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December 9, 2021

Winter Wonderland at the Forks: A Winnipeg Tradition

It’s December, which means Winnipeg’s historic Forks site is bustling with holiday shoppers, friends, and families meeting to go skating or grabbing food in The Forks Market. As one of the city’s most popular tourist sites, it is no surprise that The Forks generates a year-round crowd, however, there is something special to be said about being at The Forks in the winter. Located in the heart of the city, The Forks during the winter months captures a truly magical feeling of the holidays. Festive lights, decorations, and holiday music can be found throughout the site warming up Winnipeggers from the harsh Manitoba winters. Its status as a meeting place is reinvented during the holidays, transforming The Forks into a winter wonderland!

Skating under the canopy at The Forks.
Source: Tourism Winnipeg

The “crokicurl” rink at The Forks in 2017.
Source: The Warming Huts Gallery

The Forks‘ name comes from its position at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Located within Treaty One territory, on the traditional land of the Cree, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, Assiniboine, Dene and Dakota peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. The Forks’ history begins in deep-rooted Indigenous traditions of gathering together. From 1989 to 1994, a series of archaeological digs revealed that The Forks had been the location of many Indigenous bison hunting and fishing camps. For years, Indigenous people from various communities would use the Forks to peacefully meet with one another. Moreover, these archaeological digs uncovered evidence that dates the presence of people at The Forks to over 6000 years ago. It was from these Indigenous camps that The Forks would first establish itself as a meeting place.

The Assiniboine River joins the Red River at the hear of Winnipeg.
Source: City of Winnipeg Archives

The Canadian National Railway Yards circa 1925, which would be transformed into The Forks site that we know and love today.
Source: PastForward

Moving forward, The Forks remained a meeting place for fur traders with the first arrival of European settlers in 1738. It was during this year that Voyageur La Vérendrye erected Fort Rouge, the first of many forts and trading posts to be built in The Forks area. As a result, the area was known as the Red River Colony, shifting The Forks’ significance from Indigenous camps and meeting grounds to colonial forts. By the late 1880s, The Forks moved into a transitional period, fostered by the Industrial Revolution. With industrial and technological advancements, The Forks became one of the earliest sites of railway development in the Prairies. From this history, it is clear that The Forks has endured an evolution that reflects the urbanization of Winnipeg, however, what continued and continues to remain the same is its status as a meeting place in the heart of the city!

Visitors to The Forks take advantage of the many winter activities held at this meeting place, including the River Trail.
Source: Daniel Crump for The Uniter

Today, The Forks is a vibrant and energetic public space that brings Winnipeggers together for celebrations, recreational activities and most importantly to meet with one another. In a sense, the current state of The Forks is very much reflective of its origins as an Indigenous meeting place. With nearly four million visitors each year, The Forks remains one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The Forks Market, Johnston Terminal and Manitoba Children’s Museum are all heritage buildings on the site that have been adaptively reused, becoming buzzing centres of shopping, dining, entertainment and more. Altogether, the atmosphere of The Forks feeds into a feeling that is so quintessentially Winnipeg, especially in the winter. The image of people bundled up and seeking refuge from the cold while others are gearing up to hit the River Trail is something that is so familiar to most Winnipeggers, however, its uniqueness from the rest of Canada is something that should be celebrated!

The Forks is a magical place to visit when lit up for holidays.
Source: The Forks Blog

For many Winnipeggers, the first sign of the holiday season is seeing The Forks site lit up with Christmas lights. Strung throughout The Forks, lighting up skating rinks, walking paths, trees and buildings, The Forks has generated an impressive display of Christmas lights. From this site, it is hard to think of a more festive place in the city! Not only do these Christmas lights help light the way for the skating and walking paths that cover The Forks grounds, but also bring a cheery feeling to those who visit in the evening.

A wonderland of Christmas lights are yours to explore at The Forks.
Source: The Forks Blog

In addition to the Christmas lights, another winter staple at The Forks is the infamous River Trail. The River Trail is a Winnipeg tradition where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers are transformed into a long, frozen path for skating, walking, running and sledding. Starting in the heart of the city, the frozen trail offers a unique sight of the city from the river’s landscape. Additionally, in 2009 it held the Guinness World Record for the longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world! Christmas trees often adorn the path along the river while benches and warming huts are scattered throughout for skaters to take a quick breather before getting back on the ice.

