By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — There is no hiding from winter in Winnipeg.
So, in a city where sub-zero temperatures can last four or five months, many people choose seasonal celebration over hibernation, determined to embrace outdoor activities instead of waiting out winter cooped up inside.
The Forks — a patch of downtown land at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers — is perhaps the best example of that spirit.
Visitors can skate along a river trail that, when conditions permit, is longer (but much skinnier) than Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway. There is an adjacent snow-packed trail for walking or cycling on the frozen rivers. Sleigh rides, a river-ice curling rink, and walking lectures about the area’s rich Indigenous culture are also nearby.
“People have come regardless of the temperature,” said Chelsea Thomson, spokesperson for The Forks North Portage Partnership, the group that manages the area on behalf of the federal, provincial and city governments.
“Warm temperatures definitely bring out more people … but we still see people on our coldest days. This year, for New Year’s Eve, and the year before, we saw close to 20,000 people come out when the temperature was -27 C plus wind chill.”
What separates The Forks from other outdoor winter areas are the amenities. You don’t have to be an extreme winter athlete or hardy adventurer to spend a day at the site.
There’s an indoor market, steps from the river, where you can warm up, eat, drink and shop. It has a large open-concept section where you can try hot chocolate, craft beer or have a full meal. The aim is to allow people to enjoy the area, even on a bitterly cold day, with plenty of chances to take a room-temperature break.
“It’s completely acceptable to sit in the market in your boots and tuque and wool, have something to eat, and then head back outside again,” Thomson said.
You can also find indoor spots to rent skates or fat-tire winter bicycles, so there’s no need to haul your own equipment.
And out on the ice, there are warming huts — unique buildings designed by artists and architects from around the world — where you can scamper inside and get away from the blustery weather. In recent years, the huts have included a large snow-globe-looking edifice with a fake palm tree and cottage chairs, an oversized bison that looks as if it’s made out of puzzle pieces, and a huge coffee mug turned on its side to allow you to enter.
The availability of outdoor activities, even in the dead of winter, was a big plus for personal trainer Lindsay Somers. For years, she has brought her clients to run, skate and exercise in the area. She recently shut down her indoor gym and became the recreation co-ordinator for The Forks.
Somers continues to teach learn-to-run courses. In the dead of winter, after some quick instruction on how to dress for the elements, she gets people running outside in a group, building up their stamina over several weeks to a five-kilometre distance.
That outdoorsy social aspect, she said, is important.
“I’ve changed from being a personal trainer inside a gym to understanding that getting outside — connecting with the world, other people, the community — is a much more sustainable, enjoyable, moderate way to be well,” she said.
As for novices who want to brave the elements for the first time? Somers says the key is dressing in layers. With some long johns, an extra pair of wool socks and a good hat and mitts, you can enjoy almost any weather, Somers says.
“What I’ve found has been really successful for me personally is empowering people to spend time outside in winter and not run from it.”
IF YOU GO:
— The Forks is located in the southeast corner of downtown Winnipeg, within walking distance of many hotels.
— The site is open to the public and free, although there are fees for parking, hay rides and sports equipment rentals.
— Indoor attractions at The Forks include the Canadian Museum For Human Rights and the Children’s Museum (admission fees apply).