Winterlude makes big return after pandemic hiatus — one day late

After extremely cold temperatures cancelled outdoor events on Friday, the annual winter festival — the first in-person edition since the start of the pandemic — is now officially underway.

Extreme cold cancelled the first day of Ottawa's annual winter festival

People walk on a city pedestrian street in winter next to a ice sculpture of a large fish.
Dozens of people gathered on Sparks Street Saturday to soak up Winterlude's first in-person festivities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Avanthika Anand/CBC)

Winterlude is back in action this weekend, one day after extreme cold temperatures put most of the festival's outdoor activities on ice.

Dozens of people gathered Saturday on Sparks Street, bundled in their coats, hats and gloves, to take part in the first in-person edition of the annual winter festival since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ottawa resident Brigitte Smiley braved the cold to keep up her lifelong tradition of attending the festival, and was doing her best to stay warm with the help of hot cider and hot dogs. 

"So far, so good," she said. 

Ottawa resident Brigitte Smiley said she braved the cold since attending Winterlude has been one of her lifelong traditions. (Avanthika Anand/CBC)

Winterlude's previous two editions occurred online due to COVID-19 restrictions. Then, frigid temperatures Friday forced organizers to cancel or postpone all of the outdoor events.

While it was still cold Saturday, the festival went ahead, albeit with some programming changes.

The Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau's Jacques-Cartier Park opened at noon, while the National Ice Carving Championship on Sparks Street in Ottawa began at 10 a.m.

Antonio Baisas, who's been an ice sculptor for over 30 years, came all the way from Nova Scotia to represent his province in the competition.

Baisas said the weather Friday made it nearly impossible for him to work. But on Saturday, he was busy chipping away at massive blocks of ice, carving an octopus.

"I am very excited ... it's wonderful," he said. "It's still cold, but it's OK. We can manage."

man with saw
Antonio Baisas was busy sawing at blocks of ice on Saturday, carving an octopus for the National Ice Carving Championships. (Avanthika Anand/CBC)

Ice Dragon Boat Festival cancelled

While most Winterlude activities have resumed, not all have.

According to Canadian Heritage spokesperson Melanie Brault, whose department organizes Winterlude, the Ice Dragon Boat Festival has been cancelled as the Rideau Canal Skateway hasn't been able to open. 

But Brault said she's hoping it will soon. 

"We are hoping and praying that Mother Nature will pull through for us and that we'll be able to hopefully see if there's going to be an opening in the days and weeks to come," she said. 

The Ice Dragon Boat Festival has been cancelled this year, due to poor ice conditions on the Rideau Canal. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

If the skateway does eventually open, it will be the latest opening date since the National Capital Commission started clearing and managing the ice in 1971.

Despite the cold temperatures, it won't reopen this weekend, according to the NCC, because it takes 10 to 14 consecutive days of temperatures between -10 C and -20 C to grow sturdy ice. 

Still, Brault said she's excited for the festivities over the next few weeks as temperatures begin to rise. Sunday's daytime high is expected to be above the freezing mark at 1 C.

There will be interactive light features in the ByWard Market, the Snowphy Trophy — a snowman building contest — in the Glebe, and various activities at the Canadian Museum of History and the National Arts Centre.

Brault added that a free weekend "sno-bus" service will transport people from one location to another. Shuttle services organized by OC Transpo and the Société de transport de l'Outaouais also started at 12 p.m. Saturday. 

Winterlude will run until Feb. 20. 


Avanthika Anand is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. She was previously a news and feature writer at Future of Good. You can reach her by email