Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Winter camping in Kananaskis

If you saw the title and thought, wow, winter camping with a toddler!, let me clarify that we were not sleeping outside.  We left that to the Girl Guides sharing our deluxe cabin with us Friday night.  They were on their way to the old Fortress Mt. ski resort to build snow shelters with the goal of spending the night there.  Good on them!  I'm not that hard core though.  We spent the weekend camping with friends and their two children at the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel at Ribbon Creek.  Normally I wouldn't call it "camping", but my son thinks that any overnight trip to the mountains is a camping trip.  We referred to the hostel as a camping house for his benefit.  We did attempt to make the experience at least a little reminiscent of camping and made use of the fire pit outside the hostel to create a nice little bonfire for the kids.

Our winter campfire

Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring's coming

It's a little hard to think about spring when I look out my window and see a yard full of snow.  That doesn't mean however that spring isn't around the corner.  March is typically the month that we start to think about hiking again after four months of skiing.  I'm sure we'll try to stretch the ski season out as long as possible this year because I'm still working on my goal of 20 cross country ski days (four days left), but I've already started to make many reservations for campgrounds, huts, and resorts we plan to stay at this spring.  I've even started planning our summer trips and I've got the calendar beside my computer to prove it.

A very warm March in Kananaskis

Every time I start making plans for the future I get a lot of feedback from friends on how organized I am and how it's far too early to start thinking about the next season yet.  I thought it was a little early too this year until I phoned a campground one day to find out when they'd start accepting reservations for spring and found out it was that exact day!  It was a very important booking because I wanted to reserve a very popular group campground and knew I'd have to phone the same day reservations went live.  Thank God for the decision to make the call that day!  Since then I've been on a mission to make sure I don't miss any other key reservation dates, and to make sure I'm organized in advance.

Bow Valley Provincial Park - the campground I almost missed.

Here is the process I use for planning out our trips, adventures, and vacations:

First, I make a list of things we enjoy doing by category. (hiking or backpacking for example) I make sure that all interests are represented from toddler hikes to mountaineering trips.

Second, I write down possible trips and adventures for each category.  This is where my husband enters the process because he helps me decide on which trips we want to focus on.   If we can't both agree on a trip, it either doesn't stay on the list or it becomes a solo adult trip for one of us.

This is what steps one and two looked like after we were done this year's planning session:

Spring Trips
We're focusing on car camping a lot this year because we can't justify driving for an hour + to do a 2km toddler hike.  Each of the campgrounds below were chosen because of the amazing hiking trails in the area for little feet.  The trails in the Elbow Valley and Bow Valley Provincial Park are a spring ritual for us every year.  

    Bow Valley Provincial Park

    Family hike in Cypress hills last summer

    Paddy's Flats Campground

    Hiking near Fairmont Hotsprings, BC

    Family Hikes
    These are all simple hikes we can do as day trips from Calgary or else we can set up base camp from one of the great campgrounds in the area.

    Fullerton Loop, Elbow Valley

    Flowing Water Trail, Bow Valley Provincial Park

    Many Springs Trail, Bow Valley Provincial Park

    Heart Creek Trail

    Grassi Lakes

    Advanced Hikes and Scrambles 
    We don't knock too many of these off our list each year because they require child care or trading off days while one of us hikes while the other stays home with our son.  Still, I like to do at least a couple challenging hikes each year.  Some of these are fun repeats I haven't done in years and some are new trips recently brought to my attention.
    Scrambling on Nihahi Ridge
    More scrambling on Nihahi Ridge (the part of the ridge I want to revisit this year)
    A classic shot of the crux on the Yamnuska scramble

    Backpacking trips and weekends away
    Our goal is to do one backpacking trip with our son each year.  We started when he was one and this summer we will be doing his third backpacking trip.  We also have lots of other cool overnight adventures lined up that will take us to areas with plenty of short family-friendly hiking trails.
    Last year's backpacking trip in Yoho National Park
      Upper Kananaskis Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

