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This article was published 30/1/2017 (1087 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in Assiniboine Park in January, but it feels more like an afternoon in March.
Shouts can be heard from the toboggan run. A few skaters are leisurely cutting figure eights at the Duck Pond. All types of dogs, from scrappy black terrier mixes to big yellow labs, are gleefully leading around their humans. A group of moms with strollers walk and chat. Runners are neon blurs in the distance.
Assiniboine Park does not hibernate in the winter.
Claire and Marcel Major are among those enjoying a walk. They live in the area and when their young granddaughters are in town from Montreal, they make it a point to take them to the park for picnics or to the Zoo in the summer. "It’s a must-show," Claire says.
On mild days in the winter, they take their walks through the park.
"I’ll tell you what’s nice about walking in the winter when it’s not too cold, it’s this," Marcel says, pointing down to the path. "The sidewalks are nice and clear. Walking downtown is very difficult. It’s really nice here. You can do quite a bit of mileage and still stay clear."
That is perhaps the most striking thing about Assiniboine Park in the wintertime. You will always be able to find a place to walk or run.
The not-so-secret secret to those down-to-pavement paths is beet juice. For the past five years, the Assiniboine Park conservancy has been using a made-in-Manitoba anti-icing mixture called Fusion 60/40, supplied by Collet Transport Inc. The solution is 60 per cent sugar beet juice, 30 per cent water, 10 per cent salt — and 100 per cent organic and biodegradable.
"It doesn’t cause any damage to the trees, to the turf, or to the cars," says Kaaren Pearce, the director of horticulture for the conservancy, the organization that manages the park. "It allows us to melt things and get down so that there’s traction. It turns the streets a bit brown in the winter time, but it gets down to pavement quickly."
The anti-icing solution, which doesn’t stain and has a slightly sweet odour, is spread on warmer days so it has a chance to bond to the pavement. On Thursday, when temperature hit -1 C, piles of rust-coloured slush lined many arteries of Assiniboine Park, inviting lots of commentary from passersby. "It smells like hot chocolate," remarked a little girl dragging a pink toboggan behind her.
Beet juice solutions and beet-sand mixtures are gaining popularity and are starting to replace traditional salt and sand mixtures in cities and towns all over North America, including La Broquerie and Dauphin in Manitoba. "It would be lovely if the City of Winnipeg could use it," Pearce says. She even knows of a great trial spot: along Roblin Boulevard, so Assiniboine Park could grow trees and grass along that stretch of the park.
Ice management is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to keeping Assiniboine Park’s large network of paths, trails and roadways moving in the wintertime. Snow clearing is also a finely choreographed dance.
After a heavy snowfall, the conservancy will prioritize places where it has the most visitors. "So Qualico (family centre), the pavilion, the zoo, the conservatory — and then our offices, so our staff can get in," Pearce says.
The crew on the morning shift, which starts at 6 a.m., makes sure the Zoo and main entrances are done first thing so they can be open by 9 a.m. After that, crews go for the main paths and parking lots they know are used often. "Some paths don’t get done as quickly, but we always try to make sure there are some paths open," Pearce says. The evening shift goes into the zoo after hours to help out the morning crew.
A few different pieces of equipment are used to get the job done, depending on the kind of precipitation that’s fallen. "If it’s wet, heavy snow, they’ll use a plow first and then go back through with a broom," Pearce says. "If it’s light, they’ll use the broom first and then plow to scrape it lower. We try to get it as close to pavement as possible."
When that’s not possible, the focus is on making roadways and paths level.
"The biggest thing is to keep people safe and moving," Pearce says. "Once we push the snow back, we have to get it out of the way so people can see at intersections."
Keeping on top of snow and ice can’t be just reactive — it has to be proactive, too. Crews monitor weather forecasts so they can plan how to best use their time. As well, the conservancy pays close attention to how the park is actually being used in the wintertime. That way, they can get a sense of which paths are being used by diligent snow-or-shine dog walkers or which routes are being relied upon by commuters who cut through the park. Crews took snowblowers through the English and Leo Mol gardens for the first time this year rather than having walkers forage paths of their own.
After snow clearing comes maintenance. Crews push snow to places where they know there’s good drainage so the park doesn’t flood. Eventually, Pearce wants to look at installing cisterns so that snow could be used for water in the summer. "That would be amazing for the gardens in a dry year," she says.
Of course, Assiniboine Park isn’t just a lovely place to take a walk or a run. It also works hard at being the kind of place where Winnipeggers can actively enjoy the season most closely associated with our city.
"We have skiing, so we have a groomed trail," Pearce says. "We have lots of places where people snowshoe. We have trails through the forest that they use for the heavy horses, so that’s a nice walking trail. The Duck Pond, obviously, for skating.
"The Zoo is way better in the winter, in my opinion, because the animals are much more active," she adds.
Pearce credits her team, and how much they care about their work, with keeping the park accessible even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
"We know this park is important to people," Pearce says. "It means a lot to people and their families. It’s closer for a lot of people, comparatively, than going out to the Whiteshell or something. People come down here and make snowmen. They really use it as their big yard, and that’s what we want to provide for people — a place where people can meet and play as families, all year round. It’s fun to see all the different coloured coats and little kids and puppies who are learning their new walks in the snow."
Assiniboine Park is almost quite literally Dave and Jacqui Blanchard’s backyard, they live so close. The couple can be found out walking the trails every second day; it used to be every day when their old border collie/lab was still with them. Jacqui points out how easy it is to take a space like Assiniboine Park for granted. "It’s so beautiful," she says. "And it is well groomed. Very seldom do we have to get around a snow pile, but we understand if we do. It’s a beautiful place, summer or winter."
"We want to be a world-class destination all year round," Pearce says. "We’re still here in the winter. We still feed the animals, we still maintain the roads. You might as well come play with us."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 8:11 AM CST: Adds photos