Winterlude, the most fun you can have with frozen toes

Bil Bowden

Winterlude, Ottawa's annual winter festival, is rocking even more than usual. Canada celebrates its 150th birthday this year, and Winterlude is getting the party off to a rollicking start.

Every year on the first three weekends in February, Canada's capital becomes a winter playground for about 600,000 visitors. Most, it seems, wear heavy, fur-lined hooded coats. And BIG boots. No dainty footies here.

Because it's Canada's national capitol, Ottawa offers plenty to do outside of the Winterlude.  To get there, it's about a 7.5 hour drive (straight through) and 470 miles, nearly all on Interstate 81. Be sure to take your up-to-date passport. Weather there is generally colder than York, so dress for the chill.  And it's closer to York than your drive to Myrtle Beach, SC.

While it IS another country, (really) Canada isn't intimidating like some can be. Folks are beyond friendly. The old joke is that four-way stop signs in Canada are useless, since all four drivers insist on letting the others go first. Even in Quebec where French is spoken, nearly everyone in the cities knows a little English. In rural areas, not so much. And our dollar is strong, somewhat offsetting the higher cost of Canadian goods.


Winterlude is the home of the international ice carving championships, where tons of ice become magnificent works of art, molded and sculpted with electric chain saws, grinders and small drill-like shapers.  And there are snow sculptors as well, sometimes working inside their huge masterpieces.

The event is held at three locations, two in downtown Ottawa, the other across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec. In Ottawa, the Rideau Canal Skateway, part of Parks Canada, is loaded with skaters throughout the week, including some who skate their way to work.  Only in Canada would there be a 'skate' way-- The US has walkways, thruways bikeways, freeways...

On weekends, the Skateway becomes a living snake of thousands of skaters twisting their way through the crowds. Mobile offices are set on the ice for skate rental, concessions, changing rooms and warming huts. Picnic tables dot the icescape for those intrepid skaters who want to dine here or just rest.

Ice thickness ranges from 12 inches (the minimum for opening the Skateway) to about 20 inches. Every night, Skateway personnel flood the canal, and 'freshen' the surface with a zamboni--naturally.  In 1972 skaters had 90 days to play. More than 1.2 million skaters visited three years ago. This is the same 3-14 foot deep canal that during the summer months floats tour boats through town.

Adjacent the canal is Confederation Park, which serves as the festival's main venue. Here, lines to watch ice carvers twist across the snow and sometimes mingle with the lines for beavertails, a deliciously sweet fried dough. On the 'tails, spread cinnamon, maple spread, apples, strawberry, cream cheese, peanut butter, or a personal favorite, banana and chocolate.


And no matter where you go, there's poutine, a Canadian dish that's as Canadian as hot dogs are American. Poutine apparently originated in Québec, made with french fries and cheese curds loaded with brown gravy. Coronary doctors probably won't suggest it. Of course, poutine is available in a wide variety of toppings, including crab meat, lobster, beef brisket with onion, celery and hundreds of other combinations.

To dine properly, hit Ottawa's amazing and diverse ByWard Market, a short walk from the park.  Everything from burgers to Tai, French, Irish, Greek, Korean or a diner. It's all here. You'll be challenged to pick just one.

A large stage plays host to dancers, singers, acrobats and various other performers. Shows hit the stage every night. Stilt walkers in elaborate costumes wander through the crowds, posing for pictures. Selfies are big here. A colorful drum ensemble wows the crowd.

The indigenous people, represented here by a group of young people from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, display their lands and culture in song, games and dress.

But the big draw here is the precision ice carving. One Filipino carver was putting the final touches on an intricate bird carving that seemed like it was molded in glass, not carved in ice.

From Confederation Park, drive across the Ottawa River into French-speaking Quebec and Jacques Cartier Park.  Visit Snowflake Kingdom, a park oriented to the kids (big or little). Big ice and snow slides, zip lines, snow sculptures, dog sleds and an Ice Hog family attract crowds. The fun-loving Ice Hog family roams the park, and acts as the Winterlude mascots.  From the website-- "A group of magical, furry animals crossed an ice bridge over the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska, and then they travelled deep into the Far North of what is now called Canada."

At the park entrance is a statue of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, a legendary hockey player with the Montreal Canadiens.  No baseball or football players here, it's all about hockey.


Some of the venues are open throughout the week, like the Skateway. If you decide to visit, check first with the calendar or schedule of events.

The list of places to lay your head at night is long. Hotels are everywhere, but one cheap and interesting place to stay is at the old Ottawa Jail, now a hostel and a block away from Confederation Park. Good for singles or pairs.

It's a short trek to Ottawa, but it's different, and always an adventure.