Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Ten Adventure Highlights of 2018

I love writing this annual highlights post because it helps me plan for another adventurous year with my family. I get a chance to look back and to make notes for the upcoming year as I reflect on the kinds of trips we enjoyed the most, the activities we spent the most time pursuing, and the places we loved visiting the most.

Another year of adventure in the Canadian Rockies

Below are "some" of the highlights from this past year that I feel represent what made us truly happy in 2018 as a family. And spoiler alert: It comes down to two major activities - mountain biking and skiing.

Downhill skiing was an activity our whole family enjoyed this past year!

Top Ten Adventure Highlights of 2018 

One - Skiing "BIG" Trails as a Family 

Noah kicks my butt at downhill skiing and at mountain biking, but cross-country skiing had always been "my thing" that I enjoyed, and I had to ditch the family if I wanted to get a "good" ski day in.

Boom Lake Ski Tour, January 2018

Last winter however, things started to change, and Noah was suddenly able to ski the big trails with me! I don't know how we went from "skiing cute little family trails" together to a place where we could ski up mountains or go ski touring together, but suddenly overnight, Noah became a solid ski buddy, and we tackled some pretty amazing trails as a family.

Blueberry Hill, February 2018

Special Highlights:

  • Ski Touring to Boom Lake in Banff - My absolute favourite trail on cross-country skis and a solid test of skill as you fly down the narrow luge track on descent. This trail is not groomed or track set (most people snowshoe it) and I still find it hard to believe we can go ski touring as a family now!

  • Skiing up to the Blueberry Hill Lookout in Kananaskis - This one comes with a punch at 16 km return and 375 metres of height gain. Never in a million years did I think I'd be doing it as a family ski trip. Noah loved it though and it's one of his top goals for this coming winter to repeat the trip.

  • Skiing to Skogan Pass in Kananaskis - Blueberry Hill is a walk in the park compared to this one with a return distance of 17 km and a height gain of 600+ metres. We pretty much climbed a mountain (on skis!) and my husband never believed for a second that we'd actually make it to the pass with our son (Sorry dear, but it's true.) Again, Noah loved this one (the ski down was amazing) and it's one of this top goals for the upcoming winter.

  • Ski Touring in Paradise Valley at Lake Louise - This is one of the most beautiful ski tours in the Canadian Rockies, and as long as you don't go past the second or third bridge, there's little to no avalanche danger. My husband was a bit skeptical that doing it as a family was a good idea, but Noah did amazing (and I was thrilled that we got to do another one of my favourite backcountry ski tours all together.)

Two - Wild Mountain Skating Days

I've you've been following me on social media over the past couple of months, you'll know that skating has pretty much consumed our time in the mountains ever since Remembrance Day when we got out on Johnson Lake for the first time this season.

Johnson Lake, November 2018

Since mid-November we've had 9 "wild" skating days on mountain lakes and ponds, and I've pretty much jumped as soon as I heard about each lake coming into condition (trying to get some of the first tracks on each fresh sheet of glass.)

Two Jack Lake, November 2018 (barely frozen, hence the life jacket, but what a glorious sheet of glass!)

One of Noah's top highlights for all of 2018 was our skating day on Cougar Creek in Canmore last January. After realizing that Noah still had one more day of Christmas vacation (after walking to school to find nobody else there,) we headed out to Canmore and had the most glorious day skating down this little creek that we had all to ourselves.

Cougar Creek, January 2018

Read more about our skating adventures here:

Wild Mountain Skating Guide for Banff and Kananaskis 

The most amazing adventure skating across Barrier Lake, December 2018

Three - Glorious Downhill Ski Weekends

We did a LOT of downhill skiing last winter, but three trips really stood out for us as a family:

Panorama Mountain Resort weekend

I will never forget skiing down "Rollercoaster" first thing each morning with its perfect fresh corduroy. It was so fast I felt like I was flying. Day two also gave us first tracks down "View of 1000 Peaks," a steep black run that is amazing when it's freshly groomed. If I could ski these two runs every morning to start my day, I would be a very happy camper.

We also loved staying right on the hill in this incredible alpine village, and we enjoyed our stay so much, we're going back for another weekend this coming winter.

