Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Love Winter in the Rockies - On Skates!

While one of the classic winter sports, skating is often overlooked by families choosing a winter hobby or sport.  There are whole magazines devoted to skiing and snowshoeing but I don't know of one that focuses on simple ice skating.   And I'm not talking about competitive figure skating, hockey or speed skating - just pure and sweet skating on a frozen pond, lake, or river.

Skating on Cascade Ponds in Banff this November
I'm always surprised when people tell me that they don't own skates, haven't tried skating since they were a child, or that their children have never tried it.  How can you live in Canada and not own skates?  And what's not to like about ice skating?  It's relatively cheap once you buy a pair of skates and there's no additional cost if you skate outdoors.

Learning to skate is not nearly as difficult as learning to ski,  (sign the family up for a lesson if you need and you'll be gliding around the ice in no time), and the whole family can skate together;  You don't have to put junior in daycare while you go ski for the day or take turns on the bunny hill while one parent skis solo.  Our family is all about leisure activities we can do together!  We also like sports with low learning curves and that don't leave our bank account weeping.  Skating is therefore the perfect answer on all accounts.

Skating - A Classic Family Activity

Getting Started

  1. Go to a second hand store and find yourself a comfortable pair of skates.  Unless you excel at triple axel jumps or plan to enter an ice dance competition, you don't need to spend the money on a brand new pair of  skates for recreational use. There are many used sport stores in Calgary and you can get a decent pair of skates for under $50.  I recently went to one sport store to get myself a more comfortable pair and was surprised to see an entire wall, over 10 rows high, of used skates.  It wasn't hard to find something I liked with that selection.

  2. Choose a pair of skates that are both comfortable and easy to put on.  There's nothing worse than spending 10 minutes trying to cram your foot into a tight skate and another 5 minutes trying to lace it up.  By then your hands are frozen and you still have your children's skates to do up. 

  3. Most men will choose hockey skates but for women, consider the newest skate on the market called a "comfort skate."  It's what I recently upgraded to because while they are still figure skates with the traditional picks on the front for jumps and spins,  they are wider, more comfortable, have extra padding for warmth, and are lightning quick to lace up.  I can have both of my skates on in the time it takes my husband to put on one hockey skate!  That is what I need if I'm going to be doing up a child's skates too!  I do find my new comfort skates provide less support than my old figure skates, but the extra warmth and ease of putting them on is worth it to me.  You can buy these skates new from Canadian Tire (Christmas present)  or try to find them used.  I was lucky and found a second-hand pair in my size.

  4. Get toddlers and preschoolers started early with a pair of "Bob skates".  Another Canadian Tire store classic, they come in both black and pink and feature double blades for the beginner skater.  I know people who look down on these skates because the kids can walk around on the ice at most, marching around in their little blades that barely slide.  And while that is true, what 2-year old is going to put on a pair of hockey skates and tear up the ice with fancy power moves?  Toddlers just need to get comfortable being on the ice, having fun without the fear of constantly falling, and feeling like they are participating in a sport with the rest of the family instead of riding in their sled the whole time.  Bob Skates are perfect for the first winter skating.  My son started on them last year and now he has moved up to regular skates with confidence and enthusiasm for skating.  As a bonus, you won't have to try to find a used pair of Bob skates because they only cost $10 new.

  5. Consider expandable skates for preschoolers with ever-growing feet.  There's nothing worse than buying a pair of skates, shoes, boots, etc. and then having to buy a new pair a month later when the child goes through a growth spurt.  We bought new skates for our son and they were horribly expensive so I go back to number 1 - try to find used skates first!!  If however, you can't find a second-hand pair, I would still recommend a pair of  these skates - even at full price.  They are molded for extra warmth, adjust to at least 4 different sizes, have removable liners which makes it super easy to put them on (put the child's foot in the liner first, and then insert into the skate), and best of all - no laces!!! They have bindings like a ski boot instead of laces which is awesome in my opinion!  (Yes, I hate laces on skates.)

  6. Enroll your children in a basic skating lesson with a trained teacher who will have tons of fun games up his or her sleeve to make skating fun!  My son's preschool teacher had the kids carry teddy bears back and forth across the ice and it was a brilliant idea!  The kids loved the game and they got practice walking or gliding on their skates, turning around, and bending over to pick up the stuffed animals. In as short as one or two lessons, your children will have enough confidence to leave the chairs and skate aids aside.  We bought a skate aid for our son and I doubt we'll ever have to use it.

