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Take Time Out for a Brief Winterlude in Ottawa

November 02, 1986|TOM BROSS | Bross is a Boston free-lance writer.

OTTAWA, Canada — Credit the Canadians with taking a rational approach to their freezing winters. As long as it's here and as long as we have to live with it, they say, let's enjoy it.

In the capital city of Ottawa, the result of that practical attitude is an annual 10-day festival called Winterlude.

In 1987 the ninth edition of this cold-weather celebration takes place Feb. 6-15. If the mere thought of ice and snow turns you into a wrapped-up couch potato, here's your chance to be converted.

Winterlude centers around Ottawa's Rideau Canal and interconnected Dows Lake. The canal dates from 1826 when it was a military route, but today it is used strictly for pleasure and, as such, is a treasure.

In December the water level is lowered for quick transformation to solid ice. Result: the world's longest skating rink, a 7.8-kilometer stretch (nearly five miles) between the National Arts Centre and the lake.

Skaters can cavort on a canal route that goes beneath six bridges and features the neo-Gothic towers of Parliament Hill. The canal is lighted at night, with handy warm-up huts for changing from shoes to skates open until 10:30 p.m.

Winterlude draws many people onto the ice. The closest estimate was 700,000 during last year's 10-day period, 150,000 on peak weekend days. Winterlude has easygoing congeniality and generates more of an atmosphere of family participation.

Mood Music

Winter mood music fills the air, clowns and the festival's Ice Hog mascots mingle with the skaters, bonfires blaze and a warm concoction called a beaver tail, deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, is a snack treat.

On Dows Lake, skaters glide amid elaborate, fanciful Ice Dream sculptures. Hundreds of skaters are moms and dads who pull sleds full of red-nosed tots behind them.

Long promenades border the canal for those choosing not to navigate the ice. Tethered hot-air balloons add bright bubbles of color to the sky, with free rides available.

The Winterlude calendar is chock-full of special events. People-packed though it is, there's ample roped-off room on the canal for grandstands and such spectator attractions as figure-skating shows, speed-skating races, barrel-jumping competition, hockey tournaments and even the Great Canadian Bed Race.

The biggest crowd of all comes to watch the Molson Trotting Classic, held every year since Winterlude's inception in 1979, reviving a Canadian tradition of harness racing on ice that was popular throughout the last century. The entrants are professional drivers from Canada, the United States and the Netherlands who race their trotters over a quarter-mile straightaway for a $10,000 purse. Cork grippers in the horseshoes make it possible and, in fact, impressively fast.

The spectacle and fun isn't confined to the Rideau Canal and Dows Lake. Across the Ottawa River in the French-speaking city of Hull, kids swarm over Piruvik, an ice kingdom of slides, tunnels, swing ropes and mini-mountains. Piruvik, the native-Canadian Inuit word for playground, is in Jacques Cartier Park, and there you'll also find free horse-drawn sleigh rides and dog-sled rides, plus snowmobile racing, snowshoe trekking and a 33-hour ice-fishing derby.

Winter Wonderland

Beyond Hull, where Winterlude is called Bal de Niege, hilly and forested Gatineau Park is a winter wonderland of ski trails.

In Landsdowne Park beside the canal, northern-habitat animals including timber wolves and polar bears populate a winter zoo, a Canadian Inuit village is set up and kids on toboggans can zip down the Avalanche. For ice skaters, a skate walk links the park with the canal.

The 1,200-acre Central Experimental Farm, adjacent to Dows Lake and in warmer seasons a setting for field crops, gardens and an arboretum, features a hot-air balloon festival. On a Saturday afternoon in February, balloonists will look down upon a wedding ceremony performed in the Ice Dream area on the lake, and the Canadian Figure Skating Championships will be held there Feb. 1-8.

Indoor get-togethers are on the schedule, too. Perhaps the fanciest are a Mardi Gras Ball in Ottawa's Congress Centre and a Valentine's Night gala in the National Arts Centre. Also: folkloric evenings and ethnic parties, college dances, church socials, concerts and chorales, movies, National Gallery art exhibitions and special Winterlude food offerings in city restaurants.

Inside the big tent at Jacques Cartier Park, classic Quebecois onion soup is served piping hot during an evening that includes music for dancing. Just before Winterlude, on Feb. 2, international mime Marcel Marceau will perform at the National Arts Center, and the Claude Bolling jazz group appears on Feb. 23.

Skate rentals are available at Dows Lake and two places along the canal. Nordic skis, snowshoes and baby sleighs can be rented. Canteens with servings of hot and cold food and adjacent restroom facilities are set up in numerous canal-side locations from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily during Winterlude.

Disabled persons will find wheelchair ramps for access to Dows Lake and the canal. Free snow buses run a shuttle service along the 3 1/2-mile Queen Elizabeth Driveway, which borders the left (west) bank of the canal.

Ottawa's official temperature averages for February are 23 degrees by day and 6 degrees by night. For nearly three quarters of a million people, those conditions are ideal for the 10 days of festival events. This is wintertime fun, exuberant Canadian style, at its very best.

For complete travel information, contact the Government of Ontario, Canada, Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, 700 S. Flower St., Suite 1420, Los Angeles 90017, phone (213) 622-4302.

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