Long, winding history of skating on Winnipeg rivers dates to 1872
'It's a little bit of a nostalgia — being out in the open. Part of it is freedom'
Ice-glazed eyelashes and cold air cutting through nostrils are winter rites of passage, after strapping on skates to scratch patterns on Winnipeg's frozen rivers.
The trail along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, a short walk down from The Forks market, draws tens of thousands of people annually. But that Zamboni-cleared path has only welcomed skaters since 1990.
The sound of steel blades carving the ice, however, has echoed between those eroding riverbanks for 147 years.
"And I think that'll continue well into the future. It's quite alluring for anybody whose interested in skating to be on the river," said local historian, Bruce Cherney.
"You can see the sights of the city while you're just skating along. You can see the buildings, you see the bridges and you can see the tree lines."
The activity dates back to a time when fewer than 1,000 people lived in and around the wooden walls of Fort Garry, an area known as the Red River Colony.
It was 1872. The colony was just two years removed from the Louis Riel-led Red River Rebellion, which helped lead to the formation of Manitoba as a province.
A smaller settlement, which had sprouted from a single general store a decade earlier, was swiftly growing a quarter-mile from the colony.
Known as Winnipeg, this collection of shacks was located at the junction of two muddy fur-runner trails — later to become known as Portage Avenue and Main Street.
It didn't take long for the village to become the business and banking centre of the region, which also made it a focus for news. The first-ever edition of the Manitoba Free Press rolled off the press in 1872, operating out of one of those shacks on Main.
Charles Napier Bell, who was part of the Wolseley expedition — a military force sent from Eastern Canada to confront Riel in 1870 — is said to have introduced ice skating to the area.
He was a 16-year-old with a taste for adventure when he joined the expedition as a bugler, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.
After the military took control of the Red River Colony — Riel and many followers fled just before the troops arrived — Bell spent a couple of years hunting and trading along the Saskatchewan River. He came back in 1872 and settled in the Winnipeg village.
That winter the 18-year-old Bell — who would later become president of the Canadian Club of Winnipeg as well as a founder of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society — took to the frozen river with skates brought from Ontario.
The activity was well established out east and Bell was an avid skater already. His smooth control captivated onlookers.
"He was one that showed the people how to skate," said Cherney, who published columns in the Winnipeg Real Estate News for three decades before retiring in 2018.
The activity quickly caught on and Bell was joined by other militiamen who had come from Ontario and were stationed at the Osborne barracks, near the current Manitoba Legislative Building.
The troops cleared a space on the Assiniboine River and topped it with a canopy to keep it clear of snow, anointing it as Victoria Rink, in honour of the Queen, who was the cherished symbol of the British Empire, Cherney noted.
In January, 1873, the Manitoba Free Press reported that "winter skating is the biggest thing on ice, and the defenders of our country have erected … a magnificent skating rink."
Skates were being ordered from stores out east as Winnipeggers embraced the thrill of gliding on ice.
They also started looking to adopt ideas from Eastern Canada, where rinks were lit by gas lamps and used for skating competitions and winter carnivals.
"Urged on by Bell … they wanted to have their own dedicated and safer skating facility," Cherney wrote in an article for the Real Estate News.
By late 1873, the village of Winnipeg and the Red River Colony, with a combined population of 1,869, merged to incorporate the entire region as the city of Winnipeg.
The boundaries, which included 2,000 acres of land, went east and south the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The western limit ran along present-day Maryland Street and to the north it was bounded by Burrows Avenue.
When the first council meeting was held Jan. 19, 1874, on the second floor of a new building at Portage and Main, the population had boomed to 3,700.
In November, 1874, construction began on Winnipeg's Amphitheatre, a seasonal rink on the Red River at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard Avenue).
According to Cherney, it was set to have lighted and heated dressing rooms for men and women. It was also designed with a suite for the ice keeper to live in while taking care of the facility.
"The whole arrangement will be well conducted and will inevitably become a popular resort for the long winter evenings. The rink is covered by a self-supporting roof," the Free Press reported.
But no sooner had the rink come under construction when much of it came down in a heap. A stretch of mild weather shifted the supporting beams, which had been set on the ice, Cherney said.