      Okanagan Lake, Kelowna, BC

       Mountaineering Trips
       My personal goal is to do one mountaineering trip per summer and then my husband likes to do a couple of trips of his own in addition to that.  The deal is that he gets to take a couple weekends away for climbing if he plays Sherpa for me and guides me on one trip too.
      • Bow Hut Climbing Trip, Wapta Icefields, Banff National Park
      Last year's mountaineering trip on the Wapta Icefield from the Peyto Hut

      Fall Trips
      Autumn is my favorite time of year and I always have a big list of things I want to do in the limited time that the larch trees are golden yellow.  Some of the trips below are adult trips so we'll be choosing one or two of them most likely at most. 
      • Overnight Trip from Sunshine Village into Egypt Lake, Banff to stay at the backcountry shelter (planned for last year and canceled due to bad weather)
      • Anniversary Trip somewhere
      • Wasatch Pass Loop (Larch Valley, Paradise Valley, and the Eiffel Lakes Valley in a day via Sentinel Pass and Wastach Pass)
      • Sunshine Village Day trip with our son to Sunshine Meadows
      • Ptarmigan Cirque with our son

      Sunshine Meadows last September
      Autumn in the Rockies
      Larch Valley last September

      When we have the above brainstorming done, we pull out a calendar and start plotting trips down, trying to allow for rest weekends in between to do day trips.  Rest for us doesn't mean staying home, but it does mean that we don't have to pack up for a big camping trip.  Looking at the calendar it would also seem I have added a few less rest days than I did last summer.  Let's hope we're up for the challenge.

      Finally, I start looking at websites and making phone calls to find out when I have to make reservations.  I can  make reservations up to a year in advance for the huts and hostels so most of those bookings were made first.  Campgrounds that take reservations are tricky because you often have to be on the phone at exactly 9am, three months to  the date you want to stay, if you want to get into a popular campground.  Seriously, it's that crazy!  I've already had to make all my group campground bookings because that deadline passed a few weeks ago - and it's only February!

      The most challenging part of the process is trying to get commitment from friends to come with us.  It's hard convincing people to start thinking about summer when they've just come inside from shoveling snow.  Most people I know are also a tad more spontaneous than us and don't want to make commitments into August.  Often what I end up doing is booking a random amount of sites (or a whole group campground) and then going by faith that I'll find people to fill the sites.  Usually works.

       So, there you have it - a look into the craziness that dwells inside my mind.  I love planning, live for organizing trips, and find great joy in looking ahead to great adventures on our horizon.

      What's on your calendar for this Spring and Summer?

      Thursday, February 16, 2012

      Why we have left the ski hills behind

      When I was in elementary school my mom used to take my brother and I cross country skiing in Northern Alberta on some local ski trails a few times each winter.  We had the classic 3-pin skis and wore our knee socks proudly over our jeans.  I'm pretty sure everybody skied in jeans back in the 80s and I have no idea how we stayed warm.  Sadly I have no photos to post, but maybe that's a good thing.  I have fond memories of skiing and can still remember how much I loved to get out into real nature; no crowds, no loud music, no ski lifts or machinery, the smell of pine trees as we skied through the forest.  We could tell when spring was coming because the smell changed and everything was fresh and new.  I would have chosen to go skiing any day rather than stay in the city.  It's worth noting too that cross country skiing was the only sport I liked.  Anybody who went to school with me can testify that I was not exactly a jock!  I  got a job teaching junior high physical education one year and I still laugh to think that somebody actually hired me to teach volleyball!  I'm terrified of the ball to this day.  I was once asked if I liked to read books when I was recruited to join a game with friends in my 20s and obviously wasn't playing so well.  True story. 

      I didn't learn to downhill ski until I was in my senior year of high school.  I took a 6 week class at our local ski hill and managed to progress to the easiest intermediate run by the end of the 6 weeks.   It was fun and obviously stuck with me because I own downhill skis to this day and used to head to the slopes at least once or twice a month.  I never got really good at downhill skiing but then, I never truly pursued excellence at it either.  I've always been quite content to speed down the groomed intermediate runs and leave the moguls, tree-skiing, and double blacks to my husband. 