  7. Though you won't see one present in every one of my photos, I can't recommend enough that you get your children a proper multi-sport helmet, designed for skating.  My son wore a bicycle helmet his first year but they are not generally designed for absorbing multiple impacts.  As for mom and dad, it's still not a bad idea to have a helmet.  :)
Toddlers skating on Bob Skates
Always bring sleds for young kids.  When they get tired you can keep skating and they LOVE the ride!


Where to skate

I consider indoor skating rinks and arenas to be places where you take lessons, practice, and get your confidence on skates.  But it's not the real deal!  No rock climber for example aspires to climb indoors his whole life.  Indoor walls are great for practicing (and keep you climbing year-round) but something's missing. Skating is the same in my mind as climbing - you gotta get outside for the true classic experience.  And you don't have to go far to find a neighborhood pond or outdoor rink.

In Calgary, go to the City's website to find a list of outdoor skating rinks.  We love Bowness Park with it's lagoon, fire pits, and meandering creek you can skate down.  It's the classic experience and if you go mid-week you'll have the pond to yourself.  Bring hotdogs and marshmallows to further enjoy the experience.

Bowness Park on Christmas Day last year

In the Kananaskis and Banff area, check out the following ponds and rinks that see official maintenance and snow removal:
  • The Pond at Kananaskis Village (cleared by Delta Resort staff and open to all visitors. Skate rentals on-site, open by December)

  • The Pond in Canmore (located on 7 Avenue at Mallard Alley two blocks from Main Street, cleared by the Town of Canmore. Note: No hockey sticks allowed on this pond.  Open by December and home to the annual Canmore New Year's Eve Party on the Pond)

  • The pond behind the Banff Springs Hotel (open December to March)

  • Lake Louise (cleared area on the lake in front of the Chateau Lake Louise, open from November to April.  Skate rentals available on site)
Skating on the Pond at Kananaskis Village
The Pond in Canmore

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Family Snowshoeing Adventures - Elbow Lake

Elbow Lake is a very popular place for backcountry camping, hiking, and even mountain biking but very few people visit this magical place in winter.

The main reason?  The highway leading to the Elbow Pass Day Use Area closes on December 1st each year.  Meanwhile, in November when Hwy 40 is still open over Highwood Pass, most people aren't thinking about snowshoeing yet; It just seems too early for some reason. 

Approaching Elbow Lake

Last year, we had an early winter with lots of snow in the mountains and thought we'd try snowshoeing up to Elbow Lake at the end of November - just to see what it was like at this time of year.  We were blown away by how beautiful it was, how much snow the area had in November, and how perfect the trail was for snowshoeing! 

At only 1.4km one way and with only 150m of height gain, the trail is very accessible for most families.  Yes, it's steep, but you can make it to the lake in an hour at a reasonable pace and then spend as much time as you want walking around the lake or exploring further up towards the Rae Glacier.

Winter Paradise (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

We headed up to Elbow Lake again last weekend for what will certainly become an annual tradition in late November. 

We were relieved to see that there was less snow this year and that the trail had been packed down already.  I love powder and don't mind breaking trail through knee deep snow for an hour but when you are pulling sleds it's a lot harder!  Last year we carried our son but this year he was going to be pulled in his ski pulk. 

Using a Chariot with skis is an excellent way to transport kids in winter

We also had three other families coming with us who planned to transport their kids in Chariots with skis and one family was bringing a toboggan.  We had no problems pulling the sleds on the wide packed trail this year but I'm most certain we wouldn't have made it last year.  It will be interesting to try this trail again next year at the same time to determine what snow level is the norm for this area in November.

Two kids are bundled snug and warm inside the Chariot
Our son has a ski pulk that we love for off-trail adventures.  It too has a cover for cold days or nap time

 We had hoped that the children would try snowshoeing up to the lake and we brought several pairs of junior snowshoes with us, but in reality, the trail is really steep for preschoolers in winter. 

I'm sure they all could have hiked the trail in summer with a bit of motivation (read - Candy!) but winter is a different ball game.  This will be a great family snowshoe adventure in another year or two when our son will definitely be able to hike in on his own without the sled. 

For the moment however, Thank God we all have sleds or Chariots because it opens up the possibilities for how far and where we can go on our adventures.  It also helps with nap time as many of the kids fell asleep on the way back down the trail, our son included.

We at least got a couple of the kids on their snowshoes for a few minutes.  :)

We got to the lake and found a great spot to have lunch in the campground.  Benches and tables make for a great resting spot.  Just make sure you bring insulated bum pads if you want to sit down.  I sadly had forgotten and had to sit on my mittens since I was wearing every extra layer I'd brought while we weren't moving.  We left most of the kids in their sleds to eat - another great reason for having sleds or Chariots with you.

