- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

OTTAWA — “You’re always bundled up,” the friendly young hotel doorman says with a teasing smile as I return from a long walk, pink-cheeked and hard to miss in my raspberry-colored down coat, with a knit cap under the hood covering most of my forehead.

Well, let’s see, it’s February in Ottawa, which bills itself as the snowiest capital in the world; a snow-and-ice storm blew in just ahead of my husband and me at the start of our long weekend; and we’re here to enjoy Winterlude, a celebration that invites people of all ages to come outdoors and play. I’d say bundling is warranted.

Ottawans stand up to winter and even laugh in its face. Before the plows and shovels have had a chance to do their job, I see a cyclist pedaling along a downtown sidewalk, and I will encounter several others on the roads as the weekend progresses. My husband enjoys the sight of a school bus parked outside the National Gallery of Canada as snowplows clear the streets, an icy wind blows and a gray mist softens the silhouettes of surrounding buildings. The students and their teachers, undeterred, are inside the art museum on a field trip.

Like them, we are out and about, indoors and out, because we want to experience as much as we can of the cosmopolitan and recreation-rich national capital region, which includes both Ottawa, in Ontario, and the city of Gatineau, just across the Ottawa River in French-speaking Quebec province.

Winterlude, which takes place the first three weekends in February, is an outdoor celebration, with ice-skating on the famed Rideau Canal Skateway; ice- and snow-sculpture competitions; free onstage entertainment; a huge playground known as the Snowflake Kingdom where slides and other attractions are made of packed snow; and a variety of related events.

No one can stay outdoors all day, though, and when it’s time to come in from the cold, visitors have plenty more to do than just retreat into their hotels. We enjoy as much of the area as possible during our extended weekend.

The temperatures during our visit range from 3 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of about 37 on the final day. We’re told that’s unusually frigid even for Ottawa. No matter. Local-boy-made-very-good Daniel Lanois, a Grammy-winning singer, composer and producer, is performing Friday night at the Snowbowl, a stage set up for free afternoon and evening performances on the frozen surface of the canal. It’s about a block from Parliament Hill and our hotel, the landmark Fairmont Chateau Laurier — so we’re off.

The performance is like a musical open house, with about 500 listeners at its peak. We join the mostly adult crowd alternately dancing in front of the stage and watching from a series of terraced platforms set up on the gentle slope of a canal bank.

After the show, we take the recreational trail that parallels the canal to Confederation Park, where ice sculptures created in competitions the two previous weekends are on display and Winterlude’s mascots, the Ice Hog family, are presiding over dancing to recorded music. We buy hot spiced cider and the uniquely Canadian “taffy on snow” (an ice pop dipped in maple taffy that sticks to my teeth) and Beavertails (fried dough flattened and shaped as the name suggests and served with a choice of sweet toppings) and warm up in front of a welcoming fire.

Strings of multicolored lights hang on tree branches, and the sculptures are enhanced by colored spotlights, but several of them are losing their shape because of changing temperatures and daytime sunlight. Just as we’re thinking of leaving, two men with chain saws arrive with three blocks of ice about 3 feet tall each and begin carving replacements for a trio of graceful swans with sad, weather-shrunken heads. An artistic calamity strikes when one of the emerging swans suddenly is decapitated — but one of the carvers quickly reunites the separated ice chunks with water that freezes them back in place.

When we finally depart about 10:30 p.m., about 50 people are still enjoying the park. Several hundred are there when we return in bright sunshine the following afternoon.

Saturday is my day to find out what makes skating on the Rideau Canal so popular. The 174-year-old, 125-mile canal begins at the Ottawa River, where Parliament and the Chateau Laurier straddle the first several of its 47 locks. From there, it flows through downtown Ottawa, which grew up around it, and continues to Kingston and Lake Ontario. No longer needed for military or commercial purposes, it and the trails that flank it have become major recreational assets. It has been named a National Historic Site and a Canadian Heritage River and has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My interest, though, is the 4.8 miles the National Capital Commission (NCC) maintains as the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink, as Guinness World Records designated it in 2005.

