We asked businesses: What does the future hold for Winterlude in a world without ice?

The mild weather that has been the hallmark of this year’s Winterlude celebrations is pushing local businesses that depend on the winter festival to consider what a future of warmer weather could mean for them. 

Étienne LeBlanc-Cameron, co-owner of Cobblestone Tours, was excited at the prospect of his first Winterlude. His year-old company offers winter sightseeing tours of the city in unique vintage buses. He also co-owns Lady Dive Tours and Gray Line, which takes visitors around Ottawa and Gatineau on an amphibus and on double-decker buses during the warmer months.

“This is my first winter operating, so I can’t compare to other years, but by talking to other enterprises, they’ve all said that winter is kind of rough … until Winterlude,” said LeBlanc-Cameron. 

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“But this year was quite the opposite. With this mild weather, it just seems as though people have lost the desire to come to Ottawa for the winter since there’s no (Rideau) canal,” LeBlanc-Cameron added. “We just haven’t seen an increase … if anything, it’s been a decrease.”

Winterlude has been drawing tourists since 1979 and is known globally for its ice sculptures and beaver tails, sledding and maple taffy. But perhaps the most popular attraction of the festival is the Rideau Canal Skateway. With this winter’s mild temperatures, the canal has yet to open for skating. 

This week the National Capital Commission said the skateway will remain closed for the final weekend of Winterlude. Some fear it will not open at all this season — a first in the history of the canal. The Rideau Canal has been turned into a skating rink every winter since 1970. The latest the skateway has opened was Feb. 2, 2002. Last year, the canal skating season lasted 41 days, but the 2021 season was the shortest in over a decade at 29 days.

The City of Ottawa’s climate resiliency program predicts that, by 2050, the city’s average annual temperature will increase by 3.2 degrees Celsius. The number of days below minus -10 is expected to decrease by 35 per cent. The projected average temperature this month sits at 1.6. In comparison, the average for February 1980 was -2.2. 

The skateway opens when 30 cm thickness of ice has formed, which usually requires 10 to 14 consecutive days of temperatures between -10 and -20.

Perhaps ironically, this year’s Winterlude got off to a freezing start, with some activities cancelled due to extreme weather warnings. Days later, temperatures warmed and ice sculptures began to melt. 

“For all we know, next year could be a great season,” said Jantine Van Kregten, director of communications at Ottawa Tourism. “The unpredictability is the tricky part and this year seems to have been the perfect storm of bitterly cold weather that was quick and book-ended by mild temperatures.”

Van Kregten points out that Winterlude itself has changed over the years. “We’ve diversified offerings,” she said. “As a festival, the skateway is a bucket list item, but there’s so much more.”

Activities and attractions less reliant on the cold will be key to survival in a milder future, Van Kregten said.

“Even within events that are weather-dependent, they’ve created more flexible activities. You can go inside to outside, which makes it more enticing,” she said. “When the skateway is open, the ice is in its best condition when it’s cold and people don’t necessarily want to be outside. 

“We’ve seen, over the first two weekends, record crowds at Snowflake Kingdom because temperatures are mild and people wanted to be outside. We might actually see time spent outside at activities increase if temperature cooperates, even if it’s not skating.”

At Cobblestone Tours, LeBlanc-Cameron said he is preparing in case this year’s situation becomes the norm and he can’t rely on the “new life” that Winterlude has typically brought to the city in February.

“We would be looking at finding new ways to attract tourists and bring people back to Ottawa, tell them why to come here during winter,” said LeBlanc-Cameron. “In the summer it’s so easy … in the winter, we need to find something new to keep Ottawa unique. That’s what we would be looking for moving forward. We could incorporate some kind of new tour that would be a bit more interesting for locals.”

Grant Hooker is a Winterlude veteran. Co-founder of BeaverTails Canada, Hooker and his tasty pastries have been a staple of Winterlude — and the canal in particular — since 1981. Now in his 42nd year of the festival, Hooker is unfazed by the weather.

“We like to say it’s a bit like farming,” said Hooker when describing the BeaverTails business model. “We plant our seeds in the fall by creating our beaver mobiles on pads that are at ice level on the skateway, recruiting between 150 and 200 new staff to join returning staff, getting our equipment ready, and then we sit back to see if Mother Nature will give us a kiss or break out her work boots and give us a boot in the rear end. And this year she’s a kicker, big time. Exclamation point.”

Hooker is familiar with the “Waterludes” of the early 1990s, when sudden mild temperatures limited the festival’s attractions. And he says BeaverTails has locations around Ottawa and internationally that don’t rely on the weather or on Winterlude. 

Nonetheless, he recognizes that the various activities created by tourism officials over the years have led to the “spike of activity” that Winterlude creates for the local economy in “the deadest part of Ottawa’s winter.”

“We had suppliers who would normally take their winter vacation in February who had to change that pattern after three or four years of Winterlude because they said when February used to be the deadest period, now it was one of the busiest times of the year,” Hooker recalled. 

“And that was directly part of what the festival brought to our city … Festivals not only allow Ottawans to get out with friends and family to celebrate winter, or the end of winter at the Tulip Festival, but these also serve the community by generating jobs and income.”

While Hooker says there’s “no question” about the seriousness of climate change, he is prepared.

“In the early years, when we realized that Mother Nature does regularly kick us, we diversified what we do. We opened our first stores outside of Ottawa in La Ronde in Montreal (now Six Flags), which led to our (franchising),” he said. 

“It’s a privilege to serve our product on the world’s largest skating rink and at the very unique winter festival that is Winterlude,” Hooker said. “We feel bad for ourselves financially that the skating hasn’t happened but also certainly feel very sad that families, new Canadians and young couples can’t be out there and we hope to see them out there again in 2024.

“We take it one year at a time, but we have confidence that the joy of skating will return to Ottawa,” Hooker added. 

Despite the closure of the canal, Van Kregten says local hotels are busy with tourists from out of town and that the urban walking trails throughout the city, some of which have pop-up bistros and other activities, have seen lots of activity.

“Everybody has their niche and Mother Nature can reward some and not others. Years ago, it was understood that the skateway would always be open. Now, there’s always a possibility of disappointment,” she said. “But we’re Canadian, we’re used to this, and we’re resilient.”

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