Alberta Adventure: Jasper in January is the perfect winter escape

By Dave S. Clark

When it comes to winter in Canada, there are two options. You can stay inside and hibernate for four to six months, only appearing to go to work or to get groceries, or you can bundle up, embrace the weather for what it is and enjoy the great opportunities the northern wintery world has to offer.

Usually, I do a little of both – hunkering down and staying indoors when the mercury drops really low, and lacing up the skates for the outdoor rink or going for the occasional snowboarding trip when the weather is bearable.

As an Edmontonian, I’m lucky to have an incredible winter escape in Jasper, which is just four hours west. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Jasper is a blessing in both the summer and winter for those with the outdoorsy or adventurous spirit.

If you plan on heading to Jasper in the winter, there probably isn’t a better time to do it than Jasper in January, an annual festival full of activities, which is celebrating its 27th year in 2016. I’ve lived in Edmonton for almost all of those 27 years, yet had never experienced the festival until this year.

Dog sledding on Pyramid Lake with Karlie.
Dog sledding on Pyramid Lake with Karlie.

Winterstruck, a celebration embracing everything frosty, kicked off the festival at Pyramid Lake, a quick drive from the Jasper town site. The festival had just about everything you’d want for a fun winter weekend. A large loop was plowed for those who wanted to skate way out into the lake, and a little rink was plowed and fitted with nets for those who wanted to play shinny hockey. Bannock was cooked over an open fire. Maple syrup was drizzled over snow, then rolled onto a stick for a sugary snack. With the snowy Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, it made for a perfect Canadian scene.

The festival gave me a chance to try two winter activities that I’d never experienced before – dog sledding and fat biking. I’m in the minority of Canadians, because I don’t live in igloo or take a dogsled to work, and I must admit it was a pretty cool experience. I assumed the dogs would all be big, hulking huskies, but they were actually much smaller and browner than I expected. I got a spot in the sleigh and, despite being mostly covered up, was in for a brisk ride My face was thoroughly frozen by the end of the 10-minute excursion. It was only -9C and I can hardly imagine how cold it would be if it was -30C with a strong Arctic wind in my face.

fat-bike-rentals-jasper

Fat biking, an activity on a bike that is specially designed to fit massively wide tires, was up next. The fat tires, which have very low air pressure, are designed for off-roading in tough conditions like snow, mud and bog. I’ve done a fair amount of mountain biking, but this was entirely new to me. To be able to sail across the snow at high speed without fear of losing traction and flying off the bike was quite a rush. I’m not in any hurry to buy a fat bike as I could buy a decent vintage car for the same price, but I appreciated the opportunity to hop on one for a test ride.

My next adventure during Jasper in January was negotiating the slopes of Marmot Basin, the mountain I learned to ski on. I still remember being barely old enough to have skis strapped to me and maneuvering my way up to the chairlift with my dad and my brother, only to fall as we were getting on the lift. I had no choice but to take the lift on my own and I was too scared to reach back and lower the safety bar. I also remember that it was a great mountain to learn on, with a few runs of gentle slopes and great snow. Marmot-basin-guide-jasperI switched to snowboarding years ago and it was the perfect spot to introduce my wife Karlie to the sport.

If I make it to a mountain once a year, I’m lucky. I usually spend the better part of a day shaking off the rust and getting the confidence to do some of the harder runs. If I hit a black diamond by early afternoon, when I’ve re-taught myself how to carve, but before I get too tired, I’ve had a good day. So one thing I appreciate about Marmot is that there is an easy run leading down from every chair lift. I’ve pushed myself too hard and ended up beyond my comfort zone at times, so it’s comforting to know I can quickly escape to a green run before I get into trouble. With their Canadian Rockies Express chair lift, which climbs nearly 2,000 feet up in eight minutes, I got a lot of time on the hill too.

After an amazing winter weekend at Jasper in January, my mind is already full of ideas for a spring visit.

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