Manitoba

A river trail of their own: St. James neighbours skate, slide into winter thanks to community effort

Far away from where Winnipeg has carved a river trail among the world's longest, another path on the frozen tributary sits isolated.

Residents come together to build toboggan slides, rinks, skating trail on Winnipeg's Assiniboine River

Michelle Zubrack, left, and Cheryl Zubrack are two of the self-described 'river rats' who shovel the snow, skate and toboggan all winter long on an Assiniboine River winter playground created by residents in a St. James neighbourhood. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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.

Behind the homes on Assiniboine Avenue in Winnipeg's St. James neighbourhood, residents have come together for more than 20 years to clear an ice rink on the river and build toboggan slides. The skating trail is a more recent development. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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.

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."

Susan Thurmeier and her daughter, Katy Abraham, skate on the Assiniboine River trail in St. James. (Ian Froese/CBC)

"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. 

Lawn chairs and benches dot the nearly kilometre-long Assiniboine River skating trail, along with some Christmas trees for esthetics​ and wind-blocking. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"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."

The Bourkevale neighbourhood has been lucky to have its toboggan slide, skating rinks and river trail, says Lucas Schulz, but it's only possible because of the residents. 'You throw other people in all of these houses and maybe none of this is here.' (Ian Froese/CBC)

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.

A toboggan slide was the first neighbourhood-initiated winter recreation spot in the area. It was followed by an ice rink, like this one, and now a skating trail. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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."

River winter playground created by residents in St. James

4 years ago
Duration 1:31
Residents come together to build toboggan slides, rinks, skating trail on Winnipeg's Assiniboine River.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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