As February approaches with the Rideau Canal Skateway still not fully open, the National Capital Commission (NCC) continues to grapple with the impact of Ottawa’s unpredictable winters and the possible impacts on tourism in the city.

On Jan. 24, the skateway was open between Waverley and Bank, including Patterson Creek, and between Bronson and Library, including the Dows Lake Loop. After a weekend of wet snow and freezing rain the canal is closed again for the time being.

Since the skateway first opened in January 1971, the 7.8-kilometre long rink has been a focal point for tourism in Ottawa.

Cédric Pelletier, strategic communications advisor for the NCC, said that skating on the canal is something that almost anybody can do. “You don’t have to be a good skater to come on the skateway,” he said.

Last year, the canal saw a record 1.5 million visitors over 59 skating days, an average of 21,000 skaters a day.

According to the NCC, the Crown corporation that manages the canal, that number has been rising in the last few seasons.

But this season’s official opening of Jan. 18 is the sixth-latest opening since 2001-02. That season the skateway did not open until Feb. 2, 2002.

This visualization shows the Canal’s opening dates by season, by the number of days from the first day of Winter to the first skating day.

Pelletier said the NCC has contingencies in case of warmer weather. That’s a good thing because Winterlude, which runs from Jan. 31 to Feb. 17 this year, attracts up to 600,000 people per year, according to a Government of Canada website.

In past years, many Winterlude events took place at Dow’s Lake and other sections of the canal. This year, Winterlude events are happening on Sparks Street and Bank Street instead. In part, this is a response to weather.

Last winter, Andrew Campbell, a deputy minister at Canadian Heritage, told the CBC Winterlude officials were looking for reliable event venues due to unpredictable winter conditions.

Amélie Desmarais, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage, said in an emailed statement that Winterlude’s shift in focus is to ensure it remains a flagship event for winter tourism in Ottawa.

Julia Thomson, who works for Ottawa Tourism, said Winterlude organizers are also attempting to make the event more regional. (Ottawa Tourism promotes Winterlude and the canal, but Canadian Heritage is the organization that runs Winterlude.)

Skaters on the Rideau Canal on Jan. 20, near the Flora Footbridge. [Photo © Ciara Hain]

According to Pelletier, the NCC is aware that the canal can potentially open much later now because of warmer average temperatures in December and January.

Pelletier said the warmer temperatures have also affected how the NCC prepares the canal for skating. Previously, for example, the canal froze naturally. Now, contractors employed by the NCC divert warm city water, which drains into the canal, to the deepest parts in order to minimize effects on surface ice.

While the skateway has seen some variation in openings since its first season in 1970-71, Shelly Scott, who was skating the canal on a recent Monday, said she has noticed the effect Ottawa’s unpredictable winters has on the Canal’s opening dates.

“[P]robably the general trend is toward later, and the general trend is toward closing earlier,” said Scott.

But she said last year was “completely different.”

“It was good last year … It’s unpredictable now, whereas it used to be we’d have lots of snow all winter,” she said.

In 2018-19 there was a season length (the number of days between the official opening and closing) of 71 days, with 59 actual skating days.

The Canal’s season lengths since 1996, by skating days and total number of days. The 2018-19 season saw a jump from the previous three seasons.

This was up from 35 skating days in 2017-18, and 25 skating days in the 2016-17 season.

This visualization shows average Ottawa temperatures in January and February.

  • For up-to-date skating conditions, see the NCC’s ice conditions map here.
  • For a list of events at this year’s Winterlude, see the line-up here.
  • For more information about Winterlude, check out Ottawa Tourism’s page here.