In the footsteps of the bison hunters. About 6000 years ago, they walked right here where I am walking. The bison hunters, Nakoda, Cree and Anishinaabe and Dakota, following the vast herds of bison along the frozen river, where the Assiniboine flows into the Red.
There is total quiet. The only sound is the crunch of hard snow under my boots. Minus 30 C, with brilliant sunshine, it’s an average winter day in Winnipeg. “It’s a dry cold,” the locals say unapologetically, proud to own the best kind of cold there is.
In grade school, we learned about our heritage. How La Vérendrye pulled his canoe on to the shore of The Forks in 1738, and proclaimed it Fort Rouge. As more forts were built, it became known as the Red River Colony. The Forks was the hub of the booming fur trade in the 1800s and the abundance of game, fish, waterfowl and bison attracted more settlers. The Forks became the meeting place for socializing and commerce, just as it had been 6000 years ago. Just as it is today.
I grew up here. We walked to school every day, carrying our books and our lunch, through snow, sleet, and bitter cold, swathed in our angora scarves and hats. We took winter for granted. Every day was a “Snow Day.” With a smile, ‘Peggers would ask visitors, “Cold enough for you?” But it’s no joke. It was February when I brought my husband to Winnipeg for the first time. My dad was so concerned he wouldn’t be able to take the cold, he bought him a Buffalo fur coat.
The welcome at The Inn At The Forks is warm and friendly with a fireplace lit, and a generous cheese and charcuterie tray on the coffee table. It’s a five minute walk to The Forks Market, past the Johnson Terminal, past The Children’s Museum, past the world renowned Canadian Museum for Human Rights and into the vast two story market. You won’t find fast food chains here. Local restaurants bring Manitoba foods to the table: Bison Stew, Wild Rice Bread, hotdogs from Skinners, puveyors of hotdogs since 1929 and a lively, curated wine and beer program.
It was just thirty years ago that developers with vision took over these old abandoned railway yards and created a unique waterfront that is the pride of the city. It may be -28 degrees outside, but people still lace up their skates and play Crokicurl, a local game that’s a cross between the board-game Crokinole and curling.
Okay, I’m being a good sport and we’re going for a walk along the river. The bright sunlight reflecting on the snow fools me into thinking it’s warm. Amazing that folks are skating, holding hands, and pausing in the architecturally designed Warming Huts. “Warming” is a misnomer, they simply provide shelter from the wind.
The Forks is a vibrant downtown Winnipeg public space where people gather for celebrations, recreation and, much like the early Aboriginals, to meet one another. It encompasses an interpretive park, revitalized historic and new buildings, skateboard park, historic port and offers a host of year-round outdoor and indoor attractions. Four million people visit The Forks each year, winter and summer.
There is something in the air that brings out the friendliness in Winnipeggers; something hardwired into our brains. No surprise that the license plates say Friendly Manitoba.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.