Credit: John Thomson

The Red and the Assiniboine rivers meet at The Forks in Winnipeg

Exploring Winnipeg's defining waterways - the Red River and the Assiniboine - offers a full spectrum of history, culture and recreational activities

Growing up in Winnipeg I often felt the city was defined by its rivers: the Red and the Assiniboine. If it weren’t for the rivers, I reckoned, the city would be a humdrum blip on the prairie. It would have no riverbank hikes or waterborne activities or for that matter a sense of community.

In the old days neighbours pulled together every time the Red flooded, which was often, especially if they lived outside the protective embrace of the Winnipeg Floodway built in 1968 to divert floodwaters away from the city. I remember filling sandbags. So do a lot of people. The annual flood, or lack of one, is still a topic of conversation.

Recreating Pioneer Life at Lower Fort Garry

Lower Fort Garry offers a history lesson on Winnipeg, based on its early days as a Hudson's Bay supply depot (Image: John Thomson)

The Red also figures prominently in Winnipeg’s history. Two forts were built along the Red. The first, Lower Fort Garry was built in 1830 as a Hudson’s Bay supply depot for the fledgling Red River Settlement. The fort is now a national historical site and visitors can get a sense of life in the 1880s by watching interpretive guides in period costumes churn butter and spin wool. Lower Fort Garry lies 32 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Conducted tours are available until the end of October.

The other fort, Upper Fort Garry, so named because it was built closer to present-day Winnipeg, sits smack dab in the middle of the city’s downtown core. The only thing that remains of the complex is an impressive stone gateway located just around the corner (naturally) from the Hotel Fort Garry.

The Forks: Where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers Meet

Manitoba%20Legislature%20%28Image%20%20John%20Thomson%29.jpegThe Red and the Assiniboine meet at the Forks, an historic junction that has been turned into a public meeting place. Located behind Union Station on Main Street, the area used to be an unsightly rail yard. Today it’s a grassy playground packed full of restaurants, shops, a market, a museum, a hotel and a skateboard park, the works, all dressed up in a railroad theme. Kids will love Sugar Mountain Express, a candy store housed in a vintage rail car.

The Forks hosts numerous public activities such as the Pride Festival, Folklarama, Winnipeg’s annual multicultural festival, and lots and lots of free entertainment. An extensive walkway called Riverwalk skirts the Assiniboine running from the Forks to the legislative buildings.

The Red and the Assiniboine freeze over in the winter making the Forks the longest public skating rink in the country, longer, say Winnipeggers, than Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.

Exploring the Assiniboine River

The Red’s smaller cousin, the Assiniboine, runs parallel to Portage Avenue before dipping south just west of Assiniboine Park a 114-hectare green space on the western fringe of the city. The park is renowned for its gardens, its mock Tudor central pavilion and the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, a quiet retreat in which scores of Leo Mol bronzes rest in a natural setting. The park also houses the Assiniboine Zoo, a medium-sized complex with animals in their natural habitat.

Anglers can fish for local goldeye and carp along the Assiniboine and along the Red too if they wish. The city has identified certain parks and docks along its rivers from which fishers can test their luck and their patience.

Touring Winnipeg’s Waterways by Boat

Evening on the Red River (Image: John Thomson)

Visitors wishing a riverside view of Winnipeg have lots to choose from. Two replica paddle wheelers ply the Red with three-hour lunch and dinner cruises. The multi-level cruiser MS River Rouge offers a range of sightseeing cruises including passage up the Red to Lower Fort Garry via the locks at St. Andrews, and for shorter voyages visitors can choose a 30-minute Splash Dash tour of the Red and the Assiniboine departing from the docks at the Forks. Boat tours run May through October.

The Seine, a Tributary of the Red, Takes Visitors into St. Boniface

The Seine River, a tributary of the Red 20 kilometres south of Portage and Main, hosts some of the most scenic river trails in the city. The trails lead into St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s francophone sibling and home to the largest French-speaking population in western Canada. The many trails connect diverse habitats, urban communities and historic sites such as the 100-year-old St. Boniface Cathedral, one of the most imposing churches in Canada and the final resting place of Louis Riel.

Dealing with Winnipeg’s Riverbank Pests

And now to address a common complaint. People often ask me how I survived Winnipeg’s notorious mosquitoes. The short answer... I learned to cope.

Every spring the city would douse its riverbanks with DDT until it realized DDT was doing more harm to people than to larvae. The city has long since replaced DDT with a non-toxic alternative and while the Mosquito Control people say it does the job (yes, there is a civic department called Mosquito Control), I remember ‘skeeter control as being a hit-and-miss affair having more to do with weather and chance than anything else. Mosquitoes are not a problem in the fall but summertime visitors should carry repellent just in case. Such is life by the water.