Skating on the River Trail at The Forks.
Source: The Forks Blog

The “Divergence” warming hut on the River Trail at The Forks in 2021.
Source: The Warming Huts

The Warming Huts along the River Trail are another Forks staple that has established itself as a Winnipeg tradition. First started in 2009, the Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition on Ice is a competition open to architects, designers and artists from around the world to design and build warming huts for our city’s River Trail. The warming huts produced are not only stunning feats of architecture and design but also function as providing some shelter for those looking to escape the cold for a moment on the River Trail. Over the years, the competition has received entries from across the globe as well as generating serious media and public attention. The warming hut winners are usually announced at end of November, with the winners travelling to Winnipeg in January to install their huts. So remember the next time you are on the River Trail to keep an eye out for this year’s winning warming huts!

“WHAK,” University of Architecture, Third Year, 2019.
Source: The Warming Huts

“Arctic Topiaries,” Winnipeg Art Gallery x Michael Maltzan, 2019.
Source: The Warming Huts

“Mirror Cloaking,” University of Manitoba, 2015.
Source: The Warming Huts

“Hygge House,” Plain Projects, Urbanink, and Pike Projects, 2013.
Source: The Warming Huts

“Unnamed Hut,” Luca Roncoroni, 2018.
Source: The Warming Huts

Due to the pandemic, meeting with loved ones has been very difficult. With that said, the The Forks’ status as a meeting place remained essential for those who utilized outdoor public spaces to safely meet with others during this time. Even with the cold winter temperatures, the River Trail continues to be filled with people and it seems that the pandemic has solidified the importance of having common and open public spaces for all to enjoy! This National Historic Site proves that preserving and revitalizing a historic location in the city is in the best interest of its residents and visitors, allowing everyone to enjoy a bit of the city’s unique history while having fun!

Skating at CN Stage at The Forks.
Source: The Forks Blog

This holiday season go and enjoy the wonderful activities that our winter has to offer. The Forks provides people with a variety of opportunities to participate in outdoor activities such as skating and cross-country skiing along the River Trail, as well as providing common indoor space to get you out of the cold and grab a bite to eat or something to drink. What better way to do that than with the ones you care about while enjoying and appreciating Winnipeg’s history and heritage.

“Glacial at the Forks,” Royal Canoe, Sputnik Architecture and Luca Roncoroni, 2020.
Source: The Warming Huts

Thank you for reading the Heritage Winnipeg Blog in 2021. If you have enjoyed our blogs, please considered becoming a member of Heritage Winnipeg. Our members are a crucial part of our support system, helping us continue our work advocating for, educating about and celebrating our city’s beautiful built heritage.

Thank you for your continued support and we look forward to seeing you in the New Year!


Written by Heritage Winnipeg.


The Forks History

The Forks History + Projects

Baker, Nathan, and Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, "The Forks.” In the Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published April 04, 2018; Last Edited April 04, 2018.

"Winter Wonderland," The Forks Blog, Dec. 2012.

"The Forks: The active holiday hangout." The Forks Blog, Dec. 2018.

Somers, Lindsay. "Go with the Flow," The Forks Blog, Jan. 2020.

“It’s official: Despite unseasonable warmth, Winnipeg’s river trail is now open,” CBC News, Jan 12, 2021.

Lockhart, Sydney. “River trail wraps up as pandemic refuge,” Winnipeg Free Press, Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Santos, Vivian “Winter’s here and there’s plenty to do,” Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, Nov 19, 2021.

The Forks National Historic Site of Canada, Canada's Historic Places

"The Forks Market: Adaptive Masterclass," Heritage Winnipeg Blog, June. 2020.

"Introduction: Focus on the Forks," Manitoba Historical Society

Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition on Ice

Warming Huts Gallery, Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition on Ice

25 Forks Market Road, City of Winnipeg Long Report

"Spread the Love: Valentine's Day at the Forks," The Forks Blog, Feb. 2019.

"Your #RRMTrail Skating Soundtrack," The Forks Blog, Feb. 2018.

Somers, Lindsay. "A Winter Survival Guide," The Forks Blog, Nov. 2019.

"Winter in Winnipeg," Tourism Winnipeg

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