Walk, bike, ice skate, or cross-country ski on a beautiful frozen river trail lined with artistic warming huts at The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
The Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in the heart of the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. This junction has been a meeting place for 6,000 years. The Forks remains a meeting place today with shops, eateries, entertainment, and outdoor spaces attracting tourists and locals. (Read my post about the Forks here.) In the winter, the skating trail created on those rivers is one of the longest river trails in Canada.
The River Trail
The Nestaweya River Trail is named after the original Cree name used for the The Forks. It means “three points”, used here to mean that people came together to this site from three directions on the river: Cree from the north on the Red River; Ojibway from the south on the Red River; and Lakota/Dakota/Nakota or Assiniboine from the west on the Assiniboine River.
The opening and closing of the Nestaweya River Trail every winter are completely dependent on weather. Typically, the trail opens in early January and closes sometime in March.
The length of the trail varies every year dependent on weather conditions and how the river freezes. It typically ranges between seven and ten kilometres (approximately four to six miles). Guinness World Records recognized the trail as the world’s longest naturally frozen skating trail in 2008. The trail was 8.54 kilometres that year. (The current record holder for the longest ice skating trail is the 29.98-kilometre Lake Windemere Whiteway in Invermere, British Columbia, Canada.)
There is also a walking trail running parallel to the skating trail for walking, sledding, skiing, or biking.
Use of the trail is free. There are no set hours. The trail can be used at any time. Grooming occurs late night or early morning. People using the trail at those times need to be aware of staff and machines on the ice. The trail is accessed from The Forks. Other access points are added as conditions allow. Current skating trail conditions can be found here.
The trail features a unique feature: artistic warming huts. The annual Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition, which began in 2009, welcomes design submissions from around the world. A few entrants are selected and the competition winners travel to Winnipeg at the end of January to build their huts. The constructed huts are placed along the skating trail and remain there until the end of the skating season. A few huts from past years join the new huts.
Warming huts are small structures offering temporary shelter from the cold, a place to warm up for a bit during your outdoor adventure. The competition selects designs for huts that “push the envelope of design, craft, and art.” The emphasis on art and architecture results in huts offering varying degrees of shelter. Some offer an enticing invitation into a warm space. Others, while aesthetically pleasing, seem to provide minimal protection from the elements.
You’ll find the huts along the river trail as well as in other spots on The Forks site, particularly in The Forks Market Plaza. Even if you aren’t interested in skating or the other winter activities available at The Forks and along the trail, a visit to check out the huts is worthwile.
2022 Warming Huts
The 2022 competition saw over 100 entries from 27 countries. I’m highlighting some of the 2022 winners here.
Blossom, created by northern Manitoba students from the Frontier School Division in collaboration with Grey & Ivy Inc., was designed with guidance from First Nations elders and artists and focuses on storytelling and learning.
Sunset by Democratic Architects of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was designed to “not only shelter visitors from the cold wind, but also to provide a place in which they can watch the beautiful Canadian sun setting.”
Warming Inflation Hands, created by Popper Zhu of Shanghai, China, features an air-inflated human hand forming a shelter shape.
Each year also features a hut by an invited architect. Al Simmons, a local entertainer and inventor, was selected as the 2022 invited architect. He created the Sounds Crazy Caboose, a resonating chamber where people can tell a story and make their own sound effects.
Al Simmons happened to be at the hut one of the times I walked by it. With one of the walls opened up, he and colleague did a short performance for the gathered group, after which he invited people to try the “instruments” for themselves. He planned to be around for a while to show how they worked.
Although not part of the official competition, Rainbow Butterfly was installed at the Forks in 2022. The hut which was created over a period of four years, began with a collective of University of Winnipeg students and grew into a community collaboration. It honours all Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited survivors, and their families.
Huts From Previous Years
You’ll also find several huts from past years on the trail and at The Forks site. Here are few of past year huts that were on display in 2022.
Hot Landing, created by AtLRG Architecture Inc. of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2021, evokes a crashed vessel reminiscent of the NASA Apollo Command Capsule. The small insulated chamber resembles a sauna.
Forest Village, created by Ashida Architect & Associates Co of Tokoyo, Japan in 2020, consists of huts of straw. They are very inviting and seem to be a popular draw for young children.
Hutti, created by Jennie O’Keefe + Chris Pancoe of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2019, was inspired by the retro cult children’s T.V. series H.R. Pufnstuf.
#HugMug, created by Grade 11 art students of Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2018, is an invitation to celebrate the moments of our lives with those around us. It also reflects the hope that what we have will spill over in abundance to those in need.
Shelterbelt, created by Robert B Trempe Jr of Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, reflects the shelterbelts of trees planted by prairie farmers as windbreaks The full interior is only visible once inside. Wind and the movement and interaction of those inside cause the rebar to oscillate and collide, creating an almost constant metallic rustle reminiscent of the wind through the trees.
Hygge House, a collaboration by Pike Projects, URBANINK, and Plain Projects of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2013, is a reproduction of the most cherished symbols of Canadiana – the wilderness cottage.
I wrote another article about the warming huts several years ago. Go to that post to see more examples of warming huts from past years.
In 2022, for the second year in a row, The Forks Windsock Exposition embraced Winnipeg’s reputation as a windy city. Nine interpretations of the windsock created by local artists, architects, and organizations can be found along the river trail. These public art installations are made with a variety of materials including paddles, tulle, cowrie shells, and more.
More Skating At The Forks
There are other places beside the river trail where you can ice skate at The Forks site.
The Rink Under the Canopy in the Forks Market Plaza is a popular spot for skating, especially for families with young children. Skating trails and snow-packed walking trails run throughout The Forks site. There is another skating rink in front of the outdoor CN Stage. Check The Forks site for current conditions on these skating surfaces as well as that of the river trail.
You can bring your own skates, skis, sleds, or bikes, but, if you don’t have your own, rentals are available.
Iceland Skate Rentals inside The Forks Market, open daily from 10 am to 10 pm, carries hockey and figure skates in all sizes.
If you want to try something other than skating, consider snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or biking. Kendrick Outdoor Adventures rents snowshoes, ice bikes, ice trikes, and fat bikes. Skating assists, in the shape of a beluga, seal, dog, or reindeer, can also be rented for young children to push as they learn to skate. Plain Bicycle, located in a vintage train car at The Forks, rents Nordic skates and cross-country skis.
Sparks Rentals also rents ice cycles, but not on site at The Forks. They can be found at pop-up locations at select river trail access points.
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