Elbow Lake at the backcountry campground
Lunch break
Trying out my new snowshoes in the deep snow surrounding the lake
Mom and daughter have fun tromping through the deep snow

 Beyond the lake, the snow was less packed down so we didn't go too far with the sleds and Chariots but we did hike to the back of the lake for the spectacular views not seen as well from the campground.

Hiking around the lake
Enjoying the views

So, if you haven't already added this trip to your winter bucket list, I highly recommend the experience!  The bad news though - you have 4 more days left this year to get up there.  So grab those snowshoes or backcountry skis if you prefer and get going.  :)

If you can't make it up to Elbow Lake before Saturday when Hwy 40 closes past the Peter Lougheed junction for the Upper and Lower Lakes, then put a reminder on your calendar for next November. 

For more information on the Elbow Pass Trail or Backcountry Campground, visit the Kananaskis Website.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Christmas Gift Ideas for Outdoor Children

Christmas is coming and it's impossible not to notice if you live anywhere near an urban centre.  Holiday music is already playing in most major department stores, decorations and trees are on display, 

Here are a few of my Christmas gift ideas for the outdoor children on your list.  Some ideas come straight off my own list for my son, while other items have been purchased for friends over the past year, or been enjoyed so much by us that I have to share!

Every Christmas tree should have a pair of skis under it

Our Favourite Outdoor Themed Books (for toddlers and preschoolers)

  • My first hike by Catherine Maria Woolf 
    •  Grandpa takes his grand kids for their first hike

  • Scare a bear by Kathy-Jo Wargin
    • A funny tale about scaring a bear out of camp

  • Duck Tents by Lynne Berry
    • A group of little ducks go camping and fishing

  • Sheep take a hike by Nancy E Shaw and Margot Apple
    • A cute tale of a group of sheep taking a hike together

  • Camping Day by Patricia Lakin
    • Dinosaurs go camping and get scared by monsters?

  • Hey Pancakes by Tamson Weston
    • Who doesn't want to read a cute story about children making pancakes when camping?

  • Going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
    • A classic!!  Your child will memorize this book and recite it to you on your next hike

  • Caillou Goes Camping by  Roger Harvey
    • Caillou camps in the backyard with Grandpa

  • Just me and my Dad by Mercer Mayer
    • Dad and his Little Critter go fishing and canoeing together

  • Just camping out by Mercer Mayer
    • Another Little Critter book - this one about camping

  • The Berenstain Bears Blaze a Trail by  Stan and Jan Berenstain
    • Who doesn't like a hilarious Berenstain Bears book?   In this one, Pa tries to help the kids earn their Boy Scout Merit badges for hiking

  • Curious George goes Camping by Margret and H.A. Rey’s
    • Fans of Curious George will love his camping adventures

  • Do Princesses wear hiking boots by Carmela LaVigna Coyle
    • A little girl asks if Princesses have to brush their teeth, have to clean their room, and - even if they wear hiking boots?  Great for the outdoor princess on your shopping list!

Story time at Camp

Give your children their very own gear - just like Mommy and Daddy 


  • A Sleeping Bag designed especially for children

  • Their own backpack for day hikes

  • Skis or snowshoes of their own

  • A Strider Balance Pre-Bike

  • A canoe or kayak paddle just their size

  • Their own headlamp for camping

  • Skates and a hockey stick cut down to size

The Kid's Deuter Day Pack


Give your child the gift of warmth this winter season


  • A Buff - the best scarf, face mask, neck warmer, head band, and bandanna - all in one!

    We got our son a children's sized buff from the Trail Centre at the Canmore Nordic Centre last winter.  Best gift ever!!  He wears it as a neck warmer and then we pull it over his mouth and nose when it's cold instead of a scarf.  It's easier to breath than a heavy fleece scarf and just as warm!  We also use it to wipe his runny nose or wipe tears from his eyes as needed.  - It gets washed a lot!  He loves it and asks for it when we go outside.

  • Down Booties for backcountry trips

    Babies and toddlers can wear these in a sled instead of boots.  Older children can use these camping and as slippers when staying in backcountry huts or hostels. 

  • The MEC Toaster Suit

    My son lived in this his first couple of winters.  It's incredibly warm and there are no gaps for snow or cold to get in because of it's one-piece design.  They fit big so you'll usually be able to get two years out of them - bonus!!