"The fate of their first attempt could also be attributed to the novelty of constructing the first indoor rink in Winnipeg," he wrote in his article.
The builders surveyed the damage and found the rooms and ice-keeper's suite intact. So they adjusted the plan and began rebuilding around that, setting the support beams on shore instead.
The Free Press, undefeated in its enthusiasm, declared the rebuilt structure to be the "first skating rink ever built in Winnipeg or the Red River Settlement" and assured it would be the centre of attraction during the day as well as night.
The following winter, the first river skate of the year was so highly anticipated that the Free Press reported on it. It was Nov. 13, 1875. Bell "started the skating season with a flourish across the ice," said Cherney.
As its popularity boomed, so did the dangers as people started to spread out across the river and into territory used by companies that harvested large sections of ice.
The blocks were removed in winter and stored in huge buildings, or icehouses, until warmer months. They were then cut into smaller chunks and delivered to homes and businesses for refrigeration.
Newspapers in the late 1800s warned skaters to be on the lookout for areas where ice cutters might be plying their trade, Cherney said..
There were also natural hazards. Shortly after Bell's flourish in 1875, the Free Press reported two boys skated into an air-hole that same month. They were rescued by another boy who took off his coat and used it to pull the boys out.
"Conditions would change quite dramatically over the course of the years but somehow they coped, somehow they stayed on and I guess they were extremely careful, too," Cherney said.
"They would know where where to go and where not to go. When you only had the option of river ice [to skate on], you had to be careful."
By 1875, plans were underway for Winnipeg's first indoor rink built on land. Once again named the Victoria Rink, it was built on Annie Street (now Patrick), off of Logan Avenue.
About seven years later, yet another Victoria Skating Rink was was built at a location more familiar to Winnipeggers — the corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street. It's not clear if that spot is the same corner where Bell MTS Place now stands but it was in the vicinity.
The advent of hockey contributed to another boom in skating's popularity, as well as the building of more rinks around the city.
In the winter of 1886-87, there were reports of "hoky" or "hocky" or "hockey" being played on the Red River, Cherney said.
Winnipeg lawyer Patrick Anderson Macdonald gets credit for that.
One of the founders of several sports organizations in the city, including the Assiniboine Curling Club and the Winnipeg Rowing Club, he also brought the first hockey sticks to Manitoba, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.
He returned with them after a visit in 1885-86 to Montreal and helped form the city's first team, a club from which the Winnipeg Victorias men's team was formed in 1889.
The momentum that carried skating to such a popular level also propelled the Victorias to become Stanley Cup champions in 1896, the first Western team to do so since the trophy was established in 1893.
Before being taken over by the NHL, the Stanley Cup was awarded to Canada's best amateur hockey team. And the Victorias' names are also etched on a long-removed plate from the trophy for the years 1901 and 1902.
"It should be also noted that winter sort of forces us to become proficient in the winter sports," Cherney said.
As Winnipeg grew and expanded and neighbourhoods moved further from the rivers, community centres developed. Indoor and outdoor rinks became more accessible, and reliable, and the crowds on the rivers dwindled.
The past two decades, however, have seen a resurgence thanks to the modern river trail established around The Forks.
"I think it's a little bit of a nostalgia — being out in the open. Part of it is freedom," said Cherney.
"You can skate in for, basically, kilometres if you so choose. This is not the confines of skating around in circles in an indoor rink."
Prior to The Forks clearning its path, organizers of the Festival du Voyageur used to clean off parts of a bend in the Red, near Whittier Park.
At the same time, a community group called River-Borne — a blend of River Avenue and Osborne Street — used to make skating available on the Assiniboine near the legislative building.
"It's been an ad-hoc community thing by many groups for many years," said Amelia Laidlaw, a spokesperson with The Forks. "Then we took it over."
Depending on how soon the water freezes and how early spring arrives, the trail can be open for anywhere from a few weeks to three months.
Last year was a record 76 days, whereas there is uncertainty it will happen in 2020.
Mother Nature also determines its length, which can range from a couple of kilometres to setting a Guinness Book of World Records length of 9.3 km in 2008.
That was the year "when the uptake really happened," said Laidlaw. "That's when it really turned into something."
The publicity from setting a Guinness record brought out the crowds and they've never stopped coming.