WHEN the icy winds of the ``Siberian Express'' howl out of the Arctic across the Hudson Bay on their way south to Boston and New York, they first swirl here in one of the world's coldest capital cities.
But Ottawans are hardy folk. Instead of just gritting their teeth and bearing it, each February since 1979 hundreds of thousands of residents have put on their galoshes, snowshoes, and skates to glory in the cold by throwing an ice-filled festival called Winterlude.
Exotic snow and ice sculptures turn downtown parks into glittering ice palaces. Across the frozen Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec, children play on ice slides and tunnels at a children's ice park called the Sub 0 Connection. And dog sled and snow shoe races supplement the main activity of skating up and down the ``world's longest skating rink'' - the four-mile-long Rideau Canal that runs through the heart of the city.
This year's festival, which ended last weekend, was exceptionally cold, with temperatures around 10 degrees F below zero. When temperatures get that cold, the obvious thing to do is pull on warm clothes and head outside for a game of snow volleyball. ``It's like a religion,'' says Pierre Chouinard, an Ottawa teacher. ``I come out for this every year - for the atmosphere, the sculptures. It's a nice break, like a party during the winter.''
About 600,000 people visited Winterlude this year, two-thirds from the Ottawa-Carleton region and one-third from farther away. The National Capital Commission (NCC) that oversees the capital's monuments and lands is the ice-party's host, spending $2.25 million (Canadian; US$1.59 million) this year on festivities estimated to have reaped C$15 million in tourism revenue.
Yet Winterlude, which ran from Feb. 4-20 this year, is really only the winter gem in Ottawa's crown. In April and May, more than half a million tulips bloom, and warm-weather tourists begin to descend by the thousands on a city full of cultural icons. About 4 million people visited Ottawa historic sites last year, including the National Gallery of Canada, Confederation Square, Parliament, National Library, Supreme Court, Chateau Laurier hotel, and Bytown Market, all within walking distance of one another.
Since the turn of the century, city NCC planners have been charged with maintaining federal lands - cutting grass, planting flowers, filling potholes. Today, that includes 150 miles of roads, five major bridges, and 88,000 acres of federal land, including 44,000 acres left ``green'' to forest, field, swamp, or shrub.
Since 1988, the NCC has had the added responsibility of plotting every means possible to increase Ottawa's value to Canadians as a cultural center. It orchestrates the nation's July 1 Canada Day birthday celebration, as well as its Christmas lights celebrations. ``Ottawa is the stage and the events are the play,'' says John Hoyles, general manager of the NCC. ``We have both a social and cultural responsibility to make this city a meeting place for all Canadians.''
A key challenge for the NCC is doing more with less. Five years ago it had a budget of C$130 million and 1,300 workers on the payroll, compared with C$100 million and 1,000 employees today. Winterlude this year included more activities, but cost C$250,000 less because events had corporate sponsors.
Political pressures arising from development issues is another problem. Many of Ottawa's bedroom communities have grown up outside a green belt circling Ottawa and Hull. Now the NCC must figure out how to connect downtown to outlaying towns without chopping up the much-cherished green belt.
Still, thinking green is something many Ottawans are putting off for now. ``I love to skate,'' Mr. Chouinard says. ``This is one of the best places to live - if you like skating.''