  • The MEC Newt Suit

    This is the best one-piece Rain suit you can buy locally.   My son wears it for puddle jumping, bike riding in the rain, hiking year round, and any time the weather looks variable on our trips to the mountains.
The MEC Toaster Suit

Not to be forgotten - here's a few outdoor-themed toys and fun items as well

  • Toy camping stoves

  • Playmobile camping themed sets

  • Calico Critters camping themed sets

  • Lego or Duplo camping themed building blocks

  • Leap Frog Toys for road trips and down time while camping

  • Your child's very own camera for their next hike or nature walk

  • A new Camelbak Kid's Water Bottle

Birthday present last year


Check out my Complete Set of Holiday Gift Guides

A Holiday Gift Guide for Active Kids 


Monday, November 12, 2012

November Ski Touring in Paradise Valley

It's November in the Canadian Rockies and cross-country skiers are flocking to Lake Louise in droves for the season's first ski trip.  The Destination:  Moraine Lake via the paved summer road, snow covered, groomed and track set by mid November most years for classic and skate skiing.  It's always the first trail in condition for skiing each winter and the parking lot fills up quickly on weekends.

We'd originally been planning on ice skating this past weekend until early snow fell and pretty much ruined any chances we'd have for a November skating season in Banff.  Never a family to let snow ruin our weekend though, we decided that hey, we could go skiing instead of skating!  Skiing on November 10th!  That could almost be a record - and probably is for us anyway.

Paradise Creek (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)

Our destination of the day: Paradise Valley at Lake Louise! A glorious 20km return backcountry ski tour (if you do the full distance, go equipped with full-on backcountry skis and avalanche beacons, and have a tad more experience than I do perhaps. 

However, in 10km return (or less), you can definitely reach Paradise Valley, cross Paradise Creek a couple of times on snowy picturesque bridges straight out of a painting, and have a relatively easy day of ski touring within the capabilities of most cross-country skiers. 

We all used light touring skis with metal edges and definitely appreciated them because of their extra width and design for powder.  Our path was certainly not groomed and we had to break trail the whole time following some old ski tracks that had been covered over by the most recent snow fall.

Leaving the Moraine Lake Road for Paradise Valley (this is the beginning of the Fairview Trail - normally groomed)

Directions to Paradise Valley (photos below:)

  1. Park in the parking area for the Moraine Lake Road (between the Village of Lake Louise and the actual lake above)

  2. Follow the groomed track set trail up the road for about 2km until you reach a wooden sign and the junction for the Fairview ski trail. (usually track set and groomed by December)

  3. Follow the Fairview trail until it veers off to the right.  You'll see a short steep hill in front of you (most likely skier tracked).  This is your hill and where you leave the official trail - up you go!

  4. Gain the ridge crest and follow it until you reach the first bridge (on your left) over Paradise Creek.  You won't go over the bridge unless you are taking the summer Highline Trail to Moraine Lake.  It's worth going out onto the bridge though for the breathtaking views and your first glimpse of Paradise Valley. You'll also find a large wooden sign here pointing the way to Moraine Lake (left) and Lake Louise (right).

  5. Your trail goes to the right rather than crossing the bridge - on the Highline Trail leading back to Lake Louise.  It will feel like you are going in the wrong direction and your partner may tell you that you are on the wrong path.  This is the right way though!  After a short distance, you will reach the signed junction with Paradise Valley and you'll leave the Highline Trail (popular with snowshoers heading to Paradise Creek from the Upper Parking Lot of Lake Louise.)

  6. You are on the official summer hiking trail to Paradise Valley now and after climbing for a short distance (longer if you are breaking trail or don't have skins on) you'll descend gradually to reach Paradise Creek again - and the second bridge.

  7. This makes for a great lunch break and if you started late (as we did) a good turn-around spot.  Otherwise, cross the bridge and continue up valley to another bridge within very short distance.  If you are on AT or Telemark skis, you can easily continue to the junction with Lake Annette or continue on towards the Giant Steps and views up valley towards the Grand Sentinel below Sentinel Pass.

     I've never made it past the Lake Annette junction on light touring skis and I can assure you that should you decide to continue past this point you'll need skins!!  

The Photos!

The junction with the Highline Trail (left for Moraine Lake and right for Lake Louise)
First Bridge (going over the bridge would take you to Moraine Lake - hence we just took photos and turned around)
The official trail into Paradise Valley off the Highline Trail heading back towards Louise (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)
Reaching the second bridge over Paradise Creek (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)
A perfect Day in Paradise Valley!

Our trail-breaker and my Sherpa