With the Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival races cancelled for the second year in a row because of warm weather, festival organizers and athletes say it's time to reconsider what its future could look like.
"The question becomes, can we feasibly move this forward?" said Ottawa Dragon Boat Foundation CEO John Brooman.
The festival's races typically take part on a stretch of the Rideau Canal Skateway — which also faces concerns over its future.
Cancelling this year's races was a tough call for everyone, Brooman said.
Ottawa Dragon Boat Foundation CEO John Brooman says it was a sad, but necessary decision to cancel the races again this year. (Radio-Canada)
He said people have been understanding, but he's concerned about losing trust and wonders if athletes will still want to participate next year.
"I'm not sure if I would sign up … if I was from out of town and this has happened now twice. So that would kill the event."
Contingency plans needed
Billed as a first for North America when it began in 2017, the festival was able to have races for four years and then had them cancelled for four years. The 2021 and 2022 Winterludes went virtual because of COVID-19 restrictions and precautions.
Ben Luna is among those who regularly make the trip for the festival. His Vermont-based team, the Mighty Iceholes, were disappointed to hear of this year's cancellation.
They're still planning to sign up again next year.
"We're still very excited about it. It's an incredible event. It's so community-oriented. The energy is really, really, really positive," he said.
The Mighty Iceholes were planning to come to the festival from Vermont. (Submitted by Ben Luna)
His team had already booked their lodging and transportation to Ottawa and Luna said he still plans to come take in the rest of Winterlude.
If there's a similar problem next year, Luna said he'd like the festival to explore alternative events for teams such as a city-wide scavenger hunt.
"One of the things we will be looking for is a contingency plan," he added.
Living in 'changing times'
Richard Martin, captain of Ottawa's Chinatown Snowboat team, was watching the forecast closely over the past week to get a sense of whether the races would be happening or not.
With daytime highs around zero either recorded or forecast for about two weeks, Martin said he wasn't optimistic the races would be back.
"It's very discouraging because I know so many people put their hearts and souls into this, including the festival office staff themselves," he said.
Martin said losing the festival entirely would be deeply felt by the community, since it's not only fun but also raises thousands of dollars every year for charities including its June races at Mooney's Bay.
Some of those summer races were also cancelled last year because of wildfire smoke.
If the festival wants to continue with dragon boats on ice, it'll have to pivot, Martin said.
"This is a new world. It's not these deep colds we used to get. Winters are milder now, so how can we respond to that? It's a reminder that we're living in changing times," he said.
Richard Martin is the team captain of Ottawa's Chinatown Snowboats. He says the festival will have to pivot if it wants to continue hosting wintertime races. (Jean Delisle/CBC)
Right now, organizers are in "crisis mode," but once things settle down Brooman said they'll be looking into other potential options for the future.
There have been discussions about moving the location of the event onto land and freezing a surface instead of relying on the canal to freeze.
"It's far too early to really suggest what we are going to do in the end," he added.