Canadians don’t let snow, ice and freezing rain get in the way of a good adventure. Travelling to every province and territory to research our sister book, The Great Canadian Bucket List, I discovered exceptional winter experiences to add to the list of things to do in Canada – or anywhere else – before you die. Here’s my round-up of the best winter experiences in Canada:
Winter guests cross-country ski a challenging 11km to reach Western Canada’s oldest backcountry lodge. No roads, no 4×4’s – just a path through pristine wilderness inside the Lake Louise Ski Resort, located within Banff National Park. Awaiting you is the rustic wooden Skoki Lodge, built in 1931 and selected by early mountaineers for its remoteness, scenic beauty, and access to exceptional ski trails. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms either – just a homely throwback to yesteryear, where friends and strangers explore the outdoor beauty of winter, indulge in fabulous meals, then gather round the fire with great stories and a cup of hot chocolate.
Each fall, the outpost town of Churchill receives unusual guests. Among them are scientists, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts armed with cameras. Nearly one thousand visitors are polar bears, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze in order to head north and feast after their long, summer fast. The world’s most southerly population of polar bears migrate around Churchill, which is why the town has closed-circuit cameras, bear traps, and a bear jail for bears that get a little too close. It also has tour operators like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild, with customized elevated tundra buggies that take you safely into the tundra to get up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivore. Having a polar bear fog up your camera lens with its hot breath is definitely one for the Bucket List.
When a helicopter becomes your own personal ski chair, dropping you on top of mountains with deep, virgin powder stretching in every direction, it’s hard to go back to your local hill. CMH Heli Skiing’s 11 lodges, operating in BC’s Columbia Mountains, attract eager clients from around the world. Joining a group of Americans, Brits and Australians, I quickly understood why. Averaging about 12 runs a day through terrain that freezes a grin to your face, powder skiing or riding is the closest activity I’ve experienced to flying – and I’ve paraglided on 4 continents. It takes a while to get the hang of deep powder, and strong winds and avalanches can ground both helicopters and skiers, so you’ll want to book at least three to five days to tick this one off your Bucket List. Admittedly your whirlybird ski-chair does not come cheap, but with a guaranteed amount of untracked vertical feet, the exhilaration is worth it.
Shake your booty at Rio’s Carnaval, collect your beads in New Orleans, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on the world’s largest winter festival. For over half a century, Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival has attracted millions of revellers to its celebration of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Festive parades, snow carving, slides, rides and competitions greet visitors to the city’s Battlefields Park, where locals and guests wear the traditional ceinture fléchée, a colourful French-Canadian sash. Stroll down Grande Allée and pull up to an ice-bar for some caribou – a hot mulled wine with whiskey. When the thermometer plummets below -15°C and crowds are still on the streets cheering acrobats on decorated floats, you can feel the chill of winter shrivel.
In a UK poll that asked 22 million people what destinations or activities top their Bucket List, 27% (the second highest percentage) said they want to see the northern lights. One of the best places in the world to do this is in Yellowknife. The city lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where lights flare in the sky with an increased intensity. With few geographical obstructions, and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the northern lights are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April. Experience aurora watching in comfort thanks to tour operators like Aurora Village and Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures, who provide heated viewing decks, hot drinks, and comfortable chairs in cabins removed from local light sources. Watching green, red and blue lights dance across a clear northern sky is a natural spectacle that belongs on Canada’s Bucket List too.
The huskies, labradors and tough-as-nails Yukon mutts found in Whitehorse’s Muktuk Kennels are the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. Lovingly named, cared for and exercised, the kennel’s 125 dogs can’t wait to you pull you on a sled into the surrounding valley. You’ll quickly learn that dogsledding is all about teamwork. If the dogs are not happy, you’re not going anywhere. Fortunately, Muktuk’s friendly mushers are there to guide you. As for your team, they’ll reward you with licks, howls and even cuddles. Muktuk’s dogs make loyal, well-trained pets, and runs an adoption program for their retired dogs. It was -30°C the afternoon I spent sledding with eight delighted northern dogs, but some experiences will forever warm the soul.