Read about our trip here: Family Guide to Panorama Mountain Resort

First tracks at Panorama Mountain Resort, January 2018

Fernie Alpine Resort weekend

We've skied Fernie many times, but two things really stood out this year: Perfect glorious skiing on the "North Ridge" and on "Bear Ridge," two new runs we'd never discovered before. The North Ridge was definitely the steepest run I've ever skied at Fernie, and was Noah's first "Fernie black."

When it comes down to it, I love any ski resort that has something new and awesome to show me each time I visit, whether it's my 1st visit or my 50th visit.

Glorious skiing at Fernie Alpine Resort, January 2018

Sunshine Village Ski Resort weekend 

We've skied Sunshine many times before, but this was Noah's first visit to the resort, and it was our first time staying ON the hill! Everybody wonders what it's like to actually stay at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, but we finally got to experience it. And, yes, it was glorious!

Noah also loved the terrain parks at Sunshine and begged us to go back this winter. (Which we've already done once so far over the Christmas holidays.)

Read about our trip here: Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Mountain Lodge Experience

Spring skiing at Sunshine Village was a lot of fun! April 2018

Four - The Day We Skipped School to Ski Nakiska

I pulled Noah from school one Friday last February to experience the glory of mid-week skiing without crowds at our local hill, Nakiska. We had the most magical day skiing fresh corduroy till noon on empty runs with no line ups anywhere. The day lodge was deserted and our favourite black runs had been freshly groomed that morning.

Now we've both been thoroughly spoiled and we'll have to plan a few more of these days this coming winter.

Read the story here:

The day we skipped school to experience mid-week skiing, February 2018

Five - Spring Break at Lake Louise

We spent two nights at the HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel on the Icefields Parkway in Banff over Spring Break last March. We had booked the private cabin, and shared it with two other families that we invited to come with us. Extra special was that this was a trip with two of my girlfriends, and their children, good friends of Noah's, and we left the men at home for this one.

Peyto Lake Viewpoint, March 2018

We had an amazing time skiing and hiking to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint at Bow Summit, hiking up the Mosquito Creek Canyon to see gorgeous frozen waterfalls, and visiting Lake Louise to go ice skating and to play in the giant mountains of snow.

Hiking up Mosquito Creek, March 2018

After our two nights at Mosquito Creek, my family moved into the Lake Louise Alpine Centre for a couple more nights and my husband joined us for a couple days of ski touring and nordic skiing as a family around Lake Louise.

Spring Break at Lake Louise, March 2018

Add a day skiing at the Lake Louise Ski Resort and it was a fabulous spring break!!

Read all about our spring break adventure here:

Skiing at Lake Louise, March 2018

Six - Every Single Day Spent Mountain Biking in the East Kootenay Rockies

We planned most of our summer around places we wanted to go mountain biking, and each campsite served as a base camp for trails we wanted to ride.

My boys would both say that Fernie is their favourite place to go mountain biking and Noah will tell you that the new Contra downhill flow trail is his favourite trail across the Canadian Rockies. Meanwhile, I prefer flying down Lazy Lizard and the Montane Trails, and we make Mark ride back up at the end to get the vehicle after each ride. (I pay him back with shuttles to the top of Contra.)

Noah ripping down Contra in Fernie, August 2018

Myself, my heart will forever be in the Columbia Valley, and all of my favourite mountain bike trails are in the Invermere/Fairmont area. I've become spoiled by these beautiful smooth flowy trails, and could happily start every day with a ride on Deja View or Teen Spirit.

Riding my beloved Teen Spirit Trail, October 2018

Read more about the trails we like to ride here:

The Best Family Bike Trails in Fernie, British Columbia

The Best Family Bike Trails in the Columbia Valley, BC

This was how I chose to spend Mother's Day weekend! May 2018

Seven - Our Big Summer Summits

We had two big summits we wanted to tackle as a family this summer. The first was Yamnuska, and the second was Mount Baldy (as a traverse including both the South + Main Summits.) Both are in Kananaskis and required no travel. They did require good stable weather though and we didn't check Baldy off until early September.

