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AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch strapped on skates and flocked to icy canals this weekend as freezing temperatures afforded an increasingly rare chance to skate across their flat country.
After more than a week of cold, an estimated 2.3 million skaters, out of a population of 16 million, have taken to frozen canals and lakes, according to a poll released ahead of the weekend.
That number is expected to double if Queen Beatrix decides to don her skates as well.
"The number of opportunities you have to skate in the Dutch winter is decreasing," said Jochem van de Laarschot, who usually speaks on behalf of Dutch food retailer Ahold but took a half a day off last week to skate.
"Once the opportunity comes up you have to get your skates out and jump on the ice," he said.
Warmer global temperatures have led to less natural ice forming in the low-lying Netherlands, where the topography of interconnected waterways makes it an ideal winter skating playground. Speed skating is the national sport.
Anticipation is growing for the "Elfstedentocht" or "11 Cities Tour," a national event where speed skaters race along a 200-km (120-mile) course beginning and ending in the northern city of Leeuwarden.
This year marks the 100th year since the race began and if held, the tour would be the first in over a decade.
Because of the thousands of skaters -- both professional and amateur -- participating in the marathon, nearly all of the ice along the route must be at least 15-cm (6-inches) thick.
Dutch newspapers track the thickness of ice daily and feature detailed maps pointing people to long stretches where ice skating is allowed.
Skates are sold out in stores after many who thought that ice would never return to the Netherlands threw their rusty blades away or simply lost them.
Several canals in the capital Amsterdam have frozen over but the ice is not yet thick enough to deliver the rare treat of skating across the city's frozen waterways.
Hospitals have reinforced staff to deal with an influx of skaters with wrist and hip injuries and at least one man died after falling through thin ice.
Reporting by Reed Stevenson; editing by Michael Roddy