In spring and summer, the climate is right for a visit to this Canadian city A WARM SPOT FOR Winnipeg

May 29, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Through the years, my job as a sports reporter has taken me to a lot of interesting places -- New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, Quebec and Montreal for hockey games, San Francisco for a Super Bowl, even to London for Wimbledon.

Most of the time, my friends willingly suggest they slip into my suitcase or come along as a photographer. But when the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League opened their season in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last fall, no one offered to join me.

"Good luck," said one. "Stay warm."

"Winnipeg?" said another. "Isn't that in the middle of nowhere?"

A call to the NHL's Winnipeg Jets public relations office made me wonder.

"Winnipeg is like nowhere you've ever been before," promised information director Mike O'Hearn.

Mike Ridley, a native of Winnipeg who plays center for the Capitals, said, "I've given up trying to explain where it is. When people ask where I'm from, I just say North Minneapolis."

Winnipeg sits just about in the middle of Canada, just about in the middle of North America. To outsiders, if Winnipeg is known at all, it is known primarily for frigid weather.

The city claims the intersection of Portage and Main streets as the coldest street corner in North America. Temperatures dip to minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit regularly, as the wind rips in unabated from the central Canadian plains.

"Block heaters [to keep engines from freezing] are regular equipment sold on cars in Winnipeg," said Mr. Ridley. "I spent the first 22 years of my life in Winnipeg," he added. "I thought cars everywhere came with block heaters; when I went to buy my first car in New York, I wanted to make sure it came standard and was told it was extra. The guy finally told me I didn't really need one."

Wondering why you would ever want to go to Winnipeg? Obviously, you think, there are reasons Winnipeg is not included in the same sentence with Quebec, Montreal and Vancouver.

But that's in the winter.

In the spring and summer, this city of 650,000 blossoms. From June through early October, Winnipeg can be a delight.

"Winnipeg is a wonderful place in the summer," said Mr. Ridley, who still takes his family home for vacation during hockey's off season. "There is always something to do, places to go. Everything from fishing and golf to museums, dinning out and gambling in the casinos."

While Baltimoreans are sweltering through 90- and 100-degree days with high humidity, Winnipeggers and their visitors will be enjoying temperatures in the mid-70s to mid-80s -- with zero humidity.

In Baltimore, we're probably going to become more and more aware of Winnipeg. The Baltimore Colts of the Canadian Football League will be playing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this summer. And what those who venture to Winnipeg for the July 28 road trip will likely discover is that the two cities have distinct similarities 11 as well as differences.

It is true that unless you come from the North Pole or the Outback, you are probably not going to confuse Winnipeg with Paris -- or Montreal.

But there are wide streets, warm sunny benches and some very good cappuccino to be enjoyed down at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet.

Winnipeggers are friendly. One day, while trying to make my way to the Forks, an area much like Baltimore's Inner Harbor, I stopped in a small card shop in the restored Union Station Market at Main and Broadway to ask directions. The shopkeeper smiled, came out from behind his counter and personally led me to the site, leaving his store unattended.

"It is not very far, but from this side it can be a little tricky," he said of the short walk. "I'll take you there."

And once you get to the Forks, you will have reached a historic crossroads that dates back 6,000 years, to a time when historians say aboriginal groups met to trade and socialize.

In fact, Winnipeg is an Indian name for "Where muddy waters meet." And people are still meeting there, for lunch and shopping and an afternoon of sunshine in the 57-acre enclave, which includes a six-story, glass-enclosed tower for exhibits, a skating rink, an amphitheater and other outdoor amusements.

Through the centuries, Cree and Assiniboine Indians, fur traders and European settlers came and went as the spot grew, first as a place for fur trading in the 1730s, when people came in canoes, York boats and steamboats; then as a settlement for Scottish farmers in 1812 and a hub for train cargo and passengers in the 1880s; until today, when two antique horse barns have been converted into an airy marketplace.

Beyond the shopping and dining areas, there is a rock wall carved with scenes depicting Winnipeg's history that winds down to a beautiful and peaceful paved walkway along the riverbank.

From there, it is an easy walk along the Assiniboine River to the stunning Manitoba Legislative Building, built in neoclassical style 1919 and topped with a 13 1/2 -foot, 5-ton statue called the Golden Boy, holding a torch meant to "light the way" to progress.

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