Fun scrambling on Mount Yamnuska, June 2018

Mount Yamnuska Summit Day

We tried to reach the summit of Mount Yamnuska when Noah was 6 (he's now 9,) but we hadn't brought enough technical climbing gear with us that time in order to keep him safe. (There's one exposed section with chains and we wanted to be able to protect Noah on this part of the scramble.) This time we went back better prepared with more equipment, a few years more experience, and friends (because everything's better with friends.)

Yamnuska Summit, June 2018

Read about our Mount Yamnuska trip here:

Mount Yamnuska Summit Day, June 2018

Mount Baldy Traverse Double Summit Day 

This was an epic family adventure, and while I hate to use the word "epic" because it's so subjective, there's no other word to describe this particular trip.

Most "sane" people climb Mount Baldy as an out and back journey, going up and down the same trail. It's a moderate scramble at most, and I've done it several times. We wanted to reach Mount Baldy via the South Summit though in a very long ridge walk from Baldy Pass.

Summit of Mount Baldy, September 2018

In doing the trip this way, we avoided the crowds on the main trail, we got to tackle two summits in one outing, and we got to enjoy an amazing ridge walk. We also got to challenge ourselves with some technical climbing below the main summit of Mount Baldy and had to bring a rope with us. Mark belayed both Noah and I on the rope for this section and protected us as we made our way up. 

Without a doubt, this is the most technical family scramble we've done so far. Noah was exhausted by the end, but was a real trooper throughout the whole 7+ hour trip.

Technical climbing below the Mount Baldy Summit, September 2018

Read about our Mount Baldy trip here:

My boys on the Mount Baldy Traverse, September 2018

Eight - Biking the High Rockies Trail

We don't generally do a lot of mountain biking in Kananaskis or Banff, preferring the smoother trails out in the Columbia Valley across the border in British Columbia. The High Rockies Trail changed everything though and I now have a favourite trail to ride close to home.

Biking the High Rockies Trail, July 2018

This brand new trail flows through the Spray Valley between Canmore and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis, and we rode two sections this summer. The first one had incredible scenery, and I felt like we were riding in the high alpine as we traversed rocky avalanche slopes looking down over Spray Lake.

Biking across avalanche slopes above Spray Lake, July 2018

The second section that we rode allowed us the opportunity to ride across a big suspension bridge and then gave us a very fun, flowy descent down to the Lower Kananaskis Lake, whooping and laughing the whole time.

We plan to ride more sections of this amazing trail in the coming summer.

Read more about our riding on the High Rockies Trail here:

Biking the High Rockies Trail in Kananaskis with Kids 

Biking across the suspension bridge on the High Rockies Trail, July 2018

Nine - Touring around Northern Idaho on our Summer Vacation

We usually take two weeks to travel across British Columbia in August, but this year decided to drop down into Idaho for a few days. The trip had two main activities as a focal point: we wanted to spend a couple days at the Silverwood Amusement Park, and we wanted to bike the Route of the Hiawatha Trail, a historic rail trail.

Silverwood Water Park, Idaho, August 2018

We had a fabulous time at the Silverwood Water Park and it was one of our favourite days out of the entire summer. The amusement park side didn't impress us as much, but we loved the water park. I wouldn't be surprised if we make it down there again this coming summer.

Trestle bridges on the Route of the Hiawatha, August 2018

The Hiawatha Rail Trail was an amazing ride, cruising downhill at a gentle rail grade with a shuttle back up to the top. We especially loved the mile long tunnel that we got to ride through on the way out, and again on the way back (my boys screaming and making zombie sounds the entire time!)

Read more about our adventures in Idaho here:

Road Trip to Bike the Route of the Hiawatha in Northern Idaho 

Tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha Trail

Ten - Columbia River Overnight Paddle Trip

I love river trips, and the Columbia River is one of the easiest rivers we've paddled. We spent two days on the river with a beautiful night camping on an island along the way. We did the trip with two other families, and the children had a blast playing in the mud and swimming in the river. We also brought fishing rods for the kids which kept them occupied (even though nobody caught anything.)

Kids kayaking down the Columbia River in BC, July 2018

And as always, I wish every backcountry trip could be done barefoot!

I haven't written about this trip yet, but you can read about a previous trip we did here: Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids 

Beach camping along the Columbia River 

Other Honorable Mentions and Highlights 

1. Discovering that my boys like fishing on a backpacking trip to Ribbon Lake, and Noah catching his first fish in Fernie!

