Sunday, November 20, 2005
There is something inspiring, even exciting, about seeing lots of people walking along city streets with ice skates or cross-country skis slung over their shoulders.
These Canadians are a hearty breed. Life is what you make it, and they're not going to let months of freezing weather spoil their fun. Yeah, I know, you can't stroll down a Florida beach in winter without bumping into a Canadian. But when their vacations are over, they go home and celebrate winter, throwing some of the best outdoor parties anywhere.
The festivals embrace the inevitable, reminding us of the potential joys that lie atop piles of snow and sheets of ice. People in cold places all over the world, including Japan, Sweden and the United States, create festivals of winter fun. But for the closest, biggest parties, you'll have to head to Canada.
Quebec City's Winter Carnival is Canada's largest and most celebrated winter festival -- in fact, it's the world's largest Mardi Gras in a frigid setting, and draws more than a million visitors a year.
But when planning where to face down the demons of cold last February, I chose the country's second-largest winter festival -- Ottawa's Winterlude, or as French-speaking Canadians call it, Bal de Neige.
My reasoning: Quebec City is a wonderland all winter, even without a festival, so why go with the crowds when prices are inflated? Ottawa isn't nearly as crowded or as expensive during its winter festival, which each year begins on the first weekend of February and continues for three weeks. And besides, festival organizers make great use of the frozen canal that runs through the city. Nearly five miles of the 126-mile canal is shoveled and repeatedly flooded to keep it more or less smooth for both hockey and figure skaters. In July, Guinness World Records recognized the groomed portion of the canal as the world's largest naturally frozen ice rink. During Winterlude, it is lined with warming huts, hot chocolate stands, stunning ice sculptures and demonstrations in everything from dog sledding to cooking.
Ottawa's canal represents to me a chance to live out one of my favorite childhood fantasies: to glide through life on silver skates, like Hans Brinker. I want to embrace and celebrate a real winter with people who rush outdoors when it snows, rather than closing everything down when a hint of flurries is forecast.
Of course I wouldn't want to live in one of these frozen tundras. I, too, am sick of even our wimpy winters by about mid-December. But it's different to visit a place where snow is practically guaranteed and everyone owns underwear long and warm enough to allow them to enjoy the weather. For a good long weekend of winter fun -- count me in.
An Icy Start
The Ottawa portion of Winterlude festivities is concentrated on and along the downtown portion of the canal, but attractions stretch all the way to Dows Lake, about five miles south. I'm thinking my daughter and I should start by surveying, on ice skates, the entire five-mile stretch. We decide to start at Dows Lake and skate downtown, rather than the other way around, so that we'll be skating toward a warm goal -- our hotel.
The concierge at the downtown Westin tells us that he skates from his home near Dows Lake to work nearly every day, and it takes him about half an hour. He's no doubt a better skater, but even if it were to take us twice as long, I figure, the trip sounds doable. My 12-year-old daughter has moved through the ranks of figure skating all the way to Freestyle II. Although my dreams of learning to twirl and jump died about 20 years and 30 pounds ago, I do manage to hold up during the two-hour skate sessions at Cabin John Ice Rink in Rockville.
So we drive from the hotel to the lake, lacing up in a warm tent. There are lockers, but since we're planning to meet up with my husband downtown at the end of our one-way journey, I give him our boots and my purse.