully disagree that this is a good idea, no matter your skating skill. Hypothermia is no joke, and can set in in just minutes depending on water temp, air temp and wind conditions.
    At a minimum, I think you should at least have a non-skating safety observer with a cell phone and BLS skills.

  • My first comment seems to have been cut, but please put something about proper ice safety.

    You should only skate on ice you have tested with an auger and tape measure. There should be at least 4″ of clear thick ice. That kind of ice typically takes a week or so to form on stationary water at 20 degrees. We’re nowhere near that.

    Even after testing you should never just skate up the canal. Ice depth varies substantially for a variety of reasons. Only skate near the area you have tested. I don’t think it ever gets cold enough here that you can just count on ice depth.

    Last, keep in mind you are endangering both your own lives and the lives of those who try to help you when you skate in these conditions. This is not hyperbole, you become immobile very quickly in that kind of water and people die falling through ice every winter.

    Most of all, please, please emphasize how much of a terrible idea this can be. Learn about ice safety before you go out on anything that hasn’t been tested and approved by public officials.

  • I grew up in a neighborhood where quite a few people had man-made ponds. I was always told to NEVER, EVER step foot on it as it may look solid, but you could fall through and drown. I think this falls under just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

  • Upon reading again, the flippant tone of this post is just sickening. “The C&O canal swim team”???? Those people helping you could have died. Please post a strongly worded discouragement to any potential skaters out there.

    • I have to agree. Their defiant attitude–one that doesn’t want to discourage others from trying to skate the canal either– and blatant disregard for others’ lives is irresponsible. I know that this is a bad idea in most Canadian cities–despite most rivers and streams being quite solidly frozen from brutal winters that begin in October (the exception being Rideau Canal in Ottawa). In the town I grew up in, no one would do this sort of thing. I don’t know why someone would think that a few cold days and a bit of ice in DC would make for safe skating. If anyone here is tempted to do the same, please just play street hockey, or go skating at the sculpture garden. Don’t endanger anyone’s life.

    • But this is why the darwin awards exist. *sigh*

  • I was at the Capitol reflecting pool yesterday and folks were walking on the ice. The pool is probably only about 12″ deep so I”m guessing that it freezes better than the canal. Still, there were some sections where people had very obviously fallen through. They had all frozen over but the marks on the ice were clear – circular holes with fractured ice around them. They ruined someone’s vacation…..

  • I’ll take “Incidents that would never happen in a winter city” for $400.

    I have to agree that it’s troubling these southerners did not learn their lesson (no one from the north would go on ice when it’s only been cold for like a week).

    They put others’ lives at risk, too. Very bad judgment. Perhaps it takes seeing how dangerous freezing water can be when someone doesn’t just happen by to change the tone of a letter like this

  • these comments make me sad for the adventurous spirit americans once had.
    i hope at least everyone have a nice brunch this weekend.

    • Are you kidding? Any settler that did this would be dead. Early Americans were smart enough to know how to test ice.

    • nightborn

      These women went skating on a warm day, fell in and others had to put themselves at risk to help them. I actually saw them skating as I drive by and there ice ended about 20 feet from them, changing to water. If that is called adventure these days, I’m glad this “spirit” is fading.

      • i didn’t say it was an adventure. but if people are getting their panties in such a bunch over this, its clearly faded. good day for you!

    • I’m fine with people having adventurous spirit as long as they know what they’re doing. Which it seems like these three women did not.

      • it’s a good thing you’re not in charge if their behavior then, isn’t it?
        all that not fine feeling would get you down!

  • If you have a backyard, buy some 1 x 6s and make a rink by flooding the yard. You can skate for free and still be safe and outdoors.

  • Can’t we let people make their own decisions anymore? Clearly these people get that skating on the Canal is a risk, they don’t need anonymous commenters excoriating them.

    Anyways, when I was growing up, I skated on the C&O plenty of times and never fell in. You just have to use some common sense. Sunday morning was probably not a good morning for it. Hadn’t been consistently cold for quite long enough. Also, I would highly recommend going further up the canal in MD to skate. I used to have a lot of fun playing shinny around the Glen Echo sections.

    • “Clearly these people get that skating on the Canal is a risk” — I’m not entirely sure that they do. Well, maybe they do now, but they apparently didn’t realize this before their ill-fated skating expedition.
      People who did not grow up in areas where it was possible to skate on ponds, lakes, etc. don’t necessarily have the relevant “common sense” as far as determining when and where such skating can be safely done.
      People can and do make their own decisions, and apparently it’s _legal_ to skate on the canal… but just because it’s legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feasible or a good idea.

    • the problem is that once people make the decision to skate on thin ice, it’s hard for others walking by to make the choice to not help fish them out. It would have been completely justified for onlookers to just call 911 and risk the chance that the hockey players got hypothermia or drowned before trained rescuers got there (with the MPD/park police divide of jurisdiction and the lack of a street address, it could have been a while) but many people would prefer to save a life, even if it means putting themselves at risk.

      I think it’s completely legit to encourage people not to do stupid things–and going skating there this weekend was demonstrably stupid. Even if it’s not illegal, it has a cost: in this case, pollution in the river and risk to the rescuers, but in other cases the use of police/fire/ems resources, increased health care premiums, loss of productivity if they are hospitalized/disabled/dead.

  • I grew up here and have lots of warm memories — and some old super 8 footage — of skating on the canal, starting from about age 6. I also remember watching an adult family friend (experienced Yankee hockey player) being extricated, bloody, from a hole in the ice. Yep, skating can be dangerous, or worse.

    As with any risky activity, one should well informed and cautious.

    But the posters here who assert that people should somehow *never* consider skating on the canal or anywhere in the DC area come across as killjoy scolds. What a sad, neurotic way to live.

    • It’s really easy to test ice depth. Unless it has been well below freezing for weeks (which never really happens here) you should test. Not testing is, frankly, idiotic.

  • played pond hockey all day on saturday. had a great time.

  • Survival of the fittest at work! Sorry but OP is way too blasé about the danger here – yes it has been cold but not enough to ensure proper safety on the river, as has been mentioned by several other commenters. Good luck on your next adventure, and just know that while you can choose to take your own risks, it is selfish to assume someone will come and save you again. #Endrant.

  • We passed that spot safely, and then on our way back, we saw your gear floating. The ice was well beyond 4 inches thick, except directly underneath Chain Bridge, for all the self-appointed safety patrol experts. Even there, the sheets cracked, and were submerged in water. I agree that culprit is the salt from the overpass dripping down onto the ice, and frankly that could happen in any climate. It was only about 20 yards that was affected, and we just hiked around that spot.

    The rest of the ice was fine.

    A fabulous day of skating, and one the kids will remember, I’m sure.

  • Props to PoP for urging for respect and against snark from the get-go. This one had dog-poop-on-astroturf written all over it.

  • One of the Good Samaritan bystanders that pulled the floundering girl out with the hockey stick and then fell through the ice himself was Kevin McDonnell (he was the one walking the pit bull on the tow path). It’s not the first time he hooked up a complete stranger. Dcist crowned him Badass of the Day in 2010. It’s worst a google. Strange but true.

  • Have skated on the canal for many years. Need to be prudent which simply means skating on thick enough ice, avoiding soft spots near logs, etc, and never skating under the bridges (Chain, Cresent, etc). How’s it looking today?

  • Okay. Glad you skaters skirted disaster- how did the iPhones fare? Or are they still snuggled in their beds of rice? (BTW I loved that description). Also, since someone mentioned ancient ice of 1985- does anyone remember the extremely massive sunny side up egg art on the iced over Potomac. It was awesome but I wonder if I dreamed it..

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