Over his more than 30 years as a Wolseley resident, Michael Bennett has come to see the Winnipeg neighbourhood's riverbank as a gateway to a winter wonderland.
The retired teacher compares the panorama along the frozen Assiniboine River to the beachfront views he once enjoyed while vacationing in Mexico — of opposite, but equal, beauty.
"The river is a completely different world in the city. When you get down to the river, you are experiencing the world through a completely different lens, and that lens is so gorgeous and so beautiful," he says earnestly.
But getting down there is often slippery, and not always easy.
"To suggest that only able-bodied people have the right to see that beautiful gem in our backyards is extremely selfish in my mind," Bennett says.
Stretching from the Maryland bridge west to Omand's Creek, the river trail has been bustling this winter, as families venture out from the stay-at-home lockdown blues.
Children build quinzees in the snow along the banks. Skaters, and even curlers, take to the ice on one of the many handmade rinks. Adults gather around a socially distanced bonfire.
The trail has existed for years, but "really blossomed" as a winter escape during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett says.
However, he's also seen enough people accidentally slip down to the river, and says an elderly man was recently seriously hurt when he fell in the area. That's why Bennett and a small group of neighbours are trying to do their part to make the paths more accessible.
In recent weeks, the group of roughly eight, calling themselves Wolseley Winter Wonderland Committee, held online meetings focused on finding ways to maintain the trails and make them easier for everyone to use.
They decided to put forth a more organized effort to shovel and sand the public river access points, mark the ski trails and walking paths, and launched an online fundraiser to cover volunteers' out-of-pocket expenses. Within a couple of days, donors chipped in 25 per cent of the $5,000 goal.
Bennett says he was pleasantly surprised how quickly Winnipeggers responded to the idea.
"I didn't know if we'd get anything," he says. "People are really stepping up. We're not going to spend all this money this year, of course, but we'll collect it and it'll be put to good use."
The immediate plan is to set up "organic bits and pieces" the committee agreed would make the most sense to do right away.
They bought a bunch of shovels and sawhorses, which will be painted bright orange and placed for communal use, along with pails of sand to provide traction to slick stairways at river access points at Arlington Street, Aubrey Street and Omand's Creek, which don't have handrails.
Then, they'll make signs to mark the trails.
Eventually, Bennett says, he would like to see ramps and railings installed, along with sets of temporary stairs that can guide people down to the frozen river and be stored away in the off-season.
He hopes to use some of the donations to set up a fund that would give small grants to families who develop creative structures and winter activities along the river. For now, accessibility is a priority — the committee's next meeting agenda is all about universal design.
"There's lots of access points, but the reality is that they don't accommodate everyone," Bennett says.
"When I maintain the stairs at Aubrey (Street river access), I'm forever seeing parents come down with little children in their arms, and they're very, very cautious. I'm reminding them, 'Take it easy. One step at a time.' And yet other people come by and they just prance down, no trouble," he adds.
It's a cause that's important to him personally; his education career taught him about inclusion in the classroom, and he wants to push forward Wolseley's reputation for being an inclusive neighbourhood.
"We know that when we protect the most vulnerable, we are succeeding as a society."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.