      I think what I liked best about downhill skiing was the ski weekends.  We'd go away with friends for a weekend, rent a condo and sit in the hot tub after skiing all day.  Around 2007 though I started to lose interest in the sport.  I didn't have a child yet, we were still a double income family who could afford the sport, and there was an abundance of amazing ski hills close to Calgary to indulge in.  What changed?  I realized there were more things I disliked about the sport than things I liked about it.
      • I hated having to get up at 6am on a Saturday to get to the ski hill for first runs.  It's a two hour drive from my house to reach Lake Louise.  Sunshine Village is closer but then you have a gondola ride to add on to your time in order to reach the ski base.  Nakiska, in Kananaskis is by far the closest ski resort but it's always very hard-packed and a fall at Nakiska can spell definite injury!  We loved ski weekends at Jasper's Marmot Basin, Fernie, or Kimberly but they are too far away for a day trip and once you add hotel or condo and meals to the weekend, the price really adds up!
      • I only liked skiing perfectly groomed corduroy.  That meant I had good skiing for the first hour of the day and if it had snowed the night before I was screwed.  I've never mastered powder skiing and now that I have a delicate right hip, I don't imagine I'll be learning anytime soon.
      • I only liked skiing when the light was perfect.  How scary is it to start down a run realizing that you can't tell where it drops off because the light is too flat?  I was also terrified of skiing when it was snowing and again you couldn't see clearly where you were going.
      • I started to get sick of the obnoxious behavior taking place on the ski hill around me.  Youth would go rippin' past me with their i-pods on, oblivious to anything going on around them, and then God forbid you had to share a lift with somebody; they wouldn't talk to you or engage in any social conversation.  They kept their headphones on and shut you out.  And that wasn't just the youth!
      • I felt like I was taking the city with me to the mountains.  Everybody and their dog was certainly going to be on the hill with me and since I worked, I couldn't exactly go out on a quiet Wednesday.  I like to escape the city on weekends and it's hard to do when you are on a crowded ski hill filled with the people you wanted to leave behind.
      • I couldn't justify the cost of skiing anymore.  The current cost of a day at Lake Louise is $79.95 per day.  The current cost of cross country skiing in Kananaskis is $0.00.  
      Hence it was in 2007 that I started to focus exclusively on cross country skiing.  And before you start to think, boring, I'm going to insert some photos here that will hopefully show you it's anything but boring when you are cross country skiing in the mountains.  This isn't flat skiing around a lake my friends.  Falls can spell injury.  Not making a turn can mean hitting a tree.  Going off trail on non-groomed trails often requires avalanche training.  Backcountry cabins await all over the Rockies for the adventurous skier to find.

      Ski touring in Paradise Valley at Lake Louise and not a ski lift in sight.
      The Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park (a 3 day ski tour in complete backcountry isolation)
      Skiing over Deception Pass on the way out from a night at Skoki Lodge (-30C, and a 12km ski to reach the backcountry lodge)
      Lake O'Hara in winter (want to stay here?  Strap on your cross country skis for the 12km journey in with your overnight pack)
      Skiing at Lake O'Hara (where's all the people?  Hmm...)
      Another classic view of real skiing (you don't need a ski hill to find powder)
      I have truly found my niche in cross country skiing.  With downhill skiing I was always scared, on edge, and nervous.  I'd feel terror in my stomach as we arrived at the ski hill and I don't know how many times I had to count to three as I went down more difficult runs, telling myself that on three, I would take the leap of faith to link my next turn.  From the photos above though, you can hopefully see that I feel no such fear with cross country skiing.  If I can't safely get down a steep hill on an overnight ski trip, I at least have the option of leaving my climbing skins on and problem solved; no speed.  We venture into all kinds of terrain on our cross country touring skis designed with metal edges and I like powder.  I can't stand cross country skiing on corduroy.  I choose my loops based on which direction will give us the biggest baddest hills in the downhill direction.  I'm certainly not somebody living in fear anymore.  I've found complete and utter freedom on my cross country skis.

