Breaking The Ice – My Day Skating On Winnipeg’s Frozen River
Written by Jaillan Yehia
My historical ice skating prowess had previously extended to a couple of childhood trips to an ice rink in London’s Queensway.
My main memory of those outings involves a teacher proclaiming that we must be very careful where we put our hands while lacing up our own skates, lest we lose a finger to another’s passing rogue skate. Ouch.
So when it was clear that I was going to be spending some time in Canada I decided that I better learn how to spend some of that time on ice, without clutching onto the edges of the rink or wobbling uncontrollably in fear.
If travelling is all about adapting, what better way to adapt to Canada than to get comfortable using metal blades as a legitimate means of transportation?
And for the first time in my life I did just that on Winnipeg’s frozen river trail during a month when the city turns out to be colder than the surface of Mars.
We all have a few preconceptions about countries we’ve never visited; sometimes we know nothing but a handful of stereotypes, whether good or bad, and it is always interesting when we finally make it to a destination to see if what we’ve been expecting turns out to be remotely true.
Before visiting Canada I had a few preconceptions of my own, namely that all Canadians would be formidable ice skaters having grown up surrounded by ice hockey and playing around on frozen rivers.
So when I was presented with ice skating lessons as a Christmas gift I threw myself into the challenge.
Yes, my friends reminded me of my one-time foray into rollerblading which resulted in the instructor labelling me the worst rollerblading student he’d ever taught, but since then I had become an accomplished (and let’s be honest, quite aggressive) cyclist, so remained confident that I could conquer rollerblading’s icy northern equivalent.
But while my lessons went well I found myself addicted to hugging the edges of the rink, continually seeking out the safety of the sides whenever I felt my confidence dropping, and after a few lessons my progress plateaued and I even became a little bored with skating around in circles to pop tunes. I needed a new challenge.
Enter Winnipeg – Manitoba’s capital city and home to all 8.54 kilometers of Canada’s Guinness World Record-winning frozen skating trail which snakes along two rivers – the Assiniboine and the Red. If the whole purpose of learning to skate was to get out into the great Canadian outdoors and experience real ice, created by mother nature not man, surely this was the place to do it.
I’d been told by my Canadian friends that skating on a river was a world away from the Zambonied (now there’s a bit of ice skating vocab for you – a Zamboni is an ice resurfacing machine) and super smooth ice of a rink, and they were spot on.
Flowing water freezes unevenly, complete with the odd branch or twig and out in the real world there are hills and valleys, so on a river you have the new sensation of skating uphill to contend with – or worse for someone like me who can’t exactly stop on demand, speeding uncontrollably downhill.
But with my skates on and high banks of soft snow on either side of the blindingly white ice path my only insurance policy against falling, I took a deep breath and stepped onto what was literally new territory for me.
All of my confidence from the indoor lessons deserted me and I felt like a cartoon character perpetually slipping on banana skins. At one point despite being surrounded by water in temperatures of -19, I was the most obvious thing that was frozen – to the spot, scared to move in case I fell on my face.
Since turning my attention to ice-skating my eyes have been opened to the frequency with which it appears in movies as a romantic device. Girl meets boy and at some point in the montage of their love story they skate on the ice together hand-in-hand, wearing cute bobble hats and broad smiles.
In the movie of my life I am wearing a bobble hat, yes, and a grimace of concentration while clutching onto my boyfriend’s hand so hard that I nearly break his fingers.
Then something amazing happens (movie analogy back on!). Someone I don’t know very well, the very person in charge of maintaining the ice trail for the people of Winnipeg to enjoy skating, sledding, curling and hockey, skates up to me and tries to talk to me.
‘What? He expects me to talk and try to skate at the same time!’ I think to myself in panic.
But my British politeness, reticence to admit defeat in any challenge, and my constant desire to talk all conspire in my favour and the breakthrough happens: as soon as I begin to hold a normal conversation while skating along the river everything falls into place and I find my rhythm.
The very act of not concentrating on skating has made me able to skate. This is actually a lot of fun. It’s just such a shame that my iphone was stolen as I boarded the flight for this trip, so all I have as evidence of my skating skills are a few blurry photos from someone else’s phone.
For the rest of my time on the ice I manage to enjoy the sensation of skating, look around at the wintry scenes surrounding me, up at the bright blue sunny sky which defines my entire time in Manitoba, and as people skate effortlessly alongside me, some holding hands, some with little kids in tow, one memorable lady actually wearing a maxi skirt (kudos to her) I realise that one preconception we all have about Canada is true: these people sure know how to have fun on the ice.
To find out more about all the things you can do in Winnipeg not just in the snow and ice, visit Tourism Winnipeg
For information about the frozen river trail, which is usually open from January through to March visit The Forks
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