Warm weather a blow to Winterlude, but stakeholders saw it coming

While the Rideau Canal Skateway was barely open for Winterlude this year, vendors and other stakeholders say they were prepared for the loss after last year's canal-less season.

Organizers, vendors adapted after last year's season without the skateway

A worker next to a pump shooting water onto a frozen canal.
A BeaverTails stand behind crews flooding the ice surface of the Rideau Canal Skateway on Saturday. Last year the skateway never opened, but stakeholders say they learned from the experience and it helped them mitigate the impact of this year's tough season. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

While the Rideau Canal Skateway was barely open for Winterlude this year, vendors and other stakeholders say they were prepared for the loss after last year's season without the skateway.

This year's festival in Ottawa-Gatineau began soggily, forcing organizers to push back the opening of Snowflake Kingdom by one day to accumulate more snow.

Warm weather continued to create challenges for Winterlude, including having to put tarps over ice sculptures on Sparks Street to prevent melting and having teams on standby to close Snowflake Kingdom if it became unsafe.

To top it all off, the canal was only open for skating on the festival's final two days. On one of them, the National Capital Commission recommended walking the canal instead of skating due to poor ice conditions.

Despite these challenges, Winterlude spokesperson Melanie Brault said the team is "really ecstatic with the outcome" of the festival.

Starting in 2019, the Winterlude organizing team began taking steps to ensure the festival could run successfully despite a changing climate, Brault said.

One change this year Brault highlighted was having more indoor and cultural events not tied to the weather, including a mini powwow and commemorating Lunar New Year and Black History Month.

While some activities were affected by the weather, Brault estimated "98 per cent of our activities took place."

Brault said Winterlude has been working on showcasing more interactive art pieces. On Sparks Street this year, she said there were close to two dozen pieces.

"I think it's fortunate — yet unfortunate — but fortunate in the fact that we made some of those significant changes last year because we saw that the Rideau Canal Skateway was not able to open last year," Brault said.

Vendors report losses, but aren't giving up

Some businesses who were relying on the canal said they were disappointed, but like Winterlude organizers they also made changes after last year's tough season.

The director of operations for Capital Skates, which rents skates to people on the canal, said this year there were "no operation for us, sadly."

Capital Skates is fully reliant on the skateway being open, said Benoît Gatien. If it's closed, there are incurred costs such as installing trailers, he added.

While two poor seasons in a row are challenging, "[the] second time around is a little bit easier to digest," Gatien said.

A bald man with blue eyes smiles for a photo. Behind him are pieces of art depitcing a man crossing a bridge and riding a boat.
Benoît Gatien, the director of operations for Capital Skates, says it was easier to prepare prospective employees about the possibility of not working on the canal this year, but he's worried it will be harder to attract workers in following seasons. (Submitted by Benoît Gatien)

"It was easier to have the team mentally prepared that [not operating] could be an option. So whoever decided to go along with the hiring process and accept the job, then we knew they were ready that this was a possibility," Gatien added.

Gatien is worried that back-to-back closures will make it harder to attract employees, but he's not concerned about the future of the business.

He said Capital Skates could become a supplier or rental option for outdoor skating rinks and trails across Ottawa "that are going to gain in popularity as people maybe start to look for alternates to the Rideau Canal."

Dunrobin Distilleries was supposed to have a shack on the ice to serve liquor to skaters starting last year, but two seasons have gone by and the business hasn't gotten its opportunity yet.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," co-founder Adam Malmberg said, "but I think the hardest part is you didn't get that opportunity."

A business owner poses for a photo in front of a frozen body of water.
Adam Malmberg, the co-founder at Dunrobin Distilleries, says it's hard not getting the opportunity this year to have his hut on the ice, but he's not giving up. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

This year, Malmberg said the team was "smarter in our approach to pre-setting the cabin" to allow themselves to get to work at a moment's notice, given the fluctuating ice conditions.

The distillery also engaged with trade shows and searched for other ways to generate revenue. Some of its products got shelf space at a Sparks Street pop-up by the Kichesippi Beer Company, for example.

In the future, Malmberg said the business might look at other opportunities "being around the area."

While his chance on the ice never came, Malmberg isn't giving up.

"I'll try to do it every year. It's such a unique experience that you can never say I'm jaded by this in any way."


Benjamin Lopez Steven is a reporter and part-time writer for CBC News Network. He's also a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University. You can reach him at or find him on Twitter at @bensteven_s.