John and I braved cold and wind in Winnipeg. Why? So we could go skating at The Forks – the world’s longest natural outdoor rink – and that’s a Guinness World Record’s fact. The Forks are located at the junction of the Red & Assiniboine Rivers, just a 2 minute drive from Main and Portage.
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 at The Forks makes to enjoying winter.
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Skating the Forks is one of the must do activities in Winnipeg in winter
When we visited in late January there were 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 were in the works to open a total of eleven kilometres that year. Every year is a bit different.
Over the weekend we visited the temperature in Winnipeg was -21°C, make that -31°C with the wind chill – not the sort of temperatures that beckon the locals, let alone out of town visitors. However, 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.
You don’t have to go skating to have fun at The Forks
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 – $6.00 a pair for adults and $4.00 for kids and seniors. They also provide onsite locker rentals and skate sharpening for $6.00.
John and I skate for the better part of 90 minutes. He does the whole 14 kilometres, I do about twelve kilometres. The only part of me that gets cold is my face. A mask would have come in handy.
But when we finish I feel a warm glow and a profound sense of being alive.
Warming Huts along The Forks
The only thing I’m sorry to have missed is the warming huts. Within a week of our visit there will be approximately fourteen warming huts 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.
Catch one of the many activities at The Forks
If you’re in the Winnipeg area between early January and the end of February make it a point to see these warming huts (which change yearly) 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.
Where to stay close to The Forks
Book a room at the Inn at the Forks as the skating trail is just a minute’s walk away – as is The Forks market. The hotel itself offers beautifully appointed rooms with views to the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in one direction. Look the other way and you can see the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.