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Rideau Canal Skateway won't open for 1st time in 53-year history

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The Rideau Canal Skateway will not open for skating this winter.

The National Capital Commission announced the mild temperatures this winter will prevent the world's largest skating rink from opening for the first time in its 53-year history.

"Despite our best efforts, the weather got the best of us for the first time in our history," the NCC said on Twitter.

"You’re disappointed. We’re disappointed."

Ottawa has seen above-seasonal temperatures in January and February this winter, delaying work on the historic skateway by NCC crew members.

While the Rideau Canal Skateway remained closed during all three weekends of Winterlude this month, the NCC remained hopeful it could open the skateway with colder temperatures in the forecast.

On Friday afternoon, the NCC said Mother Nature did not co-operate with those plans.

"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 a 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."

The closure of the Rideau Canal Skateway during Winterlude was a blow for Ottawa's tourism sector. The Ottawa-Gatineau Hotel Association said it expected hotel bookings would be down during Winterlude this year.

"This demonstrates how important skating on the canal is to the overall success of the festival," president Steve Ball said in a statement to CTV News Ottawa. "You can't control Mother Nature."

An NCC spokesperson said it’s too early in the season to say how much operations on the Rideau Canal will cost this year.

But generally, costs for the skateway amount to about $1 million a year, the spokesperson said.

When it’s open, the canal generates many times that amount in economic activity for the downtown core.

The Rideau Canal Skateway has been a popular tourist attraction since it first opened in 1971. The previous latest opening for the Rideau Canal Skateway was Feb. 2 in 2002. The shortest season on the skateway was 16 days back in 2016.

The opening date for the Rideau Canal Skateway has been getting later over the years.

In the canal's first 26 seasons, the median opening date was Dec. 27. In the 26 years since the 1995-96 season, the median opening date has been Jan. 10. Across all 52 skating seasons, the median opening date is Jan. 1. 

"We’ve been assessing and preparing for the impacts of climate change for several years," the NCC said Friday.

A July 2021 risk assessment on the effects of climate change on the Rideau Canal Skateway warned that in the next decades, the skating season would be less than 40 days approximately 50 per cent of the time. The report said the opening of the skateway in December is unlikely to occur in the future.

The NCC has been working with researchers at Carleton University to collect data on the skateway and test options for ice management. Those options included a so-called slush cannon, which shoots freezing cold slush onto the surface of the canal to help build up a thicker layer of ice.

Disappointing news for businesses

The decision to keep the Rideau Canal Skateway closed for the season is a big loss for businesses around the Rideau Canal.

Staff at Dunrobin Distilleries says they are a "little disappointed" the canal will remain closed and they wouldn't be able to open its hut on the skateway this winter.

"We were looking extremely forward to it, but we were realistic and also the understanding it is Ottawa, the weather is temperamental at best," Adam Malemberg of Dunrobin Distilleries said.

This would have been the second winter for Dunborin Distilleries selling spirits on the skateway.

"It's something you can't say no to, it's a national attraction," Malemberg told Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.

John Hennessy of ZUPS ByWard says staff are "sad" they won't be able to open a stand on the canal this winter.

ZUPS sells poutine in the ByWard Market. Hennessy planned to expand the business on the Rideau Canal Skateway this winter.

"I sort of believe in resetting every opportunity that you get, and I see both the upside and the downside of it. The downside is we will not be on the canal, we will not be able to generate the income that we hoped to be able to generate nor would we be able to employ students and people on the canal that we hired," Hennessy told CTV News Channel.

"The other side of the coin is that we have now accelerated the preparation of our company to be able to get into a mobile mode. We now have a trailer."

Hennessy says ZUPS "mitigated spending a lot of money", because of the support of the NCC and the Rideau Canal Skateway team.

"(they) ensured that I didn't make a business decision too early that would have had me buy tonnes of potatoes and thousands of containers. We knew at every stage, every few days, what the update was and what the possibility of being on the canal happened to be," Hennessy said. "So fortunately, we didn't spend all of the money that we could have if it hadn't been for that kind of balance."

Last weekend, BeaverTails closed most of its food stands on the Rideau Canal for the season.

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