Go with the snow Taking a Nordic-style kicksled out for a spin is a pretty Swede ride
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2022 (231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Wearing a dusty pink snowsuit and a face mask emblazoned with colourful Dala horses, Sonja Lundstrom is excited.
“This is going to be my 80th birthday present to myself,” she says, pointing to a nearby wooden kicksled poised for takeoff. “My grandma had one of these and my dad made me one out of hockey sticks for all my children… but these are the new modern ones and I haven’t had one of those.”
But today’s frosty jaunt is less of a test drive and more of a diplomatic adventure. Lundstrom is the president of the Swedish Cultural Association of Manitoba and is at The Forks to give Urban Ahlin, the Swedish Ambassador to Canada, a little taste of home.
“In my part of Sweden we use the (kicksleds) when we go out on the ice for ice fishing,” says Ahlin, who was in town recently with several other Nordic ambassadors to meet with the premier. “This is a very climate-friendly means of transportation and you can use it for lots of different reasons… it’s actually pretty fun to ride as well.”
A kicksled is a simple winter vehicle made up of a chair mounted on two long skis. It can be pushed from behind with a kicking motion, like a scooter, or pulled by a dog.
It’s been a popular mode of transportation in rural Nordic towns for decades and has been gaining traction among Winnipeggers in recent years.
Today’s sleds have been provided by the Plain Bicycle Project, a social enterprise of the Winnipeg Trail Association.
The organization got its start importing cargo containers of Dutch bikes to the city and has since opened two retail and repair shops while expanding its vision for multi-modal active transportation into the winter months.
For Winnipeg Trails executive director Anders Swanson, kicksleds are the perfect entry point.
“Kicksleds are kind of indicative of a culture that really understands winter, really understands how to plow and maintain their paths,” he says.
Swanson first encountered kicksleds during a winter biking conference in Finland. While his personal sled is currently stocking the Plain Bicycle mobile ski library, he has used the apparatus locally for short trips to pick up groceries or grab beer from his neighbourhood brewery.
Since the skis are designed for use on ice or packed snow, most people view kicksledding as a recreational activity rather than a viable way to get around Winnipeg. To make it more accessible, Swanson says better winter infrastructure is needed.
“What we’re trying to bring here is a respect for snow… we’re a winter city, but we’re terrible at using snow as a building material and we have a very combative approach to snow,” he says, adding that he would like to see the city create a network of packed snow paths that could be used for biking, skiing, kicksledding and everyday active transportation.
“There are systemic ways of designing this city that could really celebrate the human being in every season.”
Working with the snow and prioritizing pedestrians over vehicles is a decidedly Scandinavian way of thinking.
“The first thing we plow is actually the walkways,” Ahlin says of his home country. “We need to look at other things than the car’s needs.”
Kicksledding is having a resurgence in Sweden as a direct result of changes to snow-management policies, says Ahlin. Many cities have cut down on their salt usage, leaving less bare concrete and more snow for residents to enjoy.
“For a period of time it went away,” he says. “But nowadays we’re using less salt and the kicksled is coming back again into the Swedish tradition.”
The country may have its winter walkways figured out, but Ahlin says Winnipeggers could teach Swedes a thing or two about dealing with extreme cold.
“You have a much colder weather than we have,” he says. “I don’t think Swedes are experts when it comes down to winter, but it’s good to have an exchange of views and see how different kinds of cultures deal with stuff.”
It’s one of those bitterly cold days when the convoy of kicksleds and Swedish flags pushes away from The Forks market and heads down to the Assiniboine for a tour of the river trail warming huts.
The Nestaweya River Trail is also a favourite sledding spot for Dan and Viola Prowse, who purchased a kicksled last winter as a way to stay active and get outside amid the pandemic. The husband and wife duo are both in their 70s and try to take their sled out at least once a week for trips through local parks and winding rivers.
“A huge part of it has been discovering the city from the vantage point of the river,” Viola says.
“People are doing all kinds of things on the rivers — there’s skating rinks and they build these big ice patios with all sorts of furniture,” Dan adds. “We would maybe walk to see some of that stuff, but now we can just go so much further.”
The Prowses own one kicksled, so they take turns walking and scooting. It’s an ideal situation because Dan — who is something of an exercise fanatic — can go as fast as he pleases and Viola can set her own pace.
“It suits our different levels,” Viola says, adding that the kicking motion is easier on her knees than running. “It really gets my heart pumping and it has its moments of sheer fun.”
“And it’s great if you have grandkids; they love the ride,” Dan says.
The couple owns an Elsa-brand kicksled that can be folded down and transported in the back of their Toyota Corolla. The skis have a removable plastic cover for snow and thin metal blades for ice. While they have yet to come across another kicksledder in the wild, they’re often approached by curious passersby.
“The first thing (people say) is, ‘Oh, you lost your dog,’” Dan says with a laugh. “It is kind of intriguing, especially if you see some old grey-haired people passing you.”
Plain Bicycle has kicksleds for rent or purchase at its Sherbrook Street and Forks locations, with prices starting at $320. Sleds and dog harnesses are also sold by Canvasback Pet Supplies in Lockport and Prairie Dog Supply Co. near Selkirk. Snow Motion, a local winter dog sport club, has sleds available to rent for members and groups that meet regularly for kicksledding excursions.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.