Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg is the Winter Capital of Canada, period

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Manitoba's claim to Guinness-record fame -- the world's longest skating trail -- is a mere three kilometres these days, but it has been packed with rosy-cheeked skaters for the last month or so.

Its former rival, the much more famous Rideau Canal skate trail in Ottawa, isn't even open yet. Nobody knows when it will be safe to venture on. In fact, the UNESCO world heritage site hasn't had a decent skating season in a decade, and was open for less than a month last year.

Some Canadians suffer through winter; some flee it. Others learn to embrace it. And in Winnipeg, the perennial butt of winter jokes, one scrappy little ribbon of ice has helped shape a whole new attitude.

"I was down here at 7 a.m. yesterday," one middle-aged Winnipeg woman confided recently. "It was magical."

She had clambered down a snowbank to rest on a rough wooden bench in the centre of the Assiniboine River, about to lace up her skates for another glide to The Forks and back.

A snow-clearing truck was out, but dozens of skaters happily weaved around him, ducking under the Osborne Bridge to gawk at a magnificent view of the legislature and statue of Louis Riel, then under the Midtown Bridge before hitting an impromptu hockey game and the bustle of The Forks.

Every year the trail opens up, more people discover its simple charms. It offers a whole new perspective on downtown Winnipeg, and on winter itself.

It's pure fun, built by folks who know the value of both hard work -- they hand-shovel each trail leg off, first, and work round the clock to maintain it -- and play.

Paul Jordan has been quietly building The Forks' winter playground for about a decade. He started working as a gardener at the site in 1991, when it was just a marketplace. Today, he is chief operating officer, and he laughs at the suggestion he has a secret mission to convert winterphobes.

"It's not so covert," he said. "I can be really annoying about it. I love winter."

This year's Arctic Glacier Winter Park boasts an ice castle, obstacle course, snowboarding and tobogganing, and a 1.2-kilometre overland skate trail that winds through it all, including an old bridge with a birds-eye view of the famous river junction.

And that doesn't include the river skate trail, which this week will start heading south down the Red, adding another three to four kilometres to its length. Every winter, it grows as long as Mother Nature, time and budget allows. It easily topped the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal in 2008 when it stretched more than nine kilometres.

The Forks' focus on winter fun has exceeded all expectations. Two years ago -- in February -- they registered their "biggest day ever, bigger than summer," Jordan said. "We saw more than 35,000 people come out. It was -2C and a Sunday."

The tipping point to all of this, Jordan believes, was 2008 when Winnipeg's trail claimed the world record.

"Interest really picked up then, from all over the world." And today, what really tickles Jordan is the warming-hut competition, which started two years ago and now attracts internationally renowned artists and architects.

Fifteen award-winning shelters will be scattered along the trail by Jan. 25, whimsical and creative and (there's that word again) fun.

"I love when the warming huts are out there, and you hear these regular Joes coming down the trail, talking about architecture," Jordan said. He even wrote a recent blog about it, remarking on how a "relatively simple project like a skating trail" could inspire so many.

"This year take a moment and marvel in the creative spirit that is unleashed when people gather together to create things for no other reason than pure fun."

Ottawa has its Winterlude, Quebec its winter carnival. Winnipeg boasts the West's largest winter festival in Festival du Voyageur. In fact, a whole bunch of Canadian cities claim to be the Winter Capital of Canada.

But if there's a title to be had, it's clearly Winnipeg's because the heart of this city has become a winter festival all season long.

At The Forks, the music is playing, the lights are on, and young and old are going out to play in the snow. And all because of a little river trail that didn't know when to stop.

Like the skater said, it's magic.

Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently working on a history of the women's shelter movement in Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 A17

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