The playmaker New recreation director at The Forks wants to get everyone moving at city's biggest playground
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2019 (1505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Late last year, Winnipeg personal trainer Lindsay Somers decided to take the plunge.
Somers, 39, shut down the gym in the Exchange District that she’d spent the past 8 1/2 years building into a thriving business.
“What I really wanted to do was focus more on community health and community health initiatives and support a wider scope of Winnipeggers to engage in a lifestyle that is active and vibrant, happy and healthy, rather than having someone have to come to a space for a dedicated amount of time,” she confided earlier this week.
“It (closing Lindsay Somers Lifestyle Health at Main Street and Bannatyne Avenue) was huge. It was my little safety net. It was something I could rely on, something very comfortable. I just wasn’t growing anymore in that role.”
But it was a step this outgoing, human dynamo needed to take to concentrate on a new job she’d acquired earlier in the year — co-ordinating recreation activities at what is arguably the city’s biggest and busiest playground, The Forks.
“It is the ultimate playground. You have a skateboard park, you have skating rinks, you have walking trails, you have stairs, you have bike paths, there’s a dance studio, there’s a spin class, there’s yoga. It’s always evolving and changing and it can respond to people’s needs,” she says over coffee in The Forks Market on a cold February morning.
“The Forks is a place for everyone in the city to come and play, and people don’t automatically think of that… There’s something for everybody here to connect to their body or their mind or their spirit, and connect to the outdoors.”
With more than four million visitors each year, The Forks — a sprawling 13 1/2-acre patch of downtown land at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers — is Winnipeg’s top tourist destination.
It’s become a hub for outdoor recreation, offering everything from the Red River Mutual trail, arguably the world’s longest skating rink, to sleigh rides, to a river-ice curling rink, to toboggan runs, to bicycle trails, and to The Plaza, billed as Canada’s best and largest urban skateboard park. Plus, there is the cosy market for eating, drinking, shopping and getting warm.
Somers landed her new role at the historic site through a sheer feat of hubris: she persuaded The Forks North Portage Partnership, the group that manages the area on behalf of the three levels of government, it needed to hire her.
“The Forks is the meeting place for people of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds. People are coming here and meeting and connecting through a range of activities that are accessible for anyone of any fitness level,” she notes.
“I said I want to help shape the story for you… bring it into focus for people to look at The Forks from this recreation lens as a place to come and play.”
It wasn’t like Somers was an unknown commodity, having spent the last few years writing blog posts for The Forks on healthy living and active lifestyles.
Last Tuesday night, despite the bone-chilling cold, there she was hosting a regular learn-to-skate session. “We had a bunch of new Canadians coming out and trying skating for the first time,” Somers says. “It was incredible. By the end, they were skating backwards. We had 40 people out and it was amazing.”
She also organizes learn-to-bike courses wherein riders brave the snow and ice on specially built fat bikes. On Wednesday night, she hosted another learn-to-run session for about 40 people willing to brave the elements. She’s been co-ordinating the run club — two runs a week for eight-week sessions in spring, fall and winter — for the past three years.
You don’t have to embrace the cold, she says, but you do have to accept it.
“Nothing is fun when you’re cold. The first rule for any winter activity is — dress properly. A lot of people don’t really understand the importance of a base layer, wool socks and a wind layer. Movement warms you up. When you are walking and moving you are truly not cold. The coldest I’ve been in winter is when I’m sitting in a car. Other than that, I’m never cold.”
Chelsea Thomson, The Forks’ marketing and communications manager, is one of Somers’ outdoor running diehards.
“It honestly was fun,” Thomson said of a recent winter jog. “We had some frozen eyelashes, but when you’re running you don’t feel cold.”
Thomson says one of the primary goals for the new recreation co-ordinator — who has about three months to go on her one-year contract — is to see who is using The Forks for recreation and, more importantly, who isn’t.
Whether the recreation post becomes full time remains up in the air for now.
“We’re in the budgeting process right now, but we’re hoping to keep her on for another year,” Thomson says.
While The Forks has a few signature recreation events, such as a river-ice curling bonspiel, most of the activities involve third-party gatherings, organized by the more than 50 independent, and often grassroots, groups that use the site as a base.
Somers sees her role as trying to determine what gaps, if any, exist in the activities being offered at The Forks, and how potential holes can be filled.
“I have to listen to Winnipeggers, identify what people’s needs are, what their barriers to entry are, what’s stopping them from taking that first step, what is the program they would respond to that doesn’t exist already.
“I’d like to continue doing the work. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to grow the scope of recreation. What I’d love to do is inspire more people to come here and be active. Or when you’re eating mini-doughnuts and shopping and think ‘Hey, there’s a three-K loop out here that goes around St. Boniface Hospital and you have a beautiful view of the bridge, why don’t we take a walk?’ That brings me a lot of joy.”
For Somers, The Forks is something of a family affair. Her husband, Bob, is a landscape architect whose team designed the signature skateboard park, and the site provided respite as her mother battled cancer.
“A few years ago, my mom died from a brain tumour, and the time leading up to that we spent outside,” Somers says.
“We spent a lot of time at The Forks. I lost her in November 2016. We ran 10-K together six weeks before she got her diagnosis. I grew up in a family that spent time together. We were always outside, moving and playing. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that that’s how I spend time with people, through movement and connection.”
She believes The Forks is perfectly positioned to meet the future recreation needs of Winnipeggers, especially those in the suburbs and those who sneer at the thought of sweating in a gym.
‘It’s in the middle of downtown, the middle of the city. It’s for everybody. You can take a bus here. It continues to be the one place where all ages, all demographics come to meet. It doesn’t get more level of a playing ground for people to connect and meet with each other. You have to pay X amount of dollars to belong to a gym, and you need a car to get there. The barrier to entry to have an active, healthy lifestyle is so low here. You just have to show up.”
Which is when a smiling gentleman showed up clutching a large trophy. He turned out to be Winkler Mayor Martin Harder, who had just defeated Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk to capture the The Mayor’s Cup in a crokicurling tournament.
For the uninitiated, crokicurling is a fusion of the table-top game crokinole and the winter pastime of curling, and there’s a specially built rink outside The Forks Market.
Harder says The Forks is the model of what a city’s central gathering spot should be.
Which is when Somers chimed in: “This is the future of being well, places like this. I need to figure out ways to get people to come here and move. It’s not intimidating like a gym.”
Because, as Somers says, all you have to do is show up.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.