Skating the Rideau Photo: Ottawa Tourism
Skiing Photo: Brad White
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Thinking of heading south for the winter? Not a bad idea, in fact I’ll be spending some quality, and rather warm time in Brazil. Still, there are plenty of wonders that make Canadian winters something to look forward to. Like these:
Every winter, as the grapes freeze on the vine, wine lovers can lick their lips. Canada is the world’s largest producer of ice wine, a sweet dessert wine carefully harvested from frozen grapes. Produced mostly in the Niagara Peninsula and BC’s Okanagan, ice wine is heavily regulated and expensive to make. The temperature needs to drop to −8 °C so that healthy, ripe grapes freeze just right. Timing is everything: if it’s too cold, the juice cannot be extracted, and if it’s too warm, the grapes rot. Workers must pick grapes through the night and early morning, harvesting the grapes quickly before they thaw. The juice extracted is dense. Each grape creates just one drop of wine. The result is an elixir famous around the world: smooth, sweet, fruity, and delectable – a true Canadian winter treat.
There are but a handful of fairytale ice hotels in the world, located in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Romania and Quebec’s legendary Hôtel de Glace. Located near Quebec City and open from early January until late-March, the hotel has been constructed, and melted down, since 2001. There are 36 rooms and theme suites, with access to outdoor spas. While adults can enjoy the music and drinks (served in an ice glass) in the literally cool Ice Bar, kids will enjoy the new ice-rink and ice-slide. Every year, 500 tons and 15,000 tons of snow are used to create the hotel, with a new design and theme every year. The result is right out of a fairytale, and an easy choice for a Canadian winter wonder.
Polar bear migration
During a magical 6-8 weeks each November, tourists, scientists, media and students invade the remote northern Manitoba town of Churchill. We arrived with the hopes of seeing the largest carnivore on earth in its natural habitat – the polar bear. Spending a few days on Frontier North’s train-like Tundra Buggy Lodge, I watched dozens of male polar bears roaming the stark tundra, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so they can head north in search of food. Churchill is the most accessible point to see polar bears in the wild, and the 900+ bears who live here are carefully studied and enthusiastically photographed. Climate change also puts them at severe risk. A sub-adult launches onto his hind legs, resting against the deck of the patio, and fogs up my camera with his breath. You just can’t get any closer to this magical beast, and live to talk about it.
In winter, Ottawa’s 7.8km Rideau Canal becomes the world’s largest skating rink, the equivalent of 90 Olympic sized hockey rinks. Around one million visitors bring their skates to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, grabbing snacks and iconic Beaver Tails at heated kiosks along the way. The skating rink begins at the steps of the Parliament Buildings, and extends to Dow Lake, which hosts an outdoor art gallery on ice. During February, the Winterlude festival holds events along the canal. Each year, the ice is tested and declared safe before the canal is officially open to the public.
Just because it’s freezing and snowing, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Canadians have always been a sturdy lot, while some might argue that the beauty of nature in winter is even more spectacular than in summer. Consider winter camping in places like Fundy, Gatineau Park or Elk Island National Park. Hook a walleye, perch or Northern Pike with a bit of ice fishing. Ski resorts around the country are amongst the world’s best, offering champagne powder, spectacular terrain, and no shortage of Apres-Ski options. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, tobogganing, snowmobiling, heli-skiing – Canadians will even go mountaineering in the winter, not to mention surfing on the west coast of Vancouver Island. All of it in Canada’s vast winter wonderland.
I’ve always wondered if those who live in the north get tired of seeing the colours of the Northern Lights dance across the sky. As someone who’s tried repeatedly to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis – the result of charged particles colliding in the atmosphere – I can’t imagine so. It’s such a draw there’s even a direct flight from Japan to Whitehorse and Yellowknife, with Aurora-watching tours being offered in northern communities around the country. Of course, there’s no guarantee the lights will come out to play. Much depends on solar winds and other conditions, which has left me freezing by a fire in the Yukon with much disappointment. Whether it’s just green waves or crackling red rings, I’m determined to see this natural spectacle, a good a reason as any to keep heading north for the winters.
How anyone manages to survive being outdoors in the bitterly cold Arctic night is beyond me, never mind racing 1000 miles on a dogsled, over four mountain ranges and in temperatures below −8 °C. The Yukon Quest runs between Whitehorse in the Yukon and Fairbanks Alaska, following Gold Rush and Mail Delivery sled trails of the early 20th century. It’s billed as the toughest race on earth, as the musher and his pack of 14 dogs navigate the elements, along with their own mental and physical stamina. The dogs are primed athletes, capable of running over 100 miles a day. The close relationship between musher and animal, depending on each other’s survival, is something to marvel at. Strong and loyal sled dogs are still the primary means of transport in many northern communities, and together are a wonder of the Canadian winter.
Around the country, winter comes alive with dozens of fun and colourful festivals. The largest, the Carnaval de Quebec, is also the largest winter festival in the world. The Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara illuminates the town, casting spotlights over the iconic waterfalls. Winnipeg celebrates its Festival du Voyageur, remembering the history and culture of fur traders of the early 18th century. Whistler rocks out with the annual Ski and Snowboard Festival, attracting some of the world’s best athletes, and rock stars for nightly performances. Winterlude in Ottawa attracts half a million people, enjoying North America’s largest snow playground at the Rogers Crystal Garden.
Perhaps the only thing more spectacular than the Rocky Mountains in the summer is the Rocky Mountains in the winter. Banff and Jasper National Park transform into winter wonderlands, with no shortage of activities to keep visitors busy. On one ticket, you can ski the Big 3 – Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay – all world-class resorts with incredible runs through Banff National Park. Meanwhile, the Maligne Canyon Icewalk lets you walk on the frozen floor of the deepest canyon in Jasper National Park. The 3km, 4-hour walk takes you along ice paths beneath huge icefalls. Ice climbing, skiing, snowshoeing – however you choose to enjoy the pristine magic of the Rockies, it’s hard not to appreciate it’s sweeping winter beauty.
If it’s winter, it means the National Hockey League is in full swing. Canada’s unofficial national religion draws thousands to live games at stadiums, not to mention bars and living rooms across the country. Less formal but just as enthusiastic events take place on frozen ponds, inside community centres, and in makeshift backyard rinks around the country. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs finally do well in the playoffs? Who will triumph when rivals Edmonton and Calgary meet on the ice? A Canadian winter wouldn’t feel right without Hockey Night.
Previously published in theloop.ca