Enjoying Winnipeg’s frozen waterways? Be careful, warns mom whose son crashed through icy river

Niki Card’s 14-year-old son is safe and sound now, but it was a scary moment for the family when he crashed through the ice of the Seine River.

Card’s family of four and several other groups were out enjoying a leisurely walk on the Seine River near John Bruce Park in St. Vital a few days before New Year’s when it happened.

“It all happened so fast,” said Card, whose husband helped pull out their son. 

“When the adrenaline kind of wore off … my husband and I looked at each other and we kind of realized how badly that could have gone.”

That breakthrough is one of a handful of similar incidents that have occurred in or near Winnipeg lately, including one last weekend in St. James, prompting warnings to be cautious about venturing out on the ice.

Temperatures hovered near 0 C just before noon on Sunday when someone fell through the icy surface of Sturgeon Creek near Hamilton Avenue. 

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members were called to the scene, but the individual had gotten out and was gone by the time they arrived, a WFPS spokesperson said. 

Rinks, paths popping up

Crews found and cordoned off a patch of open water next to a path walkers had created on the creek. Not far away, a community-made hockey rink popped up in recent weeks.

Skaters play hockey on Sturgeon Creek near Hamilton Avenue in mid-December. (Submitted by Marie Pryma)

Multiple examples of such rinks and pathways have emerged across the city this winter, as Winnipeggers cooped up due to pandemic gathering restrictions have found creative ways to stay active outdoors.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service still advises against venturing onto these surfaces, and a look at the numbers illustrates why.

Water and ice rescue calls for service jumped 40 per cent last year, from 152 in 2019 to 260 in 2020, the WFPS says.

The city doesn’t monitor ice conditions on rivers, waterways or ponds and warns they are unpredictable and change rapidly.

‘Added level of danger’

The Lifesaving Society Manitoba is more concerned about activity on the ice this winter than in past years. 

“We haven’t had good conditions for ice formation this year, and so there is an added level of danger,” said Christopher Love, Water Smart co-ordinator with the society.

“We’re yo-yoing all over the place in terms of temperature.”

There was a very late freeze-up this year due to a warmer-than-average fall and fluctuating temperatures, he said.

Even though it might look fine, ice can be brittle and dangerous beneath the surface, Love told CBC Radio Noon guest host Samantha Samson. That’s why he stresses the importance of checking ice thickness in multiple locations by drilling a hole with an ice auger and measuring ice depth, or by purchasing specialized measuring equipment.

You need a minimum of 10 centimetres to fish, walk, skate or ski on ice, Love said. Those taking snowmobiles, ATVs or a large group of people out onto the ice should have at least 12 cm, a small-to-medium-sized vehicle needs 20 to 30 cm, and a truck needs 30 to 40 cm, depending on the weight.

Mitigating risk

Winnipeg assistant chief of emergency management Jay Shaw encourages Winnipeggers to take advantage of the 16 city-run rinks that are now open and 23 more that are on the way.

A small group of hockey players takes advantage of the Whyte Ridge Community Centre rink on Monday night. There are 16 open city rinks. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Retention ponds are unsafe “regardless of what the temperature is,” he said, urging people to use common sense.

“There is risk there that is not mitigated like it is elsewhere,” said Shaw.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman suggested a good way to mitigate risk associated with unmonitored frozen waterways would be to avoid them and go to The Forks, where ice thickness is tested.

A plow clears a section of The Forks skating trail on the Assiniboine River near the Manitoba Legislature on Tuesday. (John Einarson/CBC)

The city endorses use of the Centennial River Trail managed by The Forks. As of Friday, the skating trail was open on the Assiniboine River from The Forks to Osborne Street, and a cross-country ski path was open from The Forks to Hugo Street N.

Staff began work lengthening the path from The Forks west down the Assiniboine River on Tuesday. A large watery patch near the legislature was cordoned off Wednesday morning, though skaters could still be seen making use of the plowed but unfinished and bumpy section.

2nd chance

There are also three ponds in city parks that are now open for skating, at Harbourview, Assiniboine and St. Vital parks.

As for the Card family, Niki said they’re active outdoors year-round and water-conscious.

They’ll remember what happened on the Seine the next time they step onto a frozen river.

“Don’t mess around with water,” she said.

“You don’t get a second chance with water quite often, don’t have a story like my son’s, where you just get to walk away.”