Noah catching his first fish! August 2018

2. Exploring the bike parks and concrete pump tracks around Yellowhead County, Northern Alberta (read more here)

Concrete bike parks in Northern Alberta, July 2018

3. First time skiing in October!! I can now say I've skied as early as October. Earliest ski day ever.

How's this for October skiing?! October, 2018

I hope you enjoyed our highlights and that you'll continue to follow along in 2019.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Easiest Family Winter Backcountry Trip (Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass)

We have snowshoed or skied into the A.O. Wheeler Hut in Canada's Glacier National Park three times now, and it always amazes me how EASY it is to get kids into the backcountry for a winter trip when you stay here. With a short approach and a very large cabin, you can invite your whole gang of friends to join you for a fun group winter getaway.

November Skiing into the Wheeler Hut in Glacier National Park, British Columbia

Skiing or Hiking into the Wheeler Hut

Hiking into the Wheeler Hut - Photo: Sean Strang
The Alpine Club of Canada operates and maintains over 25 backcountry huts across the Canadian Rockies. Most are way too challenging for a family to access in winter, but a couple are doable if your kids can ski or hike at least 9-12 km. One is usually quite easy to reach (when the road is open, which this year it is not,) but fortunately there is still the easy peasy Wheeler Hut approach.

The Wheeler Hut can be reached by vehicle in summer, and by a very short 1.2 km ski or hike in winter. Most children I know can hike or ski that far. And if not, it's pretty easy to tow them in a sled for that short distance.

So that's it, 1.2 km of hiking or skiing on a flat easy path, and you've arrived at the cozy Wheeler Hut!

There is one steep hill out of the parking lot, but we just walk our stuff up this first hill (carrying our skis) and then proceed from there once the trail flattens out. And when I say flat, I mean flat! The approach would be manageable even by a child wearing toddler sized strap on x-country skis.

My boys on the Wheeler Hut approach (see how flat the trail is?!) 

Below are the most popular questions I'd expect to be asked about a ski or snowshoe trip into the Wheeler Hut:

Where is the Wheeler Hut Located?

The hut is located in Glacier National Park (the Canadian one) in British Columbia. From Calgary, it's about a 4 hour drive BUT, trust me, it's doable for a weekend.

We drive out to the mountains on a Friday morning and without stopping, it's a 3 hour drive to Golden. This year we left a bit early and stopped to skate in Banff along the way.

We have lunch in Golden and then we drive one more hour out to Rogers Pass where the hut is located. We spend Friday and Saturday night at the hut (usually arriving around mid-afternoon Friday) and then leave Sunday morning for the drive back to Calgary.

To break the drive home up a bit, we usually stop for lunch again in Golden, and then stop at Lake Louise or in Banff for a short ski or hike.

Go to the Alpine Club of Canada website for complete driving directions and instructions on reaching the trailhead and parking lot to ski/hike into the hut. You'll find a printable detailed approach description under the "Access" section at the link above.

The Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass, British Columbia in November

How do we Haul all our Stuff into the Hut? 

A friend asked me the other day: "How do you get all your wine into the hut?" And while the question made me laugh, it was still valid in that there is a LOT of stuff that you need to carry into a backcountry hut for a weekend (summer or winter.) Add a couple of kids and you're likely carrying much of their gear too.

Most families use sleds to haul gear into the hut in winter. They slide well over the snow, and are easy to tow for the short distance. We have an ice fishing sled that my husband has rigged up with poles for skiing (using PVC pipes for the poles) but most families on our previous trip just used regular sleds with ropes.

On our recent trip we used our sled and managed to fit a duffel bag with all our food, books, and games inside, our snowshoes, my son's downhill skis and boots, and winter boots (since we were skiing in.) The sled was very heavy but the approach took maybe 30-40 minutes, so it was certainly doable!

We also wore backpacks on our November trip to the hut with our sleeping bags, clothing, and other basic overnight gear. My son had his own backpack too.

Most families that came with us on our recent trip used the sled/backpack combination for hauling gear in. Most did not have the amount of "toys" we did though and kept it simpler with just skis or snowshoes (rather than both.) Most did not haul downhill skis in either for their kids since you can't really use them much from the hut unless you hike up the valley carrying them.

