A river trail of their own: St. James neighbours skate, slide into winter thanks to community effort
Residents come together to build toboggan slides, rinks, skating trail on Winnipeg's Assiniboine River
Far from where Winnipeg has carved one of the world's longest river skating trails sits another path on a frozen tributary.
The etches from sharpened skates are fewer here — this ice usually welcomes dozens of skaters a day, versus the thousands who may travel the well-worn, and more famous, path at The Forks on any given day.
"It's a St. James treasure," Susan Thurmeier says happily, standing on the trail her neighbours built with sweat, shovels and snowblowers.
Behind the homes on Assiniboine Avenue in Winnipeg's St. James area, residents have come together for more than 20 years to clear an ice rink on the Assiniboine River and build toboggan slides.
More recently, volunteers have formed a nearly kilometre-long path from one rink to another.
They've created their own river trail on the Assiniboine — made by the community, for the community — a curvy path wide enough that a duo could skate side by side.
Instead of a Zamboni, snowblowers and shovels brush the snow away.
Rather than decorative warming huts acting as pit stops for skaters, there are lawn chairs and benches dotting the path — and some Christmas trees for esthetics and wind-blocking.
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Thurmeier motions to a shovel resting in the snow.
"This one guy leaves shovels down," she explains. "If you're going to skate [and] you want to do a little shovelling, that's encouraged."
"It's a community effort," said Thurmeier's daughter, Katy Abraham, who now lives in Fort Rouge.
Neighbourhood effort dates back decades
The origins of this venture date back 23 or 24 years, when Rob Dorbolo, new to the Bourkevale neighbourhood, built a toboggan slide to the river below as a source of amusement.
A neighbour then built the ice rink, and before long the slide and rink were a chilly recreational hot spot.
It was used most by people in the area, but everyone was welcome to take the public paths onto the riverbank.
"He had his stag [party] here — tobogganing and playing hockey," Dorbolo's now-wife, Marlies Dyck, said. "A nice, wholesome Canadian stag."
Together, the slides and rink were soon as eagerly anticipated in the wintertime as a white Christmas.
Lucas Schulz grew up here, with skates on his feet and innumerable runs down the slides.
"It's home," he said. "It's a nice thing to call home."
He was on the trail with his parents, Donna and Ric, on a recent afternoon, looking up at the sky for his brother, an air force pilot-in-training.
The neighbourhood's been lucky to have this playground every winter, he says — but it only exists because of the people in the neighbourhood.
"You throw other people in all of these houses and maybe none of this is here."
New Year's Eve celebrations
His mother remembers getting the house ready for a Christmas function one year, while everyone else was more concerned with the state of the rink.
"All the neighbours had the snowblowers ready. That was important," Donna said — having a place to play.
"If we can all do our part, then we can all enjoy it," said Lucas.
Take every New Year's Eve, when neighbours congregate to skate, host bonfires, shoot off fireworks and pop bottles of champagne. The winter hub is busiest on those days, but it can be a happening place all winter.
Dyck remembers one night so entertaining that sitting on the middle of the river with their lawn chairs, she forgot all about the concert they had tickets for.
Their friendliness of people in the neighbourhood stood out when she moved to the area more than two decades ago, Dyck said.
"We see our neighbours more in the winter than we do in the summer," she said.
She says the children who grew up using the trail are now in their 20s or early 30s, and will soon have kids of their own, if they don't already.
"Once they have their own little ones, it would be great for them to come here and continue on."