Breaking the ice on winter River bike experience a lesson in cold, exhilarating fun
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The river was swarming. Not with fish but people, every single one busy messing about on the ice.
Little clusters gathered on benches strapping on skates whilst others braved the frozen water, feet shod only in boots, their tentative steps growing bolder as they realized the surface was not slippery as first assumed.
On the banks, folks strode about on skis as a container train lazily clacked its way on the bridge overhead.
A busy afternoon scene at the Nestaweya River Trail and one, which to my eye, was wholly unfamiliar.
It wasn’t a particularly sunny day when we went, the sky a moody grey but that didn’t seem to matter to the swarms keen to make the most of the balmy (by Manitoban standards, at least) -4 C temperature.
The lack of sunshine didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, it seemed.
For someone like me, who was born in the tropics and spent my adulthood in the temperate climes of England where cold days involved getting away from the drizzle by escaping indoors to get ensconced in a warm pub with a blazing fire, a glass of wine and a book, this Canadian predilection for going outside when the mercury dips below zero is unfathomable.
Any sort of outdoor activity is outside my comfort zone, let alone one where I have to spend time in “fresh air” that feels like it’s busy plotting my demise.
And, as with most newcomers — this is my second cold season here — winter sports didn’t feature very highly in my life pre-emigrating.
However, when you live in a place where the cold kicks in in November and thawing starts towards the end of April, it’s best to join in, I’ve found.
The alternative of staying indoors for the next few months is far too depressing to contemplate.
Plus with a Canadian husband who relishes all sorts of outdoor adventures and a child who has recently discovered the joys of skating, I’m outnumbered.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
One problem: I do not know how to skate. Having never learnt — yes, it is my list of things to do, I just haven’t got around to it — an ice-bike is the only way to get around on the river.
And thanks to Lana Bakun, co-owner of Kendrick’s Outdoor Adventures, a company which proclaims, “adventure doesn’t have a season,” that’s exactly how I find myself straddling a contraption that can best be described as a marriage between a bike and skates.
The one-wheeler (back wheel only) is mounted on a sturdy bladed platform that covers each side of the bike frame. And the entire thing is steered by the handlebars.
It’s a machine that requires no balancing skills — a definite bonus for yours truly who learned how to ride at 17. The only real struggle is clambering atop the bike frame whilst clad in multiple layers and a large puffy jacket, but once you’ve done that there’s really not much to it.
The pedals work as they are meant to, pushing the bike forward, guided by the handlebars. It functions exactly like a conventional bicycle except of course that instead of whizzing along on the road, there’s water, albeit in its solid form, under your wheel.
I am still not very comfortable on ice. The thought of a rushing river beneath my feet is rather alarming, no matter how many times I remind myself of the thickness of the ice.
Having never experienced what it feels like to skate, the very thought of moving along on a frozen surface had filled me with equal parts trepidation and excitement but the longer I was out there, the more comfortable I started to feel.
There was a mixed crowd on the river: older couples holding hands as they glided together, a group of young boys with their ubiquitous hockey sticks passing a puck around and small children toddling gracelessly on skates, parents watching as they took their first few tentative steps.
Nervous at first, I was afraid the bike would topple over and take me with it, but my fears were unfounded and before long I was able to ‘cycle’ for a few minutes at a time as my daughter — being pushed along on a bright yellow skating assist — cheered me on, visibly delighted her mother was able to experience this.
And once I got going, cycling on the trail, which stretches for more than six kilometres along both the Assiniboine and the Red River, proved to be rather magical.
Veering away from the crowds whizzing by on skates, for their safety as much as for my own, I kept my eye firmly on the horizon and soon the chatter of others faded into the background, as did the hum of traffic.
In no time at all, it seemed, my fears slowly left me.
Bakun and her team see people from all walks of life coming in to rent her bikes, ice trikes, snowshoes, and fat tire bikes, she says.
“The warm weather has brought out lots of people outside and they come from all over the world. Over the years, what we’ve seen is newcomers embracing winter. With the stuff we offer, there is a lot of variety to get on the ice in ways that they couldn’t do before and we see more newcomers embracing the cold and the outdoor activities,” she says.
The ice-bikes are especially popular.
“I myself don’t skate so these bikes allow me to get out there. It’s an alternative for those who can’t skate to join people on the ice. Instead of standing on the sidelines and holding on to everyone’s stuff you get to be part of the fun,” she says.
Bakun runs a fleet of 10 ice-bike and trikes at a time from the hut on the river. Fat bikes are currently only available at the Fort Whyte location, although there are plans to bring them to The Forks in February.
The company has enough equipment to accommodate small and large groups; from friends of five to more than 150 people. As well as the bikes, trikes, and snowshoes, they also have skating assists for children.
Opening hours at the hut are weather dependent and can vary but they are open all weekend and on some weekdays. The best thing to do is check and book on their website, Bakun says.
“Lots of people walk up as well but we can’t always facilitate them. Booking in advance is the safest things to do. I do hope that people continue to explore winter as temperatures get colder.
“There’s more stuff to do here now than there was before. Having a variety of activities meets the needs of different people.”
My expectations of brutally cold weather often render me incapable of leaving the house. So I was ignorant of the wholesome joys of outdoor winter activities provide.
It was exhilarating — and eye-opening — to get a taste of what so many Winnipeggers take for granted; the ability to move on frozen water seemed inaccessible for such a long time, for me.
Watching the bank rush by as I grew brave enough to pedal slightly faster, the bracing air taking my breath away, it was easy to forget that I was in the middle of a city.
As I pedalled on that bike I began to understand the pull of the ice and why so many seek time outside in the depths of frosty weather.
And whilst I may not be as quick as others to head outdoors when the temperatures dip further, ice-biking on the beautiful river, and the chance to see the Winnipeg skyline from a different perspective, has convinced me that there may be more to winter here than meets the eye.
AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.
Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2023 12:22 PM CST: Corrects spelling of names