Ever had maple taffy on snow? Skated on the world’s longest ice rink? Watched artists chisel blocks of ice into exquisite sculptures? Seen a man in full hockey gear (complete with skates) juggle three flaming hockey sticks? (My guess is no on this last one.) These were just some of the unique experiences on hand at Winterlude 2020.
Every year for three weekends in February, Canada’s capital city of Ottawa puts on Winterlude, a festival that celebrates all things winter (and many things Canadian) throughout the downtown core and across the Rideau River in nearby Gatineau, Quebec. One of the region’s most popular seasonal events, Winterlude draws in both tourists and locals with its exuberant resolution to make the most of the harsh temperatures. There’s a variety of free events, displays, and demonstrations, and plenty of local businesses get in on the fun too. Each “neighbourhood” involved in Winterlude puts on something a little different, and this year saw some newcomers eager to brighten up cold winter days, as well as plenty of old favourites. Winterlude wrapped up its final weekend on February 17th, but you can bet it’ll be just as fun next year!
The Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal Skateway is a perennial favourite at Winterlude, open day and night, seven days a week. Constructed in 1832, the canal was devised as a means of controlling water levels in a series of connected locks so that boats could pass down the Rideau River.
The system is still in use today, but in the winter time, this UNESCO World Heritage Site takes on a new purpose: as a 7.8km-long frozen skateway open to skaters, hockey players, and some very sure-footed walkers and joggers. It can be accessed by cutting through the National Arts Centre and following a path that follows the canal; there are plenty of staircases at regular intervals that lead down onto the frozen river. Don’t worry about the ice being thin- they drive vehicles across it and set trailers up directly on the ice surface; these offer skate rentals and that Canadian delicacy, Beavertails (hot, fried, sugared dough in its eponymous shape). The city will also close off sections of the canal it deems unsafe for skaters’ use.
It won’t be unusual during (or after) Winterlude to see people roaming through the city, skates in hand or tied together and looped around the neck, on their way to the Rideau. Some lucky people even use the skateway as their preferred means of commuting to work! Whether you want to skate 0.1km or the full 7.8km, the Rideau Canal Skateway is the quintessential, hallmark experience of Winterlude in Ottawa.
Winterlude debuted on Sparks Street in Ottawa for the first time this year, to much excitement and success. This pedestrian strip running several blocks through the city featured ice sculptures, interactive art and light displays, food vendors, and entertainment for adults and children alike.
Here was the spot to get your maple taffy, made from hot maple syrup poured out on snow and then rolled onto a Popsicle stick as it rapidly cools into form.
The aforementioned flaming-hockey stick-juggling hockey player could also be found here. If the -25 degree Celsius weather got to be too much, you could warm yourself around one of several wood-burning firepits on the street. (Alternatively, you could keep your blood from freezing by practising your hockey shot at one of the public nets or dancing to the sounds of a performing musical act.)
And at night, Sparks Street glowed with coloured light beams splintered through the ice sculptures. The air might be cold, but Sparks Street’s atmosphere was anything but during Winterlude.
Across the Alexandra Bridge in Gatineau, Quebec, Le Bal de Neige (Winterlude as it’s known in those parts) was underway in the Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques Cartier Park.
There were larger-than-life snow sculptures, a zipline, and two huge mounds of snow where you could experience the thrill of zooming down a hill on a snow-tube. There were also activities for the kids- performances by entertainers that kept the children enthralled and the chance to chisel out frozen dinosaur toys from huge blocks of ice. As always, a Beavertail kiosk, Tim Hortons truck, and maple-taffy-on-snow stand were never far from the festivities at hand.
Compared to the sometimes-crowded vibes of Sparks Street, the snowy, open expanse of Jacques Cartier Park afforded a more relaxed, playful atmosphere in a winter wonderland.
The bars and restaurants of ByWard Market, a popular tourist and foodie destination, also embraced the spirit of Winterlude with deals and special attractions geared toward Ottawa’s hungry visitors. See: The Ice Bar at The Grand.
Located just across the street from the market’s main building, the Ice Bar made use of this pizza joint’s outdoor patio and was a fun contrast to the fire pits and benches supplied for patrons who liked the ambiance but needed a bit more heat. It was a little gimmicky, but it was also a lot of fun and if you’re going to have an Irish coffee it might as well be served by a guy bundled up behind a bar made of solid ice.
Life doesn’t stop in Canada on account of the weather. On the contrary, Winterlude embraces all that is fun about the cold and snow, giving people a reason to come out and celebrate in the middle of February. Why not layer up, wrap a scarf around your face, don some unflattering long underwear (under your clothes of course) and join in the fun? Winter’s long enough as it is in Canada. Might as well make the most of it!
Would you give Winterlude a chance? Or does this sound like your worst nightmare? I’d love to hear your thoughts!