In the small northern Minnesota town of Warroad — the original Hockeytown USA, and only a few miles from the Canadian border — winter was looking to be pretty boring.
School was virtual. The coronavirus pandemic had canceled youth sports. Even when sports started up again, it was with limited attendance. Kids were getting antsy. So were parents.
Along with his brother and a friend, Jared Olafson, a 40-year-old father of four who is a customs officer at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station there, decided to do something about it.
The three men decided to connect the three ice rinks they had constructed in their backyards on the meandering Warroad River. (That was the brainchild of the 15-year-old daughter of Olafson's friend Craig Kennedy.) Olafson took his ATV and started plowing. That became a ¾-mile-long ice path on the meandering river.
Then they figured: Why not keep going?
That was the genesis of the Riverbend Skate Path, a 2½-mile stretch that now winds through the city and has been a blessing during a season of isolation.
Seven rinks are connected on the path. The minimum width is 20 feet: "Lots of room to social distance," Olafson said. At any given point, there will be hockey games going, or curling matches, or bonfires. Organizers are setting up a small concession stand. On weekends, they set up lights for nighttime skating.
On a nice weekend day, "there will be 400 people on that thing, absolutely," Olafson said. "Every winter I've lived along the river, it's been quiet. Until this winter. Now there are people still out at 10 p.m., and I'll see headlamps bobbing from people skating."
For the families in charge of upkeep, it has been no small task.
Polaris donated a power broom to attach to a Polaris Ranger utility side-by-side vehicle. They use the brooms to take snow out of the cracks and smooth the ice. A Bobcat dealership out of Grand Forks donated a Bobcat Toolcat with a broom on front. Warroad's last significant snowfall was only about 3 inches, and it took four machines three hours to clear the snow off the path. Once a week, the organizers drill into the ice and spray water onto the surface to make the ice extra smooth. At first, there was some rough ice, but no more.
"It's definitely become a labor of love," Olafson said. "We're on the river every day, and our kids are helping before or after school."
The skating path has turned into the rarest of things in the age of the coronavirus: a way to safely connect in person with friends, family and neighbors. Every day at 10 a.m., Kennedy will see three men who'd played Warroad High School hockey together in the 1970s go for a skate. People who wouldn't normally go to hockey rinks are lacing up their skates too. A Valentine's Day couples skate is planned. One resident built a ski groomer on his snowmobile and groomed a cross-country ski trail alongside the river. Lake of the Woods Coffee Co. and Lake of the Woods Brewing Co., both alongside the river, have reaped business from skaters. When youth hockey players came to Warroad for a tournament last weekend, kids took off on the skate path while parents settled in for pints of beer. Out-of-towners have come to Warroad to check it out.
It's a pandemic-inspired experiment that organizers hope will last.
"There's been so many times that you look outside and from one end of the path to the other you see kids using it that never would have that opportunity to skate if it weren't for that path," Olafson said.
"It'll still be good for years to come," Kennedy said. "But this year it was a way when we can be together."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647