      My friend Jorge convinced me to write this story because he said I needed to urge more families to take up cross country skiing.  Understand, that Jorge doesn't even have kids but he's looked around on the trails and has noticed that they are sadly lacking families.  What he especially noticed was that there were no teenagers.  Jorge and his wife want to have children soon and are hoping that they will be able to share this wonderful sport with them.  We too plan to pursue cross country skiing with our son instead of the more popular downhill skiing option.  I'll finish this story with a few reasons why I think it's important for families to reconsider which kind of ski lessons they enroll their kids in.

      One - We live in a society facing a real Nature Deficit Disorder.    Our children would prefer to stay indoors and play video games than to go to the mountains or even go into their backyard and play.  Sadly, I'm not sure downhill skiing does anything to solve this problem.  I see little nature when I go downhill skiing.  What I do see are man-made structures, technology at work to haul our lazy butts up a mountain so we don't have to climb it ourselves, and a society that is plugged in to their i phones, i-pods, and other electronic devices even while playing in the mountains.  I can count on one hand the times I've seen somebody listening to music while cross country skiing.  I myself have only ever done it once and it was on a particularly long ski trip into a backcountry hut where I was seriously struggling with energy levels and motivation.  Do people struggle with energy to get down a ski hill?  Is that why they are plugged into their favorite tunes instead of listening to the birds and sounds of nature?  Or wait, have you ever heard a bird on a ski hill?  Point made if you haven't.

      Introducing our son to xc skiing at a young age

      Two -  Cross country skiing teaches unique skills that only other endurance sports can teach our children.  When I was young, I dropped out of every sport and activity I was introduced to.  Ballet wasn't fun enough and so I quit three quarters of the way through the year.  It wasn't until I started hiking and climbing that I learned perseverance.  Endurance sports teach us to keep going when life isn't easy.  They teach us to continue on when we really long to quit something.  They teach us how to be strong people of character and integrity.  I'm not sure what downhill skiing has to teach us because it's honestly too much fun.  Now don't get me wrong, I think having fun is a great thing, but I also think we should have to work for it.   The fun is fast and easy at a ski resort.  When you go cross country skiing, you slog up the hills, you push, you work, and you  build strength.  Then you get to the top and that delayed gratification is oh so sweet when you get to go down the big hill on the other side; the hill that you worked so hard to get up.  We live in a society that is obsessed with quick fixes and a fast food mentality.  Cross country skiing teaches us to slow down, to savor life and to appreciate those moments of fun.

      Chariots and Ski Pulks are a great way to get out together as a family (harder to go downhill skiing with a baby)

      Three - 59% of Canadian adults are currently overweight or struggling with obesity.  26% of children are also overweight and that number isn't going to go down if they are following the patterns of the overweight adults in their family.  I got these statistics from the Childhood Obesity Foundation.  Another interesting website I found is the Live Strong site.  It had the following to say about the benefits of cross country skiing:
      An individual who weighs 130 pounds burns, on average, 413 to 472 calories per hour cross-country skiing at a slow to moderate pace, according to NutriStrategy. An individual performing the same activity who weighs 180 pounds may burn, on average, 572 to 654 calories per hour. Cross-country skiing uphill expends twice as many calories per hour, or roughly 975 and 1,350 for an individual weighing 130 and 180 pounds, respectively.
      Downhill skiing burns calories too and it's still an active way to get out and spend the day but you'll spend as much time sitting on lifts as you will skiing and that's where cross country skiing takes the biggest advantage.  If you go cross country skiing for four hours, you will spend that whole time actually skiing.  You won't be waiting in lines or sitting on a chair lift for 20 minutes between runs.  Fitness is very important in our family and it's one of the biggest reasons we choose to go skiing and hiking every weekend.  It's doubtful that with our example to follow, our son will grow up struggling with obesity.

      Our son follows us on most of our ski adventures.

