Winterlude: The ultimate winter wonderland turns 40

Snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures — all great reasons to get outdoors! For the last 40 years, Winterlude has proven that winter in Ottawa-Gatineau is a season worth celebrating.

The iconic winter festival has hosted some crazy competitions over its 40 years, including 2,500 minor hockey players simultaneously playing 150 shinny games, and hotel bartenders racing down the Canal balancing trays of drinks. That competition reincarnates this year at Sunday, Feb 18’s Waiters’ and Waitresses’ Race on Ice on the Rideau Canal Skateway. Another oldie but a goodie was the horse racing on the Canal that began in 1979, which will be commemorated with a massive ice sculpture called “Trotting on the Canal” in the Crystal Garden.

Ottawa Magazine’s February 1981 issue

It’s also just one big party, all of which kicks off this Friday with buskers, maple taffy, and musical performances by André-Philippe Gagnon and DJ 4Korners on Feb. 2. Ice carvers from around the world will begin their masterpieces carved out of massive ice blocks for the 31st International Ice-Carving Competition (Feb. 2-4). Winners are selected and awards handed out on Sunday, Feb. 4. The sculptures live in the Crystal Garden, each one brilliantly lit up. There’s also the friendly Canadian Ice Carvers’ Society ice-carving challenge on Feb. 11, and a chance to learn carving secrets from a professional carver on Feb. 17 and 18.

Throughout the festival, there will be interactive art displays, free food — like the annual Enbridge free pancake breakfast at City Hall at 10 a.m. on Feb. 3 — and the SubZero concert series, featuring Canadian musical acts and laser shows on the main stage. A Silent DJ Battle on Feb. 3 will pit DJ Tizi versus DJ Lady Pista where provided headphones can switch from one to the other, changing colour to determine which beat is warming dancers’ hearts the most.

The best place to be a kid at Winterlude is The Snowflake Kingdom, which has moved this year to Jacques-Cartier Park, North (350 Laurier St.). It’s usual location is the wintery pantheon of snow and ice sculptures called Mosaïvernales. The Kingdom still has ice slides, kicksleds, giant versions of favourite games, play structures, mazes, and more! The Royal Canadian Army Cadets Corps 2920 Obstacle Course tests your winter mettle from Feb. 17 to 19. Inuit youth from the local Nunavut Sivuniksavut program showcase traditional and modern songs, drum dances, and Arctic sports at the Inuit Circle on Feb. 4, 11, 18 & 19.

The Rideau Canal Skateway. Photos by Canadian Heritage and Ottawa Tourism
The Rideau Canal Skateway. Photos by Canadian Heritage and Ottawa Tourism

The hub of the festival is the world’s largest skating rink, the Rideau Canal Skateway and is the main venue for many sporting events. The annual 38th Accora Village Bed Race (Feb. 17) sees 50 teams don costumes and decorate beds on wheels to careen down the Canal. 

Luckily there isn’t any changing into or out of swimwear at the Winterlude Triathlon (Feb. 3)! Centered around Dow’s Lake, participants skate 8 km along the Canal, cross-country ski another 8 km in the neighbouring Arboretum, and then run 5 km along the lake and skateway.

 Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival. Photos by Canadian Heritage and Ottawa Tourism
Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival. Photos by Canadian Heritage and Ottawa Tourism

Notorious for selling out minutes after registration opens, the Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival (Feb. 10) hosts 100 teams from across Quebec, Ontario, and the U.S. They each practice on the ice only 24 hours before race day, when 12 “paddlers” make their special dragonboats speed across Dow’s Lake as thousands of onlookers cheer. The boat hulls outfitted with blades and paddles sprouting spikes make this race one a fierce battle.

Held along the scenic Sir John A. McDonald Parkway, cold weather runners test their mettle at the Winterman Marathon & Marathon Relays (Feb. 18). Those who brave the frozen windchill screaming across the Ottawa River and cross the finish line at the Canadian War Museum get a gold medal — because they absolutely deserve it.

There’s no shortage of February fun, so make the most of the 40th annual Winterlude and remember to stay warm!