Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We've got winter: Let's show it off

We need to market our frozen assets better

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When the overnight lows bottom out around -28 C, some Winnipeggers wonder why they choose to live here.

Personally, I think this is silly. Cold snaps, even bitter ones such as this, rarely last more than a week and are easy to enjoy if you do what grandma says and dress for the weather.

In fact, Winnipeg would be well-served to actually celebrate its status as one of the coldest cities on the planet. Truly cold weather is not a common quality in an easily accessible corner of the planet.

What many Winnipeggers detest -- the depths of our subarctic winter -- is actually a commodity we should sell to the world.

In the middle of the summer, tourists from all over the planet visit California's Death Valley National Park just to experience some of the most unpleasant heat there is on Earth.

What many Winnipeggers detest -- the depths of our subarctic winter -- is actually a commodity we should sell to the world

Remote areas of Libya, Chad and Niger are even hotter. But Death Valley is only a few hours away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles by car, not to mention a lot safer than the lawless regions of the Sahara.

Winnipeg, only two hours by plane from Chicago or Toronto, can and should attract the very same sort of curiosity-seeker. The problem is, the city is only beginning to fully embrace its intense winters on the same scale as other winter cities and towns around the world.

Harbin, a northern Chinese city of 5.8 million people, holds a massive ice-and-snow-sculpture festival that illuminates large tracts of the city at night for a month every January. The average January low in Harbin is -24 C, one degree colder than the average for Winnipeg.

Jukkasj§rvi, a village in northern Sweden, pioneered the ice-hotel concept, while the Norwegian ski-resort town of Geilo is home to a music festival where all the instruments are made of ice.

And yes, tourists actually show up in these places, where the locals embrace winter.

Once Winnipeg gets with the frigid program, we can expect tourists to do the same.

The city is starting to get it. The Forks started with a simple river skating-and-walking trail. Now, the Red River Mutual Trail boasts an internationally renowned design contest (yes, those non-warming warming huts), the Raw:Almond pop-up restaurant on the Red River (back for a second year) and a day of music programming at the warming huts.

There are also new features this year, such as an outdoor venue for the Riel Gentlemen's Choir, a Festival du Voyageur beer garden for a week in February and a winter fashion show, also planned by Le Festival.

"We started with skating and walking, which appealed to the outdoor-recreation crowd. Now we have all this," said Paul Jordan, chief operating officer at The Forks. "There's a bunch of layers, and each new layer grabs more people and creative types."

The Forks also plans to extend a river cycling trail all the way to the University of Manitoba campus during the Winter Cycling Congress planned for February. If that works out well, a skating trail will also extend all the way from The Forks to the U of M, allowing students to commute on blades to school.

"If there's a north wind, it's going to be great going there, but not so great coming back," Jordan joked.

The two new Festival du Voyageur efforts on the river do not really mark an expansion of the festival from its St. Boniface footprint, as festival staff have worked behind the scenes on the river trail for years.

The festival is often approached to conduct winter programming farther away from St. Boniface, but simply doesn't have the resources to expand in this way, said executive director Ginette Lavack Walters.

Instead, the festival is focused on doing more within its grounds. And that might even involve a winter campground that would build upon an overnight quinzhee-stay experiment from the last decade.

"I would love to do a campground," said Lavack Walters, conjuring up images of a frozen Folk Festival in St. Boniface. "I need ideas, input and a means of doing it."

The same crazy European tourists who brave Death Valley in July would brave Winnipeg in February -- if only someone invited them.

There will always be winter here. It's time we did a heck of a lot more with the damn thing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A4


Updated on Friday, December 13, 2013 at 8:23 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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