Skating doesn’t begin until the canal, drained to a depth of 3 feet, has frozen 10 to 12 inches deep. After that, maintenance is a 24-hour operation, including nightly drilling through the ice to pump water to the surface to restore it for the next day, when the skateway will be used by recreational skaters and commuters alike.

A Sno-Bus connecting the four official Winterlude sites takes us to Dows Lake, where I rent skates. My husband settles in with a cup of coffee to watch from a window table at Malone’s Lakeside Bar & Grill, which is on the second floor of the heated rental pavilion. We will have lunch later at the pavilion’s Mexicali Rosa’s, again with a wide window view.

Ice conditions on the lake are not good. Strong winds overnight negated the work of the flooders and groomers. I move gingerly along the lake’s edge, out of practice and intimidated by bumps, gouges and, in one patch, tire tracks on the ice. Sometimes I just stand still and let the wind push me. Meanwhile, more graceful skaters closer to the (apparently smoother) center of the lake glide along, some pulling toddlers on bright yellow plastic sleds or even pushing baby carriages. On the opposite shore, horses are pulling riders across the snow in red sleighs.

I reach my target, a concessions area near where the lake ends and the canal continues between rising riverbanks, and reward myself by making the return trip in a cheery yellow tram. I would have been smarter, I soon realize, to have taken the tram to the concessions area and skated on the narrower, protected part of the canal. A fellow passenger tells me the ice there was smooth, and without the chilling wind, skaters were warm enough to remove extra layers of clothing. Something to remember.

The next morning finds us back on the Sno-Bus, headed across the river to Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau, which has been turned into the Snowflake Kingdom. The sun is bright, the air is clear, and everything sparkles.

Families especially are out in force, finding their way through a labyrinth with walls made of packed snow; tubing down a snow structure called the Avalanche, which ends in a half-pipe-style snowbank at the frozen river’s edge; and trying the network of snow slides — each with a different height, degree of slope and intended speed — that NCC says can accommodate up to 10,000 people an hour.

Tiny tots have a downhill ski area, where parents run down the slope with them, helping them stay upright. Horse-drawn sleighs are taking riders along the river’s edge or on 30- to 45-minute tours of historic Hull, one of four former cities that were joined with Gatineau in 2002.

Entertainers in the small amphitheater are singing children’s songs and telling silly jokes. In the Northern Place, a longhouse made of logs and packed snow, Sylvain Rivard, of Abenaki and French Canadian descent, and Denis Charette, a woodcarver and sculptor of Algonquin and French Canadian heritage, are greeting visitors and talking about native culture.

Behind Mr. Charette is a mask several feet taller than he that he has carved into the snow wall, and lying in front of him is a totem-shaped woodcarving, a work in progress. Demonstrations such as snowshoe-making are presented at various times during Winterlude.

We’re hungry and ready to spend some time indoors, so we walk a few blocks to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, also in Gatineau, and enjoy a leisurely brunch in its window-walled Cafe du Musee, looking across the river to Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada and downtown Ottawa.

Anyone who has been to the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington will immediately recognize similarities between it and the flowing lines and totemic, masklike entrance of this institution, the largest and most-visited museum in Canada. That’s because Douglas Cardinal, a prominent architect of mixed Blackfoot and European heritage, designed the Canadian building, which opened in 1989, and put his unmistakable stamp on the exterior of the Mall museum before being dismissed as chief architect in a legal dispute in 1998.

The roof and ceiling of the elliptical Grand Hall, which holds an extensive collection of totems from the Northwest coast plus the facades of six native dwellings, are designed to look like an overturned canoe; exterior supports resemble canoe paddles; and the undulating stone walls remind me of flowing water. Descending stone semicircles call to mind a series of waterfalls and pools, even without water flowing from them.

Inside, touring the 32,000-square-foot Canada Hall is like walking through a series of detailed stage sets depicting 1,000 years of Canadian social history, from a viking landing site to the interior of a 16th-century whaling station, a whole village from New France in the 17th through 19th centuries, a Ukrainian church from Alberta with glorious icons, and a West Coast fishing and canning operation.

In the almost 22,000-square-foot First Peoples Hall, I especially enjoy the creation stories and carved artworks while learning about the history and culture of Canada’s indigenous people.

