This time of year, gray clouds and slushy streets almost make the earth and sky look the same color. In Ottawa and Gatineau, the solution for lifting gloomy mid-winter attitudes is Winterlude—the 37th annual winter carnival celebration started on January 29 and continues until February 15.
Winterlude is completely family-friendly, and almost totally free. It is a celebration of Canadian identity through winter—the season most generally associated with Canada, notwithstanding the weak one we’re having this year. We’re mostly a winter country. Our most northern settlement is a military base only about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the North Pole, Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented the snowmobile in Quebec, and at least three Canadian towns regularly feud about which is the birthplace of hockey.
Winter, and both its beauty and brutality, is one of those common bonds we share with many Americans, including our North Country neighbors in New York. I saw evidence of the transnational bond of snow and ice on the first day of Winterlude through the number of New York and Vermont license plates on cars parked near the events.
Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau becomes the Snowflake Kingdom during Winterlude. Last Saturday, it had the feel of a big, fun, family get-together. Massive mountains of snow, thanks to weeks of dump trucks bringing it from other parts of town, serve as ice slides so slippery that sliders whoosh down rapidly and literally by the seats of their pants. The nearby Chinook Slide is on snow and fun-seekers curl down it on padded tire inner tubes. Nearby, small children are entertained by the Ice Hog Family, a group of groundhog-like mascots who sing, dance, and freely give out hugs. The monuments of the Snowflake Kingdom are homages to winter, expertly carved from snow. There’s a giant inuksuk–the great Inuit way-finding symbol from the Arctic–and an imposing walrus.
The Snowflake Kingdom isn’t all snowy walruses and slides though. The Extreme Zone area gives those with a more adventurous side a chance to try out more physical activities like introductory downhill skiing on a slope quite unlike Tremblant or Whiteface. Three teams of sled-dogs, guided by expert mushers, take wide-eyed children and parents over a small trail, giving them a feel for northern transportation long before snowmobiles or ice road truckers. In a nearby grove of trees, huskies lay in the snow or playfully bark, waiting their turn in the hitch.
Winterlude’s downtown Ottawa center of festivities is Confederation Park, which becomes the Crystal Garden for the duration of the festival. The name makes sense, as this is the location of the international ice sculpture competition. Teams from all over the world—including countries that see very little natural ice–chip, shave and carve blocks of ice into works of art. Two notable ice monuments stand in the park. One honors the 100th anniversary of the National Research Council, Canada’s government scientific research and innovation agency. The other recognizes 40 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and the European Union, no small significance due to continuing efforts to reach a free trade agreement between the EU and Canada. Confederation Park is also home to a stage featuring musical performances.
The Rideau Canal Skateway hasn’t had the best winter so far, due to warm temperatures. Part of the route was open for Winterlude’s opening weekend but the whole thing got shut down last Sunday night when warm and wet weather arrived. Fortunately though, the annual canal triathlon was able to take place last Saturday.
Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park has partnered with Winterlude for its own events, too. On Sunday, clever carvers were competing to turn giant blocks of snow into statues. On an outdoor rink, folks were trying their luck at Canada’s other classic, but much calmer game on ice—curling. Curling the old fashioned way on an outdoor rink is something I never even experienced as a small-town junior league player when I was a kid.
Winterlude is about the common bond Canadians, and some our American neighbors, share through a season of cold, and often stormy weather. Winterlude brings people together to enjoy the simple outdoor pleasures winter brings. It’s family, friends, and neighbors getting outside and having fun.