First, the Rideau Canal Skateway blew past its latest-ever opening date of Feb. 2. Then two more weeks passed amid endless speculation that skaters might never get the chance this year to skate the seven-kilometre ice route between downtown Ottawa and Carleton University.

Finally, on Feb. 24, the National Capital Commission officially announced that, for the first time since it debuted in 1971, the Rideau Canal Skateway would not open.

The unprecedented situation has environmentalists and citizens alike concerned for the future of the iconic Ottawa landmark.

“Despite all the efforts by our teams, and even with the colder temperatures of the last 24 hours, the latest ice tests show that the Rideau Canal Skateway remains unsafe for skating,” the NCC said in its statement. “With further efforts unlikely to yield a different result, we are unable to open the Skateway for this season. We share everyone’s disappointment with this outcome.”

‘It’s a bit of a gut punch. I think folks think about Ottawa in terms of winter, and folks think about Ottawa winters in terms of the canal.”

— William Van Geest, program coordinator, Ecology Ottawa.

Since the skateway first opened 52 years ago, the city has never known a winter without a steady stream of skaters gliding from downtown to Dow’s Lake and up the final stretch of ice along the west side of Carleton’s campus.

Past seasons have been as long as 95 days or as short as 18, but the canal has consistently frozen over naturally for more than a half-century.

But that changed this year. With warmer-than-normal temperatures and inconsistent cold spells, this season’s weather was the first in over five decades that failed to support the freezing of the canal.

“It’s a bit of a gut punch,” said William Van Geest, a program coordinator at Ecology Ottawa. “I think folks think about Ottawa in terms of winter, and folks think about Ottawa winters in terms of the canal.”

Canal amenities, including the iconic Beavertails shacks, sat empty on the ice as the skateway remained closed this winter. [Photo by Matthew Slevin]

The NCC says the canal needs 10 consecutive days with weather under -10 C to freeze to the point that the ice can support the equipment needed to maintain the skate way. While late February saw temperatures drop below that point, the month’s final cold snap was too little too late.

Earlier, while some meteorologists had been writing off the 2023 canal season as a lost cause, the NCC had continued encouraging skaters to remain hopeful.

“Our teams are working hard to ensure that we’ll be able to welcome skaters to the Rideau Canal Skateway soon,” the NCC’s Maryam El-Akhrass had stated in an email to Capital Current in mid-February.

A closed gate blocked an entrance to the canal in mid-February. Some paths had been shoveled out just beyond — evidence of the NCC’s attempts to get the canal winter-ready. [Photo by Matthew Slevin]

It wasn’t to be.

“The NCC has been assessing and preparing for the impacts of climate change on our assets and operations for several years, and this year taught us a great deal about the effects of milder winters on the Skateway,” the NCC said in the Feb. 24 statement.

The canal means more to Ottawa than just an opportunity for winter recreation. Van Geest emphasized the “symbolic value” of the skateway, a uniquely Canadian phenomenon that brings together locals and tourists in a kind of celebration of the cold weather.

“It’s iconic to Ottawa,” he said. “There’s something personal about the loss.”

This season’s warm weather has also sparked concern about the canal’s future. Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson told the Ottawa Citizen that this winter could be viewed as a “dress rehearsal for … the coming decades.” Others had predicted as early as 2005 that the canal would see shorter and less consistent seasons.

On top of the lost cultural and symbolic value, an inconsistently frozen canal could have significant material impacts on the city. The skateway is one of Ottawa’s biggest tourism draws. It attracted nearly 1.5 million visitors in the 2018-19 season.

Ottawa’s tourism board brushed off such concerns, focusing on the city’s other landmarks and attractions in lieu of the canal.

“It is truly impossible to know with certainty what the impact to tourism is,” Ottawa Tourism’s Jantine Van Kregten said in an email. “I think most visitors are understanding and recognize that it is outside of our control.”

Still, Van Geest urged recognition of the problem’s root cause. The warming trend in global climate in recent decades, he explained, has now had a significant, conspicuous impact on the lives of Ottawa residents.

“It’s a very tangible loss,” he said. “I hope that this will prompt people to think more soberly about climate change.”

The slow shift towards warmer temperatures in winter has already caused the average canal skating season to shrink from about 60 days in 2005 to about 45 today. The City of Ottawa projects that winters will shrink by five weeks and include 35 per cent fewer days below -10 C by the 2050s, suggesting a very near future of consistently mild winters.

“I’m hoping that one of the benefits of it not freezing this year, if that’s indeed what happens, is that people realize that climate change is not something distant from us," Van Geest said. "Climate change is actually upon us, and it has very real effects.”