Sleds and backpacks make gear hauling easy into the hut

Do you have to Ski or Snowshoe into the Hut? Can you just walk? 

Yes, you can generally reach the hut in just your winter boots because the trail is usually well packed down. However, if there's been a dump of snow overnight you will definitely need snowshoes to reach the hut. Also, once you arrive at the hut there's a good chance you'll need snowshoes if you want to go exploring at all.

The terrain above the hut is best suited to snowshoes if you have children with you (rather than cross-country skis.) We like cross-country skiing into the hut so bring both, but I recommend the snowshoes if you want to choose just one gear item.

Exploring around the Wheeler Hut on snowshoes

Do you have to Reserve Spaces in the Hut (or can you just show up?)

You definitely have to reserve spaces in the hut and I recommend booking the entire thing. The hut sleeps 24 people in winter, so that breaks down to roughly 6 families (if each family has the traditional four members.) 

Reasons to book the whole hut for a family trip:

  • The hut attracts backcountry skiers in the winter and many like to keep the atmosphere rather "festive" in the evenings after skiing hard all day. It's not uncommon for people to bring large amounts of alcohol into the hut or to stay up late partying.

  • While you may be used to your toddler waking up in the middle of the night, your baby crying if he/she can't sleep, or your children running around with abundant amounts of energy (and noise,) the average adult staying at the hut will be less appreciative or understanding.

    Most adults visit this hut in winter as a way to escape for the weekend with their friends, and to have some fun with these friends (without children, that many have left at home.) They will not be thrilled to show up to a hut full of rambunctious children for their adult ski weekend. (I know I wouldn't have been back in the day.)

  • Tribe parenting makes these trips a lot more fun! We always take turns playing in the snow with the kids, going out for short hikes as a big group, and then breaking up into smaller groups of adults for short afternoon jaunts while other parents supervise the kids at the hut.

  • Kids have so much fun on these trips when they're surrounded by a bunch of other kids. Our 12 kids had a blast on our recent trip running around the hut playing games of hide and seek and flashlight tag. They created light shows with glow sticks upstairs in the sleeping area and enjoyed building a big fort together outside (for hours!!!)

  • There's less stress for you the parent if something goes wrong (example, your child has problems falling asleep.) Other parents and friends will be more supportive and helpful. At the very least they will make you a very strong cup of coffee the next morning and serve it with a hug.
Our group this past November at the Wheeler Hut (6 families and 12 children) - Photo: Leanne Nanninga

To book the hut, you'll likely need to be on the ball one year in advance. The Alpine Club takes reservations starting at 8:30 in the morning. Call them directly to make your booking. 

I also suggest planning your visit for early or late season (when the skiers won't be fighting you for the spots.) We already have the hut booked for another November stay for 2019. November and April are great times to visit the hut when it's a bit less popular.

Kids playing in the snow outside the Wheeler Hut (for hours!!)

What can you Expect from a Stay at the Wheeler Hut? (tell us about the hut!) 

The Wheeler Hut is AMAZING for families! It has two floors (the upper floor is for sleeping and the main floor is for cooking/eating/hanging out/playing in) and three big rooms on the main floor.

The main floor is divided into three rooms. First you walk into the large entry room (with drying racks for wet clothes, a wood fireplace, and a table for communal use, great for playing games or for extra space when the main room is full.) After this, there's the kitchen, in its own separate room, fully stocked with dishes and cooking supplies, and with another table for communal use. Finally, you come to the big fireside room which has a second wood fireplace, two big communal tables for eating and hanging out at, and plenty of space for a big group.

Main fireside room on one of our previous trips to the Wheeler Hut

Upstairs, there is room for 30 people to sleep comfortably on foam mattresses built into wooden platforms along the sides of the three rooms. In winter the hut only sleeps 24 people though because everybody travels with more gear.

The sleeping area upstairs is divided into three areas (just like downstairs) but there are no doors between each room. If you have children who need a quieter space to sleep in, I recommend grabbing spaces over the entry room which is always less crowded at night. There is a staircase up from the kitchen, making this room a bit noisier, and then it can get noisy over the main common room if people stay up late playing games.

