There should be nothing surprising about today’s walk to St. Boniface for a bowl of ramen at Dwarf no Cachette. These are well-trod, familiar paths between home and downtown and, just beyond that, St. Boniface. I’ve spent years and years trekking up and down Portage Avenue, taken thousands of ambles through Wolseley, West Broadway, Downtown and the Exchange District. There is a comfortable numbness that can set in to a walk through familiar territory. An expectation of what we know lies around the corner rather than the surprise and delight or trepidation over a new discovery around an unknown corner.
I need to rediscover, re-explore, re-think as I walk to St. Boniface. It’s an unusually warm day for February in Winnipeg. A delicate mist veils distant buildings. Overcast skies flatten the scene. Perhaps this will help the seeing process.
As I start down Wolseley Avenue, it is hard to pull away from the comfortable tropes of the neighbourhood; the trees, the rows of charming, antique houses. By forcing myself down a few streets that I would typically avoid, because they do not seem charming enough, I discover the quirks that define the neighbourhood.
I cross under the Osborne Street bridge to the Legislative Building grounds and the River Walk beyond. Beside me lies the partially frozen Assiniboine River. Today, as on most days, I am seduced by this walk at the edge of the water. It’s quiet space, fenced by a riverside forest. Yet it has a subtle urban feel with the low hum of traffic in the background and high rise apartments poking above the tree line.
The Forks appears, a busy spot where all of Winnipeg and most tourists gather to meet, shop and eat. It’s situated, as the name implies, at the forks of two rivers, the mighty Assiniboine flowing into the still mightier Red. Both are frozen solid at the junction, enough so that the surface can support skaters and walkers as they promenade south down the Red River. It’s an annual event and, every year, I walk its length and back again.
I can’t say I am in discovery mode. This too is a familiar haunt. But the river trail still manages to intrigue me in new ways, perhaps because it is such a short-lived opportunity to walk on water. For the month or two it manages to live, the icy path allows me to see the city from an unusual, disorientating perspective. A perspective that most people in most cities cannot share because they do not share our cold climate. Such a rarified experience!
If the frozen surface can serve to unite two sides of a river, in its more typical liquid state it tends to divide. In this case, the ‘Anglo’ side from French-speaking St. Boniface on the other side of the Red.
I climb up the river bank and into St. Boniface, past the grave of Louis Riel, through the portico of St. Boniface cathedral and onto Provencher Boulevard. Here lies Dwarf no Cachette and, of the five ramen houses I am rambling to, this one is the most eclectic. There’s the odd name, of course. And the quirky Japanese merchandise. And the menu with unusual dishes, most well outside the conventional sushi mainstays of other Japanese restaurants. And the once-a-week Maid Café events. I can’t begin to explain all these. My needs are simpler: a bowl of thick miso ramen with a side of cold sake.
The journey home takes me back across the Red River and through the Exchange District. I worked in this area for thirty years but, the one walking route I rarely followed was to the intersection of Portage and Main. Consider this the road equivalent to the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Also a junction of two fast flowing streams, here the liquid is an unstoppable coursing of cars and trucks. And, for the pedestrian, that flow never freezes. Not because it can’t. Winnipeg does, after all, have a system of walk signals at virtually every other intersection up and down Portage Avenue and Main Street. No, it’s because the City won’t. Instead, pedestrians are forced underground, subservient moles to the master class of Fords and Chevies.
But I digress. It’s a dismal scene, standing here at this most monumental of corners, at the heart of Winnipeg. In front of me, Brutalist concrete barricades – it’s no wonder Brutalist architecture can’t get the respect it deserves – are heaped with grimy piles of snow. A plastic sign proudly displays “Portage and Main” while behind it streams the unrelenting current of steel.
I make my way west, down Portage Avenue. But it’s much less an avenue than a highway, six to eight lanes wide, depending on where you stand along its length. Portage extends to the edge of the city and, if followed endlessly, to the Pacific Ocean. After all, the avenue is otherwise known as the Trans-Canada Highway.
It got its width honestly enough. Historically, Red River carts pulled by oxen would make their way through Winnipeg on what was once a muddy track. To avoid sinking into the sunken tracks of the carts ahead, they would spread out and create their own, new, fresh tracks in the gumbo, ever widening the thoroughfare.
This is one of the crueler jokes perpetuated by history. Downtown, the grand ox-cart path has created a huge chasm separating one side of the street from the other, causing a never-ending tug of war between the viability of one side over the other. In the end, the game is just tiring and everyone retreats to the suburbs, exhausted.
This is not turning into a happy ramble. I am conflicted. For thirty years, every weekday, in all seasons and all weather, I walked between work, a stone’s throw from Portage and Main, to our home in Wolseley, about four kilometers each way. I still do the trek, just less frequently. I don’t mind the bustle of traffic. There are interesting shops along the way to divert my attention. I can buy Russian, Italian and German food; drop into a university for a degree; eat sushi, pho or banh-mi, Chinese, Italian, French or Korean, McDonalds or Burger King, pick up at least three pizzas; and visit a wine boutique or liquor store. And just behind the shallow string of commerce lining Portage, I can escape into the peaceful, treed refuge of a mature residential neighborhood.
But, ultimately, Portage is a highway and, today, that ox-cart heritage is all that I can think about. No doubt the dull grey sky, the slushy roads and the piles of grubby snow and ice heaped onto the sidewalks are coloring my outlook. It just looks so depressing, me huddled along the edge of the street while cars blithely rip by, tearing what should be a pleasant market street into two.
As I approach home, an innocuous billboard proclaims, “Be Brave! Be Voyageur!”
I will. I am.