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

The Rideau Canal Skateway near Lansdowne Park in Ottawa on Jan. 18, 2024. 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. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)
The Rideau Canal Skateway near Lansdowne Park in Ottawa on Jan. 18, 2024. 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. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)

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 and took steps to mitigate the impact.

This year's festival began with a soggy start, 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 skateway was only open on the final two days of Winterlude. On one of those days, 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.

Melanie Brault says the evening show is really where Canada Day comes to life, and visitors can look forward to performances by artists such as Jann Arden.
Melanie Brault says the evening show is really where Canada Day comes to life, and visitors can look forward to performances by artists such as Jann Arden.

Melanie Brault, a Winterlude spokesperson, says the organizing team has been taking steps since 2019 to ensure the festival can run successfully despite a changing climate. (Celeste Decaire/CBC)

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

While some activities were impacted 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 they're not giving up

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

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

Capital Skates is fully reliant on the skateway being open, Gatien said. If it's closed, there are incurred costs like 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.

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.
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.

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."

Another affected business operator is Adam Malmberg, the co-founder of Dunrobin Distilleries, based in Vankleek Hill, Ont.

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

Adam Malmberg, partner at Dunrobin Distillery, stands in front of the Rideau Canal Skateway at Dow's Lake on Jan. 18, 2024, before the canal opened for the season.
Adam Malmberg, partner at Dunrobin Distillery, stands in front of the Rideau Canal Skateway at Dow's Lake on Jan. 18, 2024, before the canal opened for the season.

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)

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," Malmberg said. "But I think the hardest part is you didn't get that opportunity."

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. 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," he said.