      If your family enjoys downhill skiing I commend you for choosing a family sport that gets your kids into the mountains.  I think it's awesome that you get outside period!  Many families don't even do that.  I do encourage you though to consider adding cross country skiing to your weekend routine.  We used to alternate between the two kinds of skiing before we had our son.  If we went to a resort one weekend, we'd go into nature the next.  It was a nice balance for us.

      I'd also urge you to consider taking up backcountry skiing if you have teenagers. Backcountry skiing is similar to resort skiing but with all the added  benefits of cross country skiing; you work to get up the hills, there are no ski lifts, you are surrounded by pristine nature and untouched snow, you'll burn an insane amount of calories, and you still get to enjoy the wild ski down.  You'll find more powder than at resorts and it's a sport that will appeal to thrill seekers as well as teens that think spending time with mom and dad is boring. 

      For cross country lessons, check out Canada Olympic Park, the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre or the Canmore Nordic Centre.
      For backcountry lessons, check out the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre or Yamuska.  (Both the Outdoor Centre and Yamnuska offer avalanche courses too to complement your backcountry ski training)

      Friday, February 10, 2012

      The Secret Backcountry Ski Lodge in the Canadian Rockies

      The word "Secret" can be defined with the following phrases:  Kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged; Designed or working to escape notice, knowledge, or observation; Secluded, sheltered, or withdrawn: a secret hiding place.

      Those phrases certainly describe Holiday on Horseback's Sundance Lodge in beautiful Banff National Park.  Located a short 10km ski from the Healy Creek Trail-head just outside the town of Banff, it's barely remote but yet somehow manages to stay under the radar of places to visit in the Rockies.  I understand that it's very popular in the summer with groups arriving at the lodge on horseback, but the ski crowd has yet to discover this lodge.  

      Sundance Lodge

      We've made it a priority to leave our son with Grandma for the weekend at least a couple times per year since he turned one.  When we go away, we often choose an adventure that will rekindle the relationship we had post-children, which always means heading to the mountains for some hiking, climbing, backpacking or skiing.   

      Skiing out from Sundance Lodge

      My favorite overnight ski adventure always involves staying in a backcountry lodge.  Last winter we skied into another backcountry lodge, Skoki Lodge, near Lake Louise.  If it sounds familiar, it's because the Royals; William and Kate, stayed there on their 2011 Canada tour.  In the past we've also visited Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park.  Both lodges are very popular and will see full bookings most weekends in winter.  Their prices reflect this as well as does the policy that you need to stay for two nights.  To its Credit, Skoki Lodge has many specials through the year making it possible to stay at a reduced rate for one night only.  I have yet to see a special for Shadow Lake Lodge though!  (hence why I have only been there once in winter and am likely not going to be going again anytime soon.)  Those on a budget will definitely be ruling out Shadow Lake Lodge.  

      We've stayed at Skoki Lodge at number of times and honestly, I'm always willing to jump on a one night special and make the trek in there, but it's not for the faint of heart.  It's a challenging ski that for most people requires light touring skis with metal edges and climbing skins for the hills.  Others just take their AT backcountry skis  that behave like downhill skis on the down sections and like xc skis on the flat and up sections.  Then a good portion of visitors to the lodge arrive by snowshoes since it is by far the easiest option.  

      Enter a very different experience with Sundance Lodge!
      • It's an easy to moderate ski in to the lodge on an actual track-set and packed trail. 
      • Those seeking solitude have a good chance of finding it here.  We shared the lodge with one other couple!
      • You are allowed to stay for one night! Backcountry lodges will never be considered budget friendly and are always a splurge but it's like going for half price when you only have to pay for one night.
      • Indoor plumbing!  The only backcountry lodge I've stayed at yet to feature flush toilets in the main lodge where you sleep.
      • Electricity!  The lodge primarily uses candles and lanterns for atmosphere but if you are hunting for something in your room at night, there are lights you can turn on.  
      • Sadly, there is still no cell reception so you can't update your facebook status to tell everybody that you have found paradise.

