From snowshoeing in -40 to hurtling down near-abandoned slopes, the best time to visit Canada, argues Lizzie Pook, is in the middle of winter…
“We’re huntin’ for grizzly tracks!” Announces our guide Ellen beatifically as we trudge deeper into the snowy forest. My pulse quickens. I grab hold of an icy overhanging branch and quietly compose myself before piping up. “I thought all the grizzlies would be hibernating by now,” I call tentatively into the frosty air. It is, after all, wintertime; temperatures in Alberta – a province of mountains, Badlands and vast coniferous forests – have tumbled to minus forty degrees (that’s enough to freeze your hair solid and glue your eyelids shut). “Not Big Fella,” says Ellen with a grin. “He stays out well into winter.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am actually something of a wildlife fanatic. The thought of spotting a grizzly bear makes me bristle with excitement. The small issue right now, is that I have snowshoes strapped to my feet. Large, clunky contraptions that the fur trappers used to call ‘misery slippers’. So any chance of making a quick exit if things go awry is pretty much scuppered.
I’ve come to western Canada to experience wilderness in the wintertime. The environment is harsh here. Prone to Siberian winds and blustering chinooks (known by locals as snow eaters), temperatures can fluctuate from about -20 to +9 throughout winter. I, coincidentally, have visited in the middle of a ‘cold snap’. Temperature gauges are hovering at about -30 and if you add wind chill into the equation you’re facing sub -40. Still, the great thing about Canadians is that nothing deters them from getting outside. Not even the threat of frostbitten limbs. So from cross country skiing and husky sledding, to fat biking and ice climbing, there are a veritable slew of activities to get stuck into when the temperatures plummet.
My snowshoe expedition, for example, is taking place in Lake Louise – the iconic spot is beautifully quiet and almost ethereal and at this time of year – alongside some of the country’s most popular ski slopes. We don’t actually run into ‘Big Fella’ but we do spot a chain of perfectly preserved lynx tracks in the deep snow. We’re also lucky enough to come upon a snowshoe hare leaping athletically across our path (its beady black eyes popping out against the blanket of clean white), and follow processions of tiny mouse tracks as they meander between the fir trees before plunging into their dens beneath the snow-carpeted forest floor.
My trip is taking me the full length of Alberta – a province that could swallow the UK two times over – from its national parks to its bustling, metropolitan cities. I’d heard before I flew out here that the capital city of Edmonton is home to some of the best craft beer pubs, hyper-local bistros and indie bakeries in Canada. And it really doesn’t disappoint. You can’t go two blocks without running into a craft coffee joint or outrageously fashionable smokehouse. Case in point: my trip to MEAT (meatfordinner.com) a couple of days prior – an unfussy, pared back barbecue restaurant that just so happens to serve some of the best brisket around (just aching to be drizzled with the home-brewed bourbon cherry glaze). Or Café Linnea (cafelinnea.ca) – converted from an old warehouse and dotted with rose gold accents, cement centre pieces and forests of foliage, it focuses on locally-sourced ingredients and organic food inspired by the chef’s Franco-Scandinavian heritage.
So yes, food is BIG in Alberta, but thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to work off the huge meals that Edmonton necessitates. The morning after my MEAT fest, I wake up to the sound of snowploughs clearing the streets and load up on layers (you’ll need at least four) before heading out to meet the guys from Revolution Cycles (revolutioncycles.ca) for a spot of fat biking around the city’s snowy valleys. Kind of like mountain bikes but with thick four-inch tyres, fat bikes are a strangely satisfying way to get around without slipping on any pesky icy patches. So with the crunch of snow under tyre we spend the morning biking along the majestic North Saskatchewan river. It’s fast flowing but temperatures are well beyond freezing, so small whirlpools of current freeze in situ like huge lily pads. It really is breath-taking.
You may have guessed that Ice is also a ‘thing’ in Edmonton. It’s positively celebrated. Come here from January to March and you’ll witness the epic Ice Castles festival at Hawrelak Park – a two acre, Narnia-esque winter wonderland crafted entirely by hand using only icicles and water. The colossal sculptures are designed to mimic organic formations found in nature, such as frozen glaciers or ice caves, so you’ll feel like you’re deep in the wilderness, right in the heart of the city.
In fact, there’s a lot of freezing going on during this trip. The next day, as we take to our car (heated seats: pure bliss) to drive four hours towards Jasper national park, our windows freeze over completely. Snow is blown across the road like violent sandstorms and vast frozen lakes loom in the distance like icy deserts (the bitter weather makes me feel sorry for the herds of elk, mule deer and big horned sheep that dot the roads, but something tells me they make small work of winters like these).
We’re staying at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a wonderfully cosy collection of rooms and individual log cabins that look out onto a pine-fringed frozen lake (which hosts kayaks, pedalos and brave paddlers in the summer months). The air here is so clear and crisp that, when activity levels are high, you can often see the northern lights from your window (or from the steamy outdoor hot tub). Of course if you’re not lucky enough to spot them, you can always console yourself with a warming mulled-wine (or three) inside the cosy, taxidermy-strewn lobby.
The next day takes us on another epic road trip. We’re driving the Icefields Parkway, a 144-mile meander from Jasper to the ludicrously photogenic Banff national park – taking in undulating valleys, vast ice fields, sweeping glaciers and ancient mountain lakes. It’s been described as one of the most beautiful drives in the world and rightly so. Animal tracks dot the snow at the side of the road (keep your eyes peeled and you might spot wolves or lynx peeking out from between the trees), bridges over the highways carry bears, wolves and cougars from one side to the other and plumes of steam rise off the nearby rivers like smoke – a bizarre phenomenon that occurs when the chilly water temperatures are higher than the bitter outside air.
Eventually we arrive at Sunshine Village – a ski-in-ski out resort in the heart of the Rockies, where you can sleep at 7,200 feet and ski some of the quietest, widest and most pristine slopes you’re ever likely to find (stay at sunshinemountainlodge.com). Don’t be fooled by the misnomer, it is cold here, but freezing conditions mean flecks of snow dance in the air like diamonds, and if you keep your eyes peeled you might even spot a snow dog – a sort of ‘rainbow around the sun’ that occurs when light interacts with ice crystals in the atmosphere.
Sitting within a UNESCO world heritage site, Sunshine is home to what must be some of the softest, most yielding snow on the continent (perfect for beginners, like me, who spend an unholy amount of time on their nether regions). But being out on these serene, almost deafeningly quiet slopes is a serious skier’s dream. The Alps this isn’t. You can spend whole mornings passing only a handful of people as you sweep from slope to chairlift to cosy mountain hut. Unless you’re on the broad, calm nursery slopes, skiing here is a fast, furious affair – filled with mogul fields, teeth-sucking black runs and nerve-shredding glade-skiing (not for the faint-hearted). Just a few hours hurtling down these mountains and you’ll be sweaty, satisfied and ready to hole up in the lodge’s Eagle’s Nest restaurant for some fortifying Canadian Malbec. It’s exhilarating and exceptional. But ultimately, skiing in Canada in winter is like doing most things in Canada in winter – epically cinematic, unfeasibly beautiful and completely and utterly addictive. Just remember your thermals.
For more information about Sunshine Village and skiing in Banff, visit www.skibanff.com.
For more information about the Fairmont Jasper Park, visit www.fairmont.com.
For more information about the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, including details of their Ski Week Package from just $999pp, visit www.sunshinemountainlodge.com.