WARROAD, Minn. — What’s the most Minnesotan thing you can think of?
Until recently, whenever that question would crop up in a conversation, I always thought back to a former neighbor who would shovel snow in a bathrobe in minus 20 degree weather, or use a hockey stick when his ice scraper was nowhere to be found.
While there’s no real contest to decide who or what should be dubbed the “most Minnesotan,” I recently discovered the tiny town of Warroad, Minn., may have taken the cake for that honor.
Like much of the world this past year, residents of the original "Hockeytown USA" — only 6 miles from the Canadian border — were feeling restless due to pandemic restrictions.
So in December, Warroad local Jared Olafson banded together with his brother and a friend, Craig Kennedy, to connect their three backyard ice rinks by following the natural bend of the Warroad River.
It was a request by Kennedy’s 15-year-old daughter who wanted to keep busy skating with friends while school was virtual and sports were canceled.
Yet as the three men cleared snow and readied ice, they recognized the size potential of their venture and decided to keep going by bringing four more rinks into the mix.
What emerged is a project they now call the Riverbend Skate Path, a nearly 2.5-mile stretch of frozen river (with an ice thickness of about 2 feet) that has allowed folks to come together once again — safely — in the time of COVID-19.
The skate path can easily see around 300 to 400 skaters on weekend days, Olafson said, including those pulling sleds, practicing puck handling and playing games like curling and broomball.
There’s even a fair amount of hockey teams that regularly hold their practices out on the path.
Curious about the ingenuity behind this feat — along with what this new attraction means for the community and its tourism industry —I met with Olafson and Kennedy, who provided me with a tour of the skate path on a snowy Sunday afternoon in late January.
It’s a destination
We met at one of the rinks near Doc's Harbor Inn Lodging and Rentals, where owners and sisters Janet and Robin Marvin were busy renting equipment and chatting with visitors. I asked them what they thought of this new attraction right outside their business.
“Where do you start, isn’t this awesome? It’s heartwarming to see all the people that come,” Robin said. “There’s people who drove up from St. Paul — and that’s a hike — so this is a destination now.”
Olafson went on to explain that in the two months of operating the skate path, they’ve seen visitors from all around Minnesota and even parts of Wisconsin.
“They come from near and far to skate,” Olafson said.
Despite the Canada-U.S. border’s continued closure through at least Feb. 21, he believes the skate path is helping to drive Warroad’s tourism industry in what has been a trying time due to the pandemic.
Local businesses along the river, like Lake of the Woods Coffee Co. and Lake of the Woods Brewing Co., are feeling the effects of increased business, as skaters stop in to warm up with either a hot drink or pizza and ale.
The local Hampton Inn is feeling it too, Olafson said, with the hotel planning to get in on the action next year by possibly setting up a bar and warming tent on the ice.
“It does good for the community, especially with COVID — people are stuck indoors and now it gives them something to do. We have skating and cross country skiing, with snowmobiling right on the other side,” Olafson said. “But I also think it benefits the community with some tourism dollars. People are coming up here. It’s a destination now.”
A community effort
Each day, various members of the Warroad community dedicate their time to maintaining the Riverbend Skate Path, which they’re committed to doing for the foreseeable future, Olafson said.
Every now and then, as we rode along the path in Kennedy’s Ranger, Olafson would receive a call from a volunteer looking for grooming advice.
“There’s a whole crew of us. This is the Riverbend neighborhood and every one of us is involved in one shape or other,” Olafson said. “We also get a bunch of high school kids helping because they get community service hours.”
In the beginning, he and his team used plows attached to all-terrain vehicles to get the job done, relying on a bit of trial and error to find what worked best. But now, they have it nearly down to a science with the help of some donated equipment.
Polaris Industries in neighboring Roseau donated a power broom, and Ironhide Equipment in Bemidji and Grand Forks, N.D., donated a Bobcat Toolcat with another broom.
Olafson said they’d also like to acquire a Zamboni so the ice quality has a smoother finish. As a result, residents have taken to selling hot chocolate and collecting donations along the path on weekends to raise funds.
As we went farther along the path, we came across a group of four and their dog taking advantage of the long-distance skating opportunities.
“It’s very Warroad,” Karly Koenig, a skater from Bemidji, said. “The fact that it’s all people coming together and (raising) donations is awesome.”
We continued on, and the more I looked around, the more I realized how much the area is like a frozen over European canal city. But rather than gondolas and icy stares, everyone was on skis, skates or sleds — and everyone made an effort to smile and wave regardless of being strangers.
It was in this moment of realization that it dawned on me that the skating path was possibly the most Minnesotan thing I’ve ever seen: A product of some determined resourcefulness — working both with and against the elements — to create a sense of community togetherness.
As interest in the skate path continues to gain traction, the community plans to hold events out on the ice, including a Valentine's Day couples skate and a St. Patrick’s Day 5k that will incorporate curling, a slapshot competition and a polar plunge.
Kennedy expects the path to hold up until early March, and Olafson said they already have plans in store to make it bigger and better next winter. He said they’d like to provide more lighting for nighttime skaters by equipping trees along the path with solar lights.
But perhaps, their most ambitious goal is to outdistance the 4.5 mile Lake Morey Ice Skating Trail in Vermont, in order to become the longest in the country, thus catapulting Warroad into a nationwide attraction and an ice skating haven.
“It takes a lot of time but it’s worth it,” Olafson said. “The longest (skate path) in the U.S. is right around 4 miles, and I think we should probably beat that next year. Go big or go home. I want at least the U.S. record.”
A donation box is set up along Doc’s Harbor for any visitors to the Riverbend Skate Path to donate to the cause. Or you can contact Security State Bank in Warroad and request to make a donation to Warroad Community Partners.