On the Assiniboine River behind Bourkevale Community Centre, boots and tuques were scattered around a few makeshift seats — a tree stump, a bench made of ice, a white plastic patio chair scuffed grey — where skaters pull their laces tight before striding onto the river rinks and paths.
Winnipeggers have been carving out places to skate along the rivers in an effort to keep busy, connect with others in their communities and get some fresh air while the city remains under code-red restrictions due to COVID-19.
The rink at Bourkevale Community Centre pops up every winter, but this year it’s more elaborate than ever, according to Holly Glew, who lives across the river on Wellington Crescent. Long skating paths connect to wider rinks, and an ice sculpture of a tree with a star on top overlooks the bustle of skaters and hockey players.
Glew’s two teens — Morley, 17, and Kalan, 13 — were skating with her, and their Goldendoodle Matzah chased and barked at Kalan as he deftly cut around the ice.
"It’s an incredible gift," she said. "It’s nice to be somewhere nice with your family doing something fun."
Glew described herself as "extremely extroverted," so the space provides her a place where she can connect with the community while remaining physically distanced, she said.
"Everybody’s smiling," she said. "It’s a nice excuse to talk to people."
Elsewhere, on the Red River near Henderson Highway, a man strained to push a snowblower along the ice. Che Edwards and his neighbours have been working on making a skating trail Edwards hopes will extend from Inkster Boulevard to Kildonan Park. Edwards said the project started with five people and their shovels, but since then, the project has "exploded." Neighbours have been working on their own areas to connect to the larger trail. So far, they’ve made it about a third of the way to Kildonan Park.
"Most people that come out, they love it," said Edwards, adding that he checks the ice thickness with an auger at intervals.
The trail gives the community something to do and bond over during the pandemic, he said.
"We need to be outside. It’s what winter’s all about," he said. "Christmas really motivates it, too. You’re so used to being around family, then all of a sudden, it’s just the two of us in our house, and you need to get out."
For his wife, who’s from Langley, B.C., he said, it’s been a dream to skate along a river path.
A few minutes down the riverbank, there's another rink, complete with wooden planks for boards and upright beams holding up strings of lights that encircle the skating area and stretch back up the bank to a nearby house.
Ted Geddert built the rink — or "founded" it, as he prefers to say, because about 20 other people in the community helped, he said. Geddert said he checks the thickness of the ice periodically with a drill, and found it to be more than 30 centimetres thick by the rink.
Off to the side, a semi-circle of snow bricks Geddert’s neighbour built encloses a steel fire pit, and Geddert set up a bench and left a pile of wood — Sher-Wood hockey sticks out for anyone to use.
"If I had an extra 100 grand kicking around, I would buy myself a Zamboni, and I would clear this. Because it’s just a great connector of people," said Geddert. People from across the river skate over on a path he made, or neighbours jump on to the rink, but they always remain physically distant from other families, he said.
"It’s really pretty special," he said. "People don’t move into the area for the houses. They move here for the community."
However, the city said in an email all waterways should be considered dangerous. That includes rivers, creeks, ditches and retention ponds.
"Retention ponds are never safe to use for winter recreation activities as ice conditions can change quickly without warning," the email warned.
Water mixed with street salt drains into the ponds, sometimes causing ice to melt unevenly. Adding to the danger, the water enters from beneath, making it impossible to notice the thinning ice from the surface.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has responded to 260 water or ice rescue calls this year, compared to 152 in 2019; not all were people falling through ice.
For other skating options, St. Vital Park Duck Pond and Harbourview Recreation Complex are open. Kildonan Park pond is closed to skaters.