WARROAD, Minn. -- For a time, the longest skate path in the United States could be found in Vermont, measuring in at about 4.5 miles. But now, the close-knit town of Warroad has claimed that title with its community-driven Riverbend Skate Path.
Now in its second season, the path was officially measured at 5.2 miles recently -- doubling in size from last year -- and Jared Olafson, one of its founders, said the town is eager for a fun winter on the ice again.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “As the river started freezing you could tell that the town was getting amped up for the skate path to start. Even with snow flying the other night, I watched people still skating by even though you could barely discern the path from the river.”
Last December, 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 teenage daughter who wanted to keep busy skating with friends while school was virtual and sports were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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 dubbed the Riverbend Skate Path, an ice path that garnered national attention for bringing the small “Hockeytown USA” community together safely during a time of global hardship.
The skate path easily saw around 300 to 400 skaters on weekend days, Olafson said last year, including those pulling sleds, practicing puck handling and playing games like curling and broomball.
“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 in an interview last year. “But I also think it benefits the community with some tourism dollars. People are coming up here. It’s a destination now.”
This year, on top of gaining more length, the skate path is getting some new well-deserved additions.
The Riverbender Crew has partnered with Warroad High School to construct two warming hut concession stands and towable fire pits along the path.
“If part of the river is having a little soiree, I can bring a fire pit and some wood to them, and away we go,” Olafson said.
Last year, hot chocolate was sold to raise funds for the path. That will return along with Riverbend Skate Path merchandise, such as stickers and beanies.
Additionally, Ironhide Equipment in Bemidji and Grand Forks donated another Bobcat Toolcat for grooming, and the skate path was awarded a grant to purchase ice augers.
Hills Country Greenhouse in Bemidji donated its leftover Christmas trees, which will be wrapped in lights and set up along the skate path for more illumination during nighttime skating.
Many events and activities are also in store for the skate path this winter. The schedule of events is currently being finalized, but Olafson said they will host a flagship Scandinavian weekend in February.
“We’ll have skating races and foot races, and beer gardens and coffee shops will be set up on the skate path,” he said.
As of now, the skate path is still being prepped by the Riverbender Crew, and updates on its conditions can be found on the Riverbend Skate Path Facebook page. However, Olafson said there’s a recurring powdery substance that’s making grooming a bit difficult this year.
“I’m beginning to hate snow,” he said with a laugh. “It feels pretty good (to beat the record) as long as the snow quits. I did mention to someone today that we can email Vermont and say ‘take that’ but if it snows a lot more, I’m going to say ‘here, you can have (the record) back for the rest of the year.’”
But, regardless, Olafson is confident that he and the Warroad community will get the skate path back in action for a memorable winter season.
“The community is on board, everybody is on board,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great year on the river.”
Donations for the Riverbend Skate Path can be mailed or brought to Security State Bank in Warroad with attention to the Riverbend Skate Path Maintenance Fund. The donations for the Riverbend Skate Path come through the established maintenance fund that Warroad Community Partners has established.
Donations can also be completed online on the Riverbend Skate Path website.
Riverbend Skate Path Maintenance Fund donations can be sent to: Warroad Community Partners c/o Riverbend Skate Path Maintenance Fund, PO Box 265, Warroad, MN 56763.