It is all but certain the river trails won’t open this season for the first time in 20 years — though, not necessarily because the ice itself isn’t safe to skate on.
In fact, The Forks staff aren’t even able to access the surface to check.
"There’s no feasible way to safely get equipment or people onto the river," Larissa Peck, spokeswoman for The Forks, said Monday.
"With the unprecedented high river level, at which it froze, this year, and then with it dropping, it’s left behind this treacherous, chunky crust along the river banks."
After a record-breaking rainy season and early snowstorm, the Red River reached upwards of 17 feet at James Avenue in autumn. It peaked at 17.2 feet on Oct. 23.
While it has dropped significantly since, in part thanks to the floodway’s activation in fall for the first time in history, it still remains higher than usual. The normal winter ice level is zero feet; two weeks into the season, the Red is more than five-feet high.
Peck said The Forks would require "very heavy duty equipment" to excavate all the icy debris along the rivers in order to create a safe, accessible path to the surface.
The Forks staff, she added, aren’t actively monitoring the integrity of the ice, so they aren’t advocating people use the rivers for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or any such activities.
Sections of the river walk are also covered in debris and ice; there are barricades blocking paths and stairs leading down to the path.
The naturally-frozen skating trails usually open anywhere between late December and mid-January. That’s been the case for almost two decades, since the last time the trails didn’t open due to frazil ice in 2000.
Last season, skating on the trail was open for a record-breaking 76 days in total.
"It’s just one of those classic Winnipeg things you can always look forward to," said Lauren Hamilton, as she tied up her laces to explore the on-land trails with a friend at The Forks on a recent winter afternoon.
Hamilton and Clare Burns plan annual outings to skate along the river with a group of friends and check out all the warming huts — a tradition they said they are will be disappointed to miss out on this year.
Both Hamilton, 25, and Burns, 26, applauded The Forks for maintaining on-land options. "But it’s just not the same," Burns said.
The Forks plans to continue to expand its roster of on-land trails this year to account for an uncertain season.
Economic Development Winnipeg referred an inquiry about how a winter without river trails could affect tourism in the city to The Forks. (Peck said it’s too early to say how businesses such as the skate rental booth or mini-doughnut stand have been affected, if at all, since the trails have opened in mid-January in the past.)
"Ultimately, Mother Nature controls whether the river trail will open or not, but we think the 1.2 kilometres of beautifully-lit trails throughout The Forks give an equally interesting experience," said Dayna Spiring, president of Economic Development Winnipeg.
Spiring noted the city experienced a 465 per cent increase in flight bookings in 2019.
"There is interest in our city, and we’ll keep spreading the word that Winnipeg is has a lot to offer, whether it’s January or July."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.