By Calli Naish
Each year as the larch trees yellow and summer fades to fall, we wait in patient anticipation for the temperature to dip below zero so that we can warm up by an open hearth. In honour of this tradition, here are some suggestions for this winter’s hottest ice activities and coolest fireplaces.
Embrace The Ice
Climb it. When asked, “what is ice climbing?” Kris Irwin, owner and lead guide of Rockies Ice and Alpine Specialists, gives a slight chuckle before providing the obvious answer: “The act of climbing frozen water with ice axes and crampons.” But this is just the beginning of his insights on the “low impact, high intensity” sport many people are eager to try. The fact that outfitters offer ice climbing instruction (complete with equipment) for beginners and experts alike is one of many reasons Irwin sees so much interest in the sport. People often come to the Rockies for the intensity associated with skiing, but not everyone is able to ski. The nature of ice climbing offers the heights and exhilaration visitors are searching for, without the same stress on the joints. With the age of climbers ranging from eight to eighty, it is a sport that most anyone can try. And unlike skiing, where your lift pass determines your location, climbing will have you following a guide to the best spot for the day. When temperatures are severe, south-facing falls at lower elevations make for a warmer experience; north-facing climbs at higher elevations are perfect for days when we find ourselves welcoming a warm Chinook wind. Other great outfitters offering ice-climbing instruction by experienced guides include Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and Rockaboo Mountain Adventures.
Layer you can’t live without:
For ice climbing, Irwin suggests a seriously insulated coat with a hood as a must have.
Walk it. If heights seem daunting, appreciate the icy topography of the mountains (and the brave climbers who tackle them) with both feet planted firmly on flat ground. While many people come to the mountains for adventure, we can’t really blame others who visit simply for the landscape. The Canadian Rockies offer unparalleled visuals with snow-covered trees, winter wildlife, endless views, and of course, impressive ice formations. From that first glimpse of ice on Cascade Mountain to the awe you feel looking over Athabasca Falls, the towering masses of ice are fascinating whether you find them around Banff or Jasper. Get up close and personal during an ice walk. Admire natural ice sculptures from the steel catwalks of Johnston Canyon, search the icy rock walls of Grotto Canyon for native pictographs, and discover the secret behind Medicine Lake’s disappearing act at Maligne Canyon. Though you can explore these canyons on your own, a guided tour will provide you with ice cleats (an ice walk essential) and a guide to offer insights on the area. Discover Banff Tours, White Mountain Adventures, Banff Jasper Collection by Pursuit, and Maligne Adventures provide guided tours.
Layers you can’t live without:
For ice walks, dress for a day of skiing complete with snow pants. The guides at Maligne Adventures insist you don’t forget your gloves because the “look, but don’t touch” rule doesn’t apply to ice.
Fish it. If your understanding of ice fishing involves a solitary man shivering over a hole in the ice, then you might be stuck in the past. The sport has evolved to be a social event that is fun for all ages. With heated huts, it might be icy, but it’s not freezing. Head out with Banff Fishing Unlimited onto the beautiful frozen Spray Lakes surrounded by towering mountains. Take a moment to appreciate the serenity before crawling into your fishing hut with a couple of friends. Spend the morning immersed in conversation, and by the afternoon, you’ll be feasting on your fresh catch. Those looking to head into the parks and surrounding areas with their own gear can visit local information centres in Banff or Jasper to find details on fishing permits and where to get their hooks under the ice.
Layer you can’t live without:
For ice fishing, no one should head out without a toque; however, this item is so essential to Canadian winter warmth that it should probably never leave your head.
Skate on it. Against the backdrop of the towering Victoria Glacier, join together in cold camaraderie on Lake Louise where hockey enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels can lace up their skates and get their sticks on the ice. If you want to join in without a puck, don’t worry: there is plenty of room on what has been considered the “World’s Best Skating Rink.” While it’s certainly the most impressive rink in the mountains, it’s not the only one. In fact, you could probably plan a whole trip skating the natural rinks of the Rockies making your way from The Pond in Canmore, all the way up to Lac Beauvert and Pyramid Lake in Jasper.
Layer you can’t live without:
Find Your Fireside
Indulge in a meal that will warm you from the inside out. Boasting menu items like Alberta game meatloaf and a full roast chicken dinner, the floor-to-ceiling stonework of the hearth may not be the most impressive thing at The Iron Goat in Canmore.
Charcuter-eat at Canmore’s Table Food + Drink, where you can melt into the sofas on the lounge side of their double-sided fireplace. Order big knowing that the extra calories are helping you add a layer of warmth for your next day out on the ice.
One-up the candlelit dinner and curl up close to someone you love for a romantic fireside evening. After dinner at their heritage dining room, find quiet intimacy by spending the night in a cabin at Emerald Lake Lodge west of Lake Louise. The tranquility and seclusion of the area offer a winter getaway and the welcome hug of a comfortable armchair.
Heat up on skates at Baker Creek Mountain Resort between Banff and Lake Louise. If there was an award for the most fire, they’d win. With two fireplaces inside their bistro and three fire pits outside, you’ll be begging to go out in the icy cold. Thankfully, they’ve obliged with a free skating rink (and rentals on-site) to enjoy before you head in for dinner.
Relax by the fire in style after an icy day in Jasper. Take in the views from the Skyline Lounge at the Lobstick Lodge or head to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and settle in with a local brew in the lakeside Emerald Lounge.
Start your day when the sun goes down and have your fire on the rocks where the only thing hotter than the fireplace is the cocktail menu. Though Park Distillery is located on busy Banff Ave, once you walk upstairs you’ll find yourself transported to a back-country cabin. The drink menu is nearly endless and it features concoctions shaken with Park’s own spirits, making it an ideal place for a fiery sip.