Yesterday John and I braved the cold and the winds. Why? So we could skate The Forks – the world’s longest natural outdoor rink – and that’s a Guinness World Record’s fact.
The Forks skating experience is one of the must do activities if you’re in Winnipeg in the winter.
Winnipeg, called Winterpeg by many, is famous for its long, brutally cold winters. Getting outside is the key to surviving them. Fortunately someone got the great idea back in the nineties to open the Red and Assiniboine Rivers to skating. And what a difference skating makes to a winter.
Right now there are seven kilometres open – a combination of the more sheltered Assiniboine River and the larger Red River. According to a fellow who works at Iceland Skate Rentals plans are in the works to open a total of eleven kilometres this year.
Over the past weekend the temperature in Winnipeg was -21°C, make that -31°C with the windchill – not the sort of temperatures that beckon the locals, let alone out of town visitors. It’s a dry cold and not quite as awful as it sounds. Clare MacKay, the VP for marketing and communications at The Forks, tells me that if the wind disappears and the temperatures stay above -20°C, the Forks can see up to 30,000 people over a single weekend. In some ways we were lucky as I’d say we saw no more than two dozen people out skating.
The beauty of The Forks is you don’t even have to be a skater. There’s a snow covered trail alongside the skating trail so everyone can get out and enjoy the fresh air. And in this part of the world there is usually sunshine too.
I had brought warm clothes but not skates with me. Fortunately skates are easy to rent. Inside the Forks Market look for Iceland Skate Rentals. They have over 500 pairs of skates. Rentals are very reasonably priced – $4.50 a pair for adults and $2.50 for kids and seniors. They also provide onsite locker rentals for $2.00 and skate sharpening for $4.00.
John and I skate for the better part of 90 minutes. He does the whole 14 kilometres, I do about twelve. The only part of me that gets cold is my face; today a mask would have come in handy.
But when we finish I feel a warm glow and a profound sense of being alive.
The only thing I’m sorry to have missed is the warming huts. Within a week there will be approximately fourteen of them in place at various points along the river. These aren’t just any old warming huts but ones that have been designed by architects.
Here’s a description of The Smokehouse – one of the winning entries – from the Warming Huts website.
The elemental, pure form of the hut, almost the very symbol of home, rendered in the stark black of charred wood, is nestled in soft white snow. Inside, layers of thick ivory felt line the walls and seating, creating a nest-like interior reminiscent of ancient gathering places strewn with animal pelts. On closer inspection, one discovers the felt layers embossed with delicate patterns and textures, a subtle sanctification of intimate space. The room has a unique sound, or absence thereof: it is silent, like the sound of new snow on the street.
One enters and leaves through the same door, stooping to duck under the felt draftstop, bending to join temporary community within. The communal nature of the experience is revealed only upon entering as you join the visitors gathered in the quiet warm space. It is this unfolding of subtle surprises that lie behind the formal quietude of the hut.
If you’re in the Winnipeg area between now and the end of February make it a point to see these warming huts and go for a skate. You may luck out too and catch one of the multitude of activities planned at The Forks in the winter – including a curling Bonspiel, a bike race and shinny.
On a final note – I would like to mention that the famous Rideau Canal in Ottawa – which is also used for skating, is the biggest natural outdoor rink – just not the longest. It also has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Did you know the Forks was the world’s longest natural outdoor rink?