Many other huts have a more open loft style sleeping arrangement (which never works for kids who go to bed early because it never gets fully dark or quiet until the last person goes to bed.) We find that the sleeping arrangement at Wheeler is one of the best in an ACC Hut.

Baking cookies in the kitchen on one of our previous trips to the Wheeler Hut

Other things to know about the Wheeler Hut:

  • Bathrooms are outside (outhouses) but are a short walk away

  • Bring your own toilet paper and a headlamp for night visits outside

  • Bring your own food, but all other supplies are provided for cooking. The hut has multiple propane stoves and even has an oven so we often bring frozen pizza for the first night

  • The hut has no electricity but once you get both fireplaces going, it warms up quickly. There are also propane lanterns for light

  • Water comes from melted snow or from the creek nearby when it's not frozen. Either way, plan to boil all water before drinking it

For more photos, visit the Alpine Club of Canada website where you'll also find a photo of the sleeping area upstairs (just scroll through the Wheeler Hut photos.)

Playing games inside the Wheeler Hut on one of our previous trips

What can you do for Fun while Staying at the Wheeler Hut? 

Building a sledding track is always fun for the kids!
We always plan a short group hike up the Asulkan or the Illecillewaet Valley in the morning while staying at the hut (see the next section below for more information on traveling above the hut.)

In the afternoon, the kids are content to play in the snow, to build forts, and to go sledding if there's enough snow. We tried to build them a luge track this past trip but the snow wasn't ideal yet for building a big sledding track. While the kids are playing in the snow, small groups of adults often take turns going out for short little jaunts.

Other than that, we play lots of games, we've baked and decorated cookies in the past, parents often bring in craft supplies, and we had a backcountry scavenger hunt on our recent trip that took up a good hour.

There is never a shortage of fun to be had and I am always left wishing that we had two full days to play at the hut rather than just the Saturday. Clearly my son has a LOT of fun though because he's always exhausted by Sunday morning and so we don't personally stick around past clean up for that reason. A couple of families did spend most of the day Sunday at the hut on our recent trip though.

Group hike up the Asulkan Valley 

Is it Safe to Travel here with Kids in the Winter? (What about avalanche danger??)

There is no avalanche danger on the ski or hike into the hut. From the hut, you can ski or hike roughly a kilometre (maybe 1.5 km) up the Asulkan Valley until you reach a beautiful bridge where we took our Christmas card photos this year.

November is a gorgeous time to explore the Asulkan Valley from the Wheeler Hut

You can also safely travel a short distance up the Illecillewaet Valley from the hut for another 1 to 1.5 km with the kids.

So that's 5-6 km of exploring you can do (round trip distances from the hut) which is plenty in winter when you're on snowshoes or cross-country skis with kids.

Snowshoeing on the Asulkan Valley Trail

The Asulkan Valley is the easier of the two for winter exploring and I love skiing to the bridge. The Illecillewaet Valley is better on snowshoes, (not cross-country skis) but can be fun with downhill skis on descent if you haul them in for the kids.

Children also love playing in the ruins of the old hotel that's a short 10 minute walk from the hut. We stop here to play before heading up either the Asulkan or Illecillewaet Valley.

Playing in the old hotel ruins near the Wheeler Hut

When it comes down to it, the only real question is: Why "not" plan a family winter trip to the Wheeler Hut? The kids have a blast, the adults enjoy their time playing in the snow as well, and everybody reconnects as families and friends.

Winter hiking is magical when you explore from the Wheeler Hut

Other Trip Highlights from our Recent November Trip (in photos) 

Making new friends and getting to know other friends better (the two boys in the photo below met in a before-school exercise program this year.)

The coolest tree we found on the Asulkan Valley Trail 

Playing around on skis on the Asulkan Valley Trail

Descending back to the hut with downhill skis

Time to get out and explore in the afternoon while the kids played at the hut

Girls afternoon ski tour

Snow and Fort Building! Seriously the kids played outside for hours!!

Building a fort outside the hut in the afternoon

Afternoon Scavenger Hunt! Tons of fun and those kids got a lot of exercise running around to find all their clues.

Kids listening to their rules for the scavenger hunt 

Skiing - in November!! (always a highlight!)

There's never a bad day when you can wear skis to play outside

So, who's joining us next year?