Winnipeg is a river city. Winnipeg is a winter city. In winter, the rivers are frozen. How do you stay voyageur when the weather is all burr?
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Some suggest you skate the Forks River Trail: “Skates are like little steel canoes for your feet,” they say. Apparently there are warming huts along the way that are the product of a grand architectural competition. Are these warming huts capable of softening the dark block of my prairie February heart? Is the River Trail a path to winter salvation? How good are my backwards crosscuts? I’m scrambling down the river bank now to see if the ice is all it’s cracked up to be.
I put in at the Churchill dock, at the southern end of the leg on the Red. I see there’s one of those warming huts here for me to lace my skates in. It’s an arrowhead shaped wooden frame covered with fir boughs. Inside it has mirroring benches. There is some strange putty mound in the middle. I think it’s for setting your mitts on while you tie your skates. The overwhelming sensation in here is olfactory though: it smells great. I don’t know what memories the smell of fir boughs trigger for you, but for me it’s scrambling to crawl over a sea of rotting logging waste on a clear-cut in B.C. with hip-bags full of seedlings. I assume that’s universal.
Okay, skates are on, let’s go. The Red River has a big open feel to it. The ice surface is pretty good. It looks like they’ve been by to flood it recently. There are quite a few Cindy Klassens and Bobby Orrs out today. Oh, and there’s the second warming hut coming into view!
It’s called Smokehouse, but leave your meat at home because there’s no place to make a fire. It’s the house itself that’s been smoked. The sign shows a picture of it with a fire pit in the middle, but that doesn’t exist in the real hut. Perhaps it’s the idea of that original fire that charred the building that’s supposed to warm us? Is it working? Can you feel the idea’s heat reading this on the internet?
Better keep going. The next hut is a giant side-mounted drain hole. It’s all blue on the north-facing side and orange within. It was designed by a team from Norway. If you’re standing in front of the blowhole, it just focuses the wind. Doesn’t that make me colder? Maybe this is conceptual though: I’m supposed to think about the idea of going from blue to orange. Maybe that works in Norway. The Scandinavians are very good abstract thinkers.
I’m going to keep skating. Woo! Skating is fun! I think it’s the closest humans will ever come to the sensation of flying. Except for flying.
The fourth hut is a large block of synthetic something-or-other with various whittlings notched into it. It’s a piece by University of Manitoba architecture students about having your sanity whittled away by the workload of the U of M architecture program. The block is done in the same colour as their eyeballs. Again, I’m unsure how this is supposed to make us warmer. Are we just supposed to be happy that we’re not in the architecture program?
These huts are all very heady. This is art. It’s good for me. I should think about art more often. The River Trail offers exercise for both body and mind.
The next hut is called Under the Covers. I think the designer, a fellow from Philly named Robert B. Trempe Jr., may be suggesting that his hut is after the award for “Best Hut to Get Naughty In.” The astroturf interior walls are surprisingly soft on the back… but I digress.
The final hut on the Red is a metal sheet igloo. There’s a real estate agent outside it trying to sell it to me. She says it’s a primo piece of river-top property and that it will go fast. She smiles at me wildly. “It’s a one bedroom,” she says. It looks like she may burst into laughter or tears at the drop of a snowflake. Her blonde hair buzzes around her face like static. “It has zero baths.” I back away slowly and crosscut my way onto the Assiniboine.
Arriving at the Forks, I first make my way up the steps to discover another of the warming huts: Woodpile. It’s walls are a cage you can stack wood in, and there’s a fire pit mounted in the middle. This is a warming hut you could get hot in. I’m a big fan of this one.
When I make my way back down to the river it is a frenzy of figure skaters, hall-of-famers and the snotty-nosed. On the right rink, squad of Orsers duel some Boitanos and it’s getting a bit chippy. I watch a Kristi Yamaguchi nail a triple-Salchow on her way to the bench to serve a double-minor for flipping the puck into a snowbank and then I look over just in time to see someone dressed like Ken Watson make a quadruple-takeout for five. On the next sheet over I’m pretty sure it’s Kerry Burtnyk I hear yelling “AAAAAArrrd!” but I can’t see for sure through the heavy hanging cloud of corn broom dust.
I glide away from the Forks with more questions than answers: Are the skates of that Elvis Stojko impersonator make of real alligator? Was that Paul Coffey who took the puck off me while sipping a Tallest Poppy pop-up resto coffee? Are Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz getting back together?
At the side of this Forks action is another hut called Big City by a firm from Montreal. It’s a modernist building of various wall segments that you can skate through. It seems to have been designed to simulate blindside hits. The whole thing is left wrapped in Tyvec, which is sure to remind many Manitobans of that period of their life when they couldn’t yet afford to put salmon-coloured vinyl siding on their addition.
Now I’m headed west, trying to dance around the dilly-dallying Pavel Bures and Clara Hugheses. The Assiniboine is more cozy feeling, more intimate. Many people are out skiing their dogs. These dogs look very happy. The side-banks of the trail are well marked with the jaundiced inlets of their sprinkles and dribbles and squirts.
I come across some kind of installation piece of half buried flutes called Sonus Loci. I can’t tell you what it sounds like though. I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the police chopper.
The next hut is a cross section of a traditional cabin in fluorescent yellow. All of the contents of the cabin, save for the (working) woodstove are done in yellow. Hygge House is a photo-op favourite. It also makes you feel more comfortable saying hello to someone from another relay team. Take that crushing social anxiety!
Then comes a hut called Woolhaus. Its walls are formed by a bunch of hanging felt cylinders. Once you push your way inside, the most striking impression is the dampening of the sound. It feels wonderfully homey and calm. I’m surprised nobody has started squatting here yet.
Under Osborne and around the bend we encounter WeaveWave, the most elaborate structure yet by far. This is another creation of U of M students. It’s absolutely beautiful. It looks like the digestive tract of some wood-chip leviathan surfaced upon the ice. The workmanship on everything is superb. The net chairs are amazingly comfortable. I don’t know if you’d ever warm up here, but I don’t care. Top marks.
After rounding one more bend we arrive at the end of the River Trail and its final hut. It’s a little acorn shaped enclosure of ropes. They don’t provide a full windbreak, but at least there is a clear option to get yourself warm: ropeburn.
I take my skates off in the ropes and walk up the river bank. My permanent playoff beard is well frosted with the freezings of my lung moisture, but in there somewhere is a big smile. This River Trail makes me very happy. It’s the thing to do. Heck, it’s the way to commute! Park your polluter for the winter! Stay off the streets! They’re all spilling over with water-main breaks anyway.
Yes, the River Trail is great. But don’t take my word for it. Get out there. Ride around on blades. Put on the perfect kicker wax. Hitch up the dog team. Give a Ted talk about your favorite hut. Work on your quadruple-axle, your run-back double and that first pass out of the zone. Drop the gloves with someone you love.
And if you agree with me about its mighty merit, maybe make a donation to the River Trail.
Ross McCannell is a writer and tree-planter. He winters in Winnipeg. Follow him on Twitter @RossMcCannell.