The capital region has 29 museums and institutions, 12 of them national. The newest, the Canadian War Museum, opened on the river’s edge in Ottawa in May 2005 to showcase a collection of war-related documents, art and artifacts that had been building since the 1880s.

Japanese-Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama of Moriyama & Teshima Architects of Toronto, has spoken eloquently of the design team’s focus on how both nature and the human spirit heal and are regenerated after the devastation of war, but the museum also stresses in many beautiful ways the need to remember the losses suffered and sacrifices made.

The museum, a joint venture with Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects of Ottawa, is organized with four permanent galleries around a central hub, each dedicated to a specific time period. Viewed one after the other, the galleries carry visitors from the years before Europeans arrived in Canada to the present, but they are equally interesting separately. Stories are told through an extensive collection of military vehicles and artillery, reflection/remembrance areas, a hall that uses art and architectural design to symbolize hope and healing, and a gallery for temporary exhibitions.

We arrive expecting to walk through in about an hour but leave three hours later deeply impressed, informed and touched, having just seen perhaps a fourth of what is on display.

Our visit to the National Gallery of Canada is a return trip, but something new has arrived on its plaza since our first visit three years earlier: “Maman,” a bronze spider that stands about 30 feet tall and carries 26 marble eggs in a sac under her belly. The gallery says the pointed tips of her gnarled, spindly legs are reminiscent of the needles nonagenarian sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ mother used as a professional tapestry restorer, but it notes that the space enclosed by her slightly off-center body can be seen as either a comforting shelter or a scary “cage.” I prefer the more benign interpretation.

The museum’s most stunning architectural feature, inside and out, is the pyramid of glass turrets that forms the roof and ceiling of the unifying Great Hall. Internationally known architect Moshe Safdie designed the space in 1986 as a contemporary echo of the 1876, circular Gothic revival Library of Parliament nearby.

We concentrate on the Inuit gallery, especially its exquisite carvings, and “Art of This Land,” a survey of Canadian art from the oldest object, a 5,000- to 8,000-year-old smooth stone work titled “Petroglyph,” through the present day.

We are treated one night to an exquisite dinner at the CAA-AAA five-star Le Baccara in the Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, followed by an enjoyable three-singer revue, “From Rock to Opera,” performed before an enthusiastic audience in the intimate casino theater.

Two of our other meals feature game we have never tasted before: elk at the Courtyard Restaurant in a delightful 1827 building with stone walls inside and out, and rack of wild Nunavut caribou served with sun-dried blueberries at Wilfrid’s, just off the lobby of the Chateau Laurier. Both meats, we understand, are tricky to prepare because they are very lean, but we barely need knives to cut into ours.

Those who love winter sports will find plenty to do all through the cold season, not just during Winterlude. The capital area boasts more than 200 skating rinks. Gatineau Park, a 140-square-mile forested preserve in the Laurentian foothills, has almost 125 miles of maintained trails for cross-country skiing, including 62 miles accessible for skate-skiing, plus special snowshoe and groomed winter walking trails. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are available at a park area called Camp Fortune. The truly snow-smitten even can overnight in the park in yurtlike huts heated by wood stoves or “under the stars” in their own tents or sleeping-bag-like bivy sacs. I’m told that option is so popular that reservations must be made far in advance.

We’re not that enthusiastic, but after just four days in Ottawa and environs, we have adjusted so completely to the wintry landscape that when we return home, the browns and faded greens that greet us appear disappointingly drab.

• • •

Winterlude this year is scheduled the weekends of Feb. 2 through 4, 9 through 11, and 16 through 18. Information: www.canadascapital.gc.ca/winterlude.

Because of mild weather, skating on the Rideau Skateway had not begun as of Thursday, but colder weather is forecast. For skateway conditions (updated daily), check www.canadascapital.gc.ca/skateway and click Ice Conditions.

Ottawa tourism provides links to the Web sites for attractions, including museums, tours and festivals; restaurants; and lodging choices: www.ottawatourism.ca.

Gatineau and southwestern Quebec: www.outaouais-tourism.ca.

The Fairmont Chateau Laurier, an official Winterlude hotel with a festival information desk in the lobby: www.fairmont.com/laurier.

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