      The facilities at Sundance Lodge can best be described with the following words off the Holiday on Horseback website:   
      For those seeking a remote getaway from the norm, Sundance Lodge is the perfect retreat! Powered by solar power and kept warm by wood heat, this cozy lodge adds a touch of home to the backcountry. Sitting on a gentle bend of Brewster Creek with the massive Sundance Range as a backdrop, this lodge is one you soon won’t forget.
      The lodge has 10 sleeping rooms, a large country kitchen, and a cozy living room area where you can curl up by the woodstove and lose yourself in a good book. And after a day spent hiking or skiing in the fresh mountain air, you'll appreciate an added comfort - - hot showers! Mealtime is always an event - you'll delight in hearty, home-cooked meals and fresh-from-the-oven baked goods - no one ever leaves Sundance hungry!
      Viewpoint a little further up the trail from the lodge

      The website is very clear that the ski trail is open dependent on snow conditions and at present conditions are a little less than optimal.  The Healy Creek trail was very icy and the Brewster Creek trail, though much better, was still very crusty with many deep grooves in the trail from skis, footprints, ski poles and snowmobile tracks.  Fortunately the Healy Creek trail is flat so other than fighting with your wax if you don't have wax-less skis, it's not too hard to ski.  It's also a very short portion of the trip.  Brewster Creek was fine on uphill sections and the flats.  It was only the downhill sections that posed certain challenges.  We fought to keep our skis out of the grooves all over the trail when snowplowing down the steeper hills.  That being said, the other couple staying at the lodge with us made it there and out on 30 year old skis and their ski ability was admittedly novice.  You just have to accept that you might have to walk the odd hill or pick yourself up when you fall.  It's all part of the adventure.  In a good snow year, the trail would be fabulous and definitely easy to moderate for xc skiers of all abilities.  In the meantime, snowshoeing is an option.

      Our new friends about to take the journey out from the lodge

      Enjoying a small hill on the way down

      The last thing I want to mention about Sundance Lodge since this blog is geared towards family adventure is how awesome the place would be with your family!  We did our first visit solo without our little Pook as a bit of a reconnaissance trip.  Now that we've been there we definitely plan to go back as a family. Most rooms in the lodge features a double bed for mom and dad along with a set of bunks for  two kids.  If you have more than two children, you could always get the kids a room of their own I'm sure if the lodge wasn't very busy.
      A typical room at Sundance Lodge

      The website says that the lodge can't accommodate children under the age of 6 but when I asked the staff at the lodge about that, they seemed to think it might only apply to children that want to ride in on horseback.  At present with the lodge seeing so few guests in winter, I would think you could maybe talk the company into accepting younger children if you wanted to pull them in to the lodge in a sled.  The staff were certainly amenable to seeing more families in the future when I talked to them.  (note that if you do take small children in, please set a positive path for future families.  Maybe offer to help sweep or mop the floor after dinner, clean up after your kids, and don't let them run around the lodge screaming if they are going to disturb other guests.  Sundance Lodge isn't run by a large staff.  There is one cook and one outfitter/trail setter.  If you want to bring small kids you might need to help out a bit.)

      Other than the bedroom configuration and a trail that would be easily skied by most school-aged kids who have experience with xc skiing, the best reason I have for recommending this lodge to families is the food.  Many lodges focus on gourmet food that might not appeal to all children.  Sundance Lodge however is a family environment through and through.  You all eat in the kitchen at a big long table.  The staff eat with you and the atmosphere is very casual.  For dinner we had lasagna, yummy and simple.  I don't know a child alive that wouldn't eat lasagna.  
      Some views of the fireside room

      I want to say thank you to the amazing staff at Sundance Lodge for making us feel so at home there. Both Cindy and Greg were full of laughter, jokes and stories the whole time we were there.  It didn't matter if we wanted to hang out in the fireside room or just keep them company in the kitchen over a cup of hot tea.  And Greg entertained us for hours with his guitar.  Hard to beat hospitality like that.

      Thanks also to Rebecca and Amanda in the Banff office for all their assistance with our booking.  They even offered to have a bottle of our favorite wine picked up and delivered to the lodge for us.  Now that's service!  Other ski lodges could learn a lot from Holiday on Horseback.