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Bring on the ice and snow: Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrates a frozen north

Why We Wrote This

Even as Canadians may debate whether they embrace – or merely endure – the harshest season, the Winterlude festival is one large effort to turn a liability into an asset for fun.  

Courtesy of Ottawa Tourism
Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway, the largest natural rink in the world, is the heart of Winterlude, now in its 41st year. It’s a festival of ice slides, sledding, ice sculpture competitions, snowboard lessons, and iceboat racing down the canal.

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Once each season, Julie Smyth laces up her ice skates and touches every single part of the largest natural skating rink in the world, tracing the whole of Ottowa’s Rideau Canal Skateway. “It’s amazing to have this,” she says. “You can just go, and go, and go.” In a country that prides itself on its northern stoicism but increasingly finds itself begrudging the climate, the Winterlude festival is an ode to Canadian winter: from sledding and ice sculpture competitions to snowboard lessons and iceboat racing down the canal.

But with reports warning that classic Canadian winter recreation, like outdoor hockey or skating on lakes, will no longer be viable on a warmer planet, planners are also focusing beyond the festival’s centerpiece canal, which is often temporarily closed because of warm spells and rainfall. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of frigid days. “Someone said it is going to be freezing and snowing whether you are happy or not, so you may as well be happy and enjoy it,” says Ms. Smyth. “I think that’s a good motto.”

The polar vortex that dipped from the Arctic down through North America in January briefly turned the Canadian capital into the world’s coldest, with thermometers reading -24 C (- 11.2 F.). Ottawa has been walloped by blizzards, including one this week that dumped 31 centimeters (12.2 inches) of snow.

Not exactly the stuff of dream escapes. But here at Winterlude, Ottawa attempts to give the most dreaded wintry conditions – mounting snow, bursts of frigid air, even ice – a rethink. In a country that prides itself on its northern stoicism but increasingly finds itself begrudging the climate, the festival is an ode to Canadian winter.

At the heart of Winterlude, in its 41st year, is the Rideau Canal, where visitors partake in the most quintessential of pastimes, ice-skating for 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles) nonstop, on the largest natural rink in the world. It’s also a festival of ice slides, sledding, ice sculpture competitions, snowboard lessons, and iceboat racing down the canal.

“It’s really an opportunity for people to say, ‘OK, you know what? I need to get out of my house, I need to put on my snow pants, I need to put on my toque, put a smile on my face, and get out there and enjoy it,’ ” says Mélanie Brault, director of capital celebrations at Canadian Heritage, the government department in charge of the festival. (And “toque,” if you were curious, is what Canadians call a winter hat.)

Roughly 600,000 visitors, from near and far, take part in the festival each year.

Julie Smyth, who works in government communications, is lacing down after a round-trip run. Once each season she touches every single part of the Rideau Canal Skateway, tracing the whole area. (She also saves this time of year for her annual BeaverTail, a fried dough pastry in the shape of its name.) “It’s amazing to have this,” she says. “You can just go, and go, and go.”

“Someone said it is going to be freezing and snowing whether you are happy or not, so you may as well be happy and enjoy it,” she adds. “I think that’s a good motto.”

Courtesy of Ottawa Tourism
Ice sculptures in Confederation Park, Ottawa, are a feature of Winterlude, a festival that concludes Feb. 18. This is Canada’s capital city’s 41st celebration of the season. Roughly 600,000 people participate in the indoor and outdoor events.

But this is what some might call selection bias. Josh Freed, who produced a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called “Life Below Zero,” says Canadians have become reluctant winter revelers at best. He traveled from Russia to Scandinavia and back to Canada and concluded his compatriots have become a bunch of “winter wimps,” he says. “We can tough it out in winter weather in ways I think that would shock and awe most countries. But we don’t embrace it anymore like we once did. We endure it.”

There is certainly some evidence to back up his claim. Just this year, Montreal organizers canceled the “Festival of Snow” one day because of … a snowstorm. “It was embarrassing,” Mr. Freed, a columnist at the Montreal Gazette, says.

Meanwhile Canada’s “snowbird” population is going strong. Federal statistics count about half a million of them wintering in Florida. Canadians make up the largest segment of all international visitors to Florida, at 25 percent.

Perhaps the most telling of all: The brains behind Winterlude, a man named Rhéal Leroux, is a snowbird himself. He has admitted to the local press on several occasions that he, in fact, hates the cold.

Freed places some blame on technology, like the “underground cities,” networks of tunnels that run for miles underneath the urban core of Montreal or Toronto, essentially allowing Canadians to avoid winter. If a century ago men and women dressed in furs for an entire day out, today most people dress only warmly enough to go from their homes to the cars.

And yet technology is behind a reimagining of winter itself. The city of Edmonton is trying to become the “world’s greatest winter city,” as urban planner Simon O’Byrne puts it. He’s the co-chair of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy, a public-private partnership that has put winter at the top of the municipal agenda since 2012. “When [cities] think about winter, the only real policy they have is ... their snow clearing policy,” he says.

Their ideas include designing wind barriers and expanding opportunities for outdoor sun exposure. The public’s wish list includes “cross-country skiing through the river valley to work” and “hot chocolate carts” on the way home.

The plan involves viewing dark days as an asset too. “At 53 degrees latitude … you can see that darkness as a negative, or you could see that we have a palette of darkness to play with,” Mr. O’Byrne says. “And with that palette of darkness we want to do whimsical fun things with architectural lighting and landscape lighting ... make them really kind of magical, in some ways almost like a dancing aurora borealis.”

It’s ironic that a push for winter comes amid concerns over climate change, with reports warning that classic Canadian winter recreation, like outdoor hockey or skating on lakes, will no longer be viable on a warmer planet. Winterlude’s planners are also focusing beyond the Rideau Canal, which is often temporarily closed because of warm spells and rainfall.

“Because of environmental change that is happening not only in the national capital region but across our country and the world, there are fewer days that the canal is open versus maybe 41 years ago” when the festival began, says Ms. Brault.

In an archival photo of the first Winterlude in 1979, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau is holding his son, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his arms. They are attending a horse racing event – down the ice. “I don't know if we would do that anymore,” Brault says with a laugh.

For now, the canal remains the firm foundation of Winterlude. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the entire stretch is open. Sunlight glistens on the ice. As the canal turns a corner and the Skateway ends, the only sound is the swooshing of blades cutting the ice. One can almost imagine horses galloping by. No need for fancy lighting here. Just blades, a warm coat – and, of course, a toque.

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