Utterly snowed

There's more to winter in Alberta than skiing

There are all sorts of ways to cross the Continental Divide. Although most people stick to the roadways or hiking trails, nothing quite matches the wintertime sensation of riding up and over the high peaks of the Great Divide on a chairlift while trying not to drop a snowbike.

I hopped on the Mount Standish chairlift at Sunshine Village resort in Alberta dangling high above the sweep of ski runs and, one province later, hopped off at the top of the lift in British Columbia.

I was counting on the banana yellow snowbike to get me down the mountain. “It’s just like riding a bicycle,” promised 20-something instructor Glenn Anderson. The instructions were simple: tilt your head the direction you’d like to go and the bike will adjust course, moving in a wide arc. But be careful about gaining speed — the bikes may be compact but they can move like torpedoes.

Before beginning my trip downwards, I took a moment to marvel at the panorama of snow-splashed peaks — Goats Eye Mountain and the Eagles to the southeast, and a series of long, sweeping downhill runs spilling off to the north. With my rigid boots snapped onto the mini skis, I sat down on the long, padded seat, grabbed the handlebars and pushed off, following Anderson down the slope. With such a low centre of gravity it was possible to accelerate but still keep a strong sense of control. The advertising claim is that a 30-minute run on a snowbike burns 200 calories, so this was also a bit of a workout.

Mount Standish was a good choice for beginners – wide expanses of snow, gentle drops and few stands of forest. Snowbiking is designed for benign, broad curves, and the spring-loaded bounce of the bike’s suspension makes it kind to all age groups. There’s a special mojo in winter biking this mountain – send the kids ahead and they’ll cut the corners short, whooping and hollering, while others follow, cautiously steering in wider arcs, stopping to dig the kids out of the snow banks along the way.

With 107 runs totalling 82-kilometres, you could be riding the trails all day. If it hadn’t been so much fun to hurtle down the slopes on my banana bike, I’d have kicked back at the Old Sunshine Lodge and gawked at the surrounding peaks of Spar Mountain and The Monarch. Perched up on the Continental Divide, with drops to the east and the west, I felt like I was on top of the country. And in many ways, I was.

The Rocky Mountain communities where I stayed — Banff, Canmore and Lake Louise – are all relatively young. Mere stands of trees until the late 1800s when the Canadian Pacific Railroad laid track, the towns popped up alongside. As the railway opened up the mountains, the scenery, wildlife and miles of hiking opportunities became a magnet for visitors. Over a century later, tourists like me still flock to the area, seeking the great Canadian winter wilderness experience that often includes dog sledding.

Two days earlier, near Canmore in Kananaskis Country, I zipped across the frozen surface of Spray Lake led by a team of yapping sled dogs, the inky outline of Three Sisters Mountain carved against a dark sky. Russell Donald, formerly from Manchester, England, and his four dozen-plus dogs make up Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Together, they haul smiling tourists and British Army trainees (here to learn winter survival skills) on what is one of Canada’s oldest modes of transportation.

Tucked into the sled beneath a mound of wool blankets, I listened hard as Donald steered us through the falling dusk across the circle of thick ice ringed by mountain peaks, with only the sound of panting dogs. A crescent moon hung in the sky and the speeding sled turned out to be the perfect spot to sit and watch the constellations take shape above.

It was even quieter as I snowshoed through the deep snow of a sub-alpine forest near Lake Louise with Mountain Heritage guide Bruce Bembridge. The racks in the guides’ cabin at Chateau Lake Louise are strung with wood and sinew snowshoes stretched into different shapes. “This is the snowshoe that has passed the test of time,” said Bembridge, exposing his bias for the traditional Algonquin style. There are also lightweight, aluminium shoes but for Bembridge they lack history and heritage.

Bembridge, who has worked as a guide for over a decade, says every day is a love affair with the pristine outdoors. The wooded slopes that make up his playground are filled with 500-year-old trees but to get there we first needed to cross the frozen blue-green water – sort of a trial run to learn how to place one foot in front of the other without getting hopelessly tangled.

After we’d mastered the baby steps, Bembridge led us along a trail cut through the treed hillside and up to a lookout where we could see the Aberdeen Glacier, one of six ancient sheets of ice in the Lake Louise area.

We stopped for a break, deep in the woods beside Lake Louise, in a clearing surrounded by tall spruce topped with a thick blanket of fresh snow. I gulped down the steaming mint tea, granola bars and Callebaut chocolate that Bembridge had stuffed in his pack.

Although I’d barely scratched the surface of pastimes the area has to offer, I felt I had accomplished my mission to enjoy winter without a downhill ski slope in sight.