The ice (and nice) is stronger here
Brutal winter conditions won’t keep the community of Warroad, Minn., from a second year of Riverbend Skate Path fame.
In any other town, people would just stay indoors during a Winter Weather Advisory. In any other town, a wind chill below zero and snow globe-like elements would call for jammies and slippers over jerseys and skates.
Of course, other towns don’t boast the longest ice path in the country. Other towns aren’t Warroad, Minn.
“We’re in a storm warning, it’s blowing like crazy, snow falling, we had two ice brooms and another two Rangers going continuously. But people were still showing up to skate,” said Jared Olafson, one of the hockey dads behind year two of the Riverbend Skate Path. “Just seeing all of the people huddled around fires, they’re relaxing, they’re skating, going to the vendors and food huts – the people are my favorite part, out enjoying it.”
This was FriluftFest, a Feb. 5 event organized by Warroad Community Partners to celebrate the record-setting 5.2-mile river path and the spirit of the region’s people. The all-day Scandinavian-themed party drew dozens of hardy skaters from Iowa, the Dakotas and all corners of Minnesota to the frozen stretch of Warroad River that winds through town. Guests were treated to a smorgasbord of activities along the path including coffee and Nordic goodies, open hockey, skating races, snowshoeing, fire-pit socials and an evening candlelight skate.
“We came across the term ‘friluftsliv.’ It’s Norwegian for ‘open-air life,’ which means to really embrace the outdoors. The idea lines up perfectly with the path,” said event organizer Sarah Homme of Warroad Community Partners. “Last year I said, man, we have to have something on the ice. How cool would it be to call it FriluftFest – Open-Air Fest? Minnesota is 32% Scandinavian!”
The event displayed the fruits of the work ethic and competitiveness that flows through the Olafson veins of Jared and his brother, Travis. The Olafsons and their Riverbend neighbor, Craig Kennedy, first created the skate path in 2020 when the pandemic closed indoor rinks and brought the town’s hockey lifestyle to a halt. The community support was overwhelming that first winter, so they knew they wanted to make it happen again. But the original 2.5 miles wouldn’t do.
“My brother was doing some online research and found out Vermont held the record at 4 1/2,” Jared said. “He called Craig and me and said, ‘Boys, we’re Hockeytown USA. Vermont doesn’t deserve it.’ So we went 5.2.”
Going the extra mile(s)
The path to 5.2 miles wasn’t free of obstacles. Although the original maintenance crew was now supported by additional volunteers, the weather refused to be a team player. When they started plowing the path in 2020, a lack of snow made for easy work – not the case the following winter.
“This year, we’ve had a lot of snow,” Jared said. “It took longer for the ice to freeze to support vehicles, then once it did freeze, there was a good six inches worth of snow already on the ice to try to move.”
The slower start and bigger challenges never stopped the “Riverbender Crew.” They successfully expanded the trail to include the neighborhoods south of the namesake Riverbend region where the path was first contrived.
“It goes way back into the woods where the river meanders through, and it’s all big trees. At any time, you can skate and there are deer walking along the path,” Jared explained. “We were excited to offer that new, fresh look. And then the community jumped on board as well.”
Help came in all forms from organizations around the region. Students from the high school’s Construction I class designed and built new warming huts for the path. The Team FRED Robotics group donated a large fire pit, and the local company Heatmor kicked in two more to warm the route every weekend. The crew was flooded with monetary donations for the materials and fuels needed to keep the path in tip-top shape.
Roseau Electric Cooperative (REC), which distributes electricity to the Warroad area, also found a way to assist. Through its member-supported Operation Round Up program, a grant selection board awarded Riverbend Skate Path $1,500 to help purchase two battery-powered augers.
“This type of project matches some of the most important things the board looks for in a project: local community input (volunteer labor invested in the project) and local community impact (hours of free use by all),” said Tracey Stoll, REC general manager. “The process used to maintain the path – using pumps to bring up river water to be applied to the surface of the path – made the request for augers to drill the holes that the pump hoses occupy an exciting opportunity for the designation of the funds.”
“It’s been a phenomenal outpouring of support again this year. As the Riverbend crew, we’re thankful for it,” Jared said.
A new campaign this year not only helped offset maintenance costs, but also brought the heart of the community to the riverside. For a fee, any person could sponsor a lighted Christmas tree along the route in memory of a loved one. Lake of the Woods Coffee Company laser-etched a sign for each tree, which were illuminated with solar lights.
“The path just exemplifies what Warroad is about,” Homme said as snow battered her parka hood and people skated through FriluftFest behind her. “That’s just the way our community is. The selflessness of the people who put it together – they didn’t do it for attention, they didn’t do it to get paid, they didn’t do it for anything other than they thought it was cool and it would make Warroad cool.”
“As a group, we are absolutely ecstatic. We love that it brings everybody in. We love watching people skate by and visiting with them to see where they’re from,” Jared said. “The town of Warroad is definitely still in support of the path. They love the path and I think it’s going to be there for the long haul.”
If you would like to donate to the Riverbend Skate Path project, visit RiverbendSkatePath.com for more information.
MAIN IMAGE: Ten-year-old Anderson Meyers takes the puck down a stretch of the 5.2-mile Riverbend Skate Path. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)