Mountain fun can be served up on ice as well as snow. While skiers give on-slope ice the cold shoulder, frozen surfaces provide opportunities for good times at canyons, waterfalls and rinks. By Twyla Kowalchuk and Jack Wennot
Canyon Ice Walks
Frozen canyons with towering walls are a legacy of giant glaciers that blanketed the Rocky Mountains. When these icefields receded 10,000 years ago, the eroding power of the ice and floodwaters carved natural wonders such as Maligne, Grotto and Johnston Canyons. When winter hits, rivers that ply canyon floors and waterfalls that cascade from limestone cliffs are impressively frozen in time.
During canyon ice walks you are surrounded by magnificent frosty formations bathed in surreal blue light. The eerie silence is broken only by the crunch of ice crystals underfoot and the rush of water in places where it breaks through its translucent barrier. Moon- and headlamp-lit excursions enhance the out-of-this-world feeling, but if you go during the day you may see ice climbers engaged in their dramatic sport.
Exercise caution if you trek canyons on your own. Winter boots offer little traction on slippery surfaces, so take ski poles and rent ice cleats that strap onto footwear. Better (and safer) yet, take a tour with a licensed guide (Banff/Canmore guides; Jasper guides). Ice walk operators provide the gear, transport to and from the canyon and hot drinks. Guides show visitors sights they would miss on their own, and relay insider knowledge about the canyon and its features. Popular canyons for half day and night tours are:
• Maligne Canyon (southeast of Jasper): Within the deepest gorge in the Rockies water surging from 20 km (12 mi) below the earth’s surface creates stunning ice formations. ”Go when it’s cold,” suggests guide Wayne Robinson. “Beautiful feather frost comes out of cave vents when it’s -20°C (-4°F).” Highlights include the 30 m (80 ft) towering Queen of Maligne and Angel icefalls. Moonlit forays into the canyon are magical; headlamps illuminate the ice. Enter the canyon at 5th Bridge off Maligne Lake Rd.
• Johnston Canyon (west of Banff townsite): The crowds diminish in winter; good news for ice walkers who like their nature tranquil. Stroll steel boardwalks anchored to the limestone walls, and pass through a natural rock tunnel to get to the 10 m (33 ft) Lower Falls. Ice cascades tinted blue-green by minerals shine against the yellow-grey limestone walls. 30 m (98 ft) Upper Falls is the Cathedral of Ice, “a dramatic site,” says guide Daymon Miller of Discover Banff Tours. The trailhead is by Johnston Canyon Resort (closed winter), Bow Valley Pkwy/Hwy 1A.
• Grotto Canyon (east of Canmore): Grotto is the least travelled of the three canyons; the further into the gorge, the higher the cliffs rise. “One of the secrets are First Nations rock paintings,” says Miller. “But they’re hard to find if you don’t know where to look.” Easier to spot are the icefalls that rise to 28 m (90 ft) from the frozen valley floor; you may spot ice climbers deftly maneuvering high above. The trail starts at the Grotto Pond parking lot, Hwy 1A near Exshaw; walk west past the Baymag magnesium plant and north along the creek bed.
Gliding across a frozen lake with vast nature all around (sometimes with hockey stick in hand) is a quintessential Canadian pastime that stirs a sense of freedom. Give it a try, although first-timers find it’s not as easy at it looks. Skate rentals are offered at local sport stores. Use only venues maintained for skating, as you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the ice. There’s no charge to use any of these outdoor rinks, while the indoor facilities charge a small fee:
• Jasper: At The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, ice on the Lac Beauvert rectangular rink and the huge oval on Lake Mildred is kept smooth by frequent staff maintenance and occasionally-run Zamboni resurfacing machine. Rinks inside the oval often host shinny (impromptu hockey without the pads). On weekends there are bonfires and free hot chocolate. In town, the Jasper Activity Centre offers indoor skating and drop-in hockey.
• Banff: Evergreens, a Rundle Mountain view and a fire pit provide ambiance at the rink by the Waldhaus Restaurant & Pub behind The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. You can skate indoors or out (and play shinny) at The Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre.
• Kananaskis Village: There is skating on quaint Village Centre Pond in the park-like courtyard. Nearby is a hockey rink, and both venues are lit at night.
• Canmore: Two blocks from Main St is Canmore Pond (7 Ave at 10 St), a large skating area where hockey sticks are not allowed. Hockey-friendly rinks are in Cougar Creek (may be closed for repairs) and by Canmore Daycare. Indoor skating is at Canmore Recreation Centre.
• Lake Louise: Victoria Glacier provides a sublime backdrop for the Zamboni smooth rink on Lake Louise behind The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. There is a hockey area that hosts the Lake Louise Pond Hockey Classic (Feb 21-23), a beautiful ice castle that is lit at night and free hot chocolate. The amazing ice sculptures carved during the Ice Magic Competition (Jan 17-19) add to the magical atmosphere.
Local climbers seem to defy gravity when they scale icefalls. This technical sport can be safely experienced by first-timers who go with instructors and gear provided by Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore and Banff or Jasper’s Gravity Gear. They learn to ascend the ice using hand-held axes and spiked crampons affixed to climbing boots. Safety is provided by a belay system that consists of 4000 pound-rated ice screws, harness and ropes (one end is attached to the climber; the other controlled by the guide’s steady hand).
Where editor Lisa Stephens explains that on her first climb, her Yamanuska guide “taught me how to choose good ice to pick with the axes. I climbed a few feet and descended using the belay; each time I went higher. It was exhilarating, and easier than I anticipated.” Lessons are offered all winter; during the MEC Ice Climbing Festival (Jan 31-Feb 2) Yamnuska experts host clinics on the Banff Avenue Ice Wall.
Unlike other icy activities, fishers are interested in what’s under the frozen surface (here mostly lake trout and whitefish). Fishers auger a hole through the ice and drop a line with a tube jig, spoon or fly. Up and down action attracts fish. Banff Fishing Unlimited operates heated shelters on Spray Lakes near Canmore; lunch is often the fresh catch.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is where the world’s best players of Canada’s game ply their trade. In the Bow Valley, locals root for the Calgary Flames, while in Jasper the Edmonton Oilers are the favourite team. During games, sport HD TVs at local bars are tuned to hockey. Drop in for a pint and to take in the action.
Better yet, rub shoulders with Flames fans during an NHL game at the Calgary Saddledome. Banff Adventures offers trips; en route guides enlighten with hockey trivia and information.