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.

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?