Canadian Rockies: white world of wonders

Christina Pfeiffer visits the magical Canadian Rockies.

The majesty of the Canadian Rockies is breathtaking, but it's especially magical for those of us who live in sunny places. Visiting in winter is a visual treat of snow-covered mountains, frozen lakes and rivers, dramatic gorges, and sparkling glaciers.

In winter, the Icefield Parkway, which connects Jasper and Banff national parks, is a wintry landscape straight out of a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia. The parks are spectacular UNESCO World Heritage sites and a magnet for skiers and snowboarders.

With one of the longest seasons in North America (from December to May), an average snowfall of nine metres and light, dry powder, skiing here can become addictive.

There's no doubt the ski-fields in Banff National Park are up there with the best in the world.

Alberta's main mountain resorts are Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, Norquay and Marmot Basin, but aside from skiing, the Canadian Rockies are an outdoor playground that offers loads of other open-air activities.

Here are some ways of enjoying the white wonderland landscape.

ICE WALKING

Walking in a canyon is a dreamlike experience during the day. Frozen waterfalls plunge down steep rock walls and massive ice pillars soar high overhead, but I've chosen to do the tour at night, in the middle of winter.

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It's snowing and the temperature is minus 5 degrees. I am bundled up in thermal layers, protected by a waterproof jacket and pants. The ice cleats strapped over warm winter boots make a crunching sound on the snow as we hike single file through Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park.

The tour company has provided each of us with a headlamp and there's just enough light to illuminate the path. We stop several times to listen to information the guide provides about the canyon. Maligne Canyon is the deepest in Jasper National Park and has the largest underground limestone cave system in North America.

There are plenty of interesting things to see along the way, including natural landmarks such as The Cathedral, The Mouse Hole and Angel Falls. The darkness adds to the atmosphere, but it's difficult to see a great deal. We do get close enough to shine a spotlight on fossils carved into the limestone walls, and there are opportunities to climb through crevices and caves.

The highlight of the tour is a 30-metre-high ice pillar that gleams a ghostly white and blue.

Where to go The main canyons are Johnston Canyon near Banff, Maligne Canyon near Jasper and Grotto Canyon near Canmore. SunDog Transportation and Tours' Maligne Canyon Ice Walk costs $58 (adults), $28.50 (children) and lasts for three hours. See sundogtours.com.

DOG SLEDDING

The musher shouts "Go", the sled jerks and I feel a rush of adrenalin as I'm whisked across the white wintry landscape. I'm bundled up warmly in a sled pulled by a team of Siberian huskies.

The sled is a cosy fit for two adults and you could probably fit a small child in it too. The dogs are top athletes and bred to run. They display an eagerness that leaves me with no doubt that they love the activity.

I'm on the Great Divide Tour, which is a 16-kilometre adventure from Banff National Park to Yoho National Park. It passes through the Kicking Horse Pass at the Continental Divide, which is the mountain range separating Alberta and British Columbia.

The scenery is jaw-dropping. Halfway through the tour, it's my turn to try mushing.

Standing on the back of the sled next to professional musher, Megan Routley, I learn the commands. Yelling "Hike!" in an authoritative tone gets the team running; "Gee" and "Haw" signals the dogs to turn left and right.

Routley has plenty of experience with dog-sled racing and has entered teams in serious events such as the Iditarod race in Alaska. Her next challenge this year is the Yukon Quest, a 1600-kilometre race from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Fairbanks in Alaska.

With the wind beating on our faces, we guide the dogs back to base. It's an exhilarating experience for me and an easy run, actually a walk in the park, for the dogs.

Where to go Kingmik Dogsled Tours' one-hour Winter Wonderland tour costs $146 a person. Tours run from late November to mid-April. See kingmikdogsledtours.com.

SNOWSHOEING

The spectacular high-mountain scenery and unspoilt wilderness of Lake Louise and Banff National Park are drawcards that continue to lure skiers and snowboarders back again and again.

However, fortunately, you don't need to be able to ski to soak up the scenery.

Exploring the region on snowshoes will get you to even remote parts of the mountains.

Snowshoeing has been around for thousands of years. The first snowshoers were the Inuit (Eskimos). In recent times, it has become one of the world's fastest-growing winter sports.

Anyone who can walk can snowshoe. You can hire snowshoes and walk on your own, but exploring the mountains with a guide opens up a world of hidden secrets.

The snow is marked with tracks of snowshoe hares, pine martens and lynx. Bears hibernate and, below the snow, there's a vibrant ecosystem of mice and voles.

After strapping on snowshoes at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, we take the chairlift to a viewpoint where we walk into a blanket of snow. On a clear day, the view of the Rockies is stunning, but it's snowing heavily and I feel like an adventurer snowshoeing in a blustery winter landscape.

The hike is a good workout and the fresh air makes me feel alive.

Where to go Several businesses in Banff and Lake Louise offer snowshoe rentals and guided excursions. Back-country excursions are available at most ski resorts. White Mountain Adventures offers group snowshoe tours of Sunshine Village Ski Resort for $70. See skibanff.com.

HELICOPTER ADVENTURES

The views of the Rockies from a hotel window or on the slopes are spectacular, but an even better view of the twisting mountain peaks, frozen lakes and glaciers can be had from the air. It's a spectacle that is burnt into my memory.

The bird's-eye panorama is breathtaking and exploring the region by helicopter is exhilarating.

As we soar among the summits, I'm spellbound by unfolding views of the vast mountainous landscape that stands out against a brilliant blue sky.

We fly over the peaks of the Three Sisters and Goat Range, along the Sundance Range of Banff National Park.

The helicopter rises and dips, giving us close views of snow-covered ridges, hanging glaciers and slopes tumbling down to frozen rivers of milk.

Mount Assiniboine rises majestically to 3611 metres along the Great Divide. It's called the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies as it rises above the frozen landscape of glaciers and icefalls.

You can combine a helicopter flight with snowshoeing, skiing or a special event like a marriage proposal.

On the south-west border of Banff National Park, Marvel Pass is surrounded by larch trees, small lakes and towering peaks. It's just the spot to pop the question.

Where to go Alpine Helicopter Tours, from $117 a person, see alpinehelicopter.com/tourism.

ICE FISHING

Picture huddling in a fishing hut or tent, watching the fish cruise past your hook. There's plenty of time to soak up the winter scenery and revel in the solitude.

Lake trout, bull trout, northern pike, Arctic grayling and rainbow trout are some of the fish you'll catch on an ice-fishing trip in Alberta, but there's more to ice fishing than drilling a hole in a frozen lake and pulling out fish.

A successful ice fishing trip requires more than rods and lures. Professional fishing guides constantly move and search for fish with the help of contour maps, sonar and underwater video cameras. Jigging lessons from an experienced angler and instruction on basic ice-fishing techniques, along with a tent to keep warm, make it all the more enjoyable.

Where to go Alberta's best ice-fishing spots include Calling Lake and Slave Lake, north of the Athabasca Glacier, for walleye, Sylvan Lake for pike, and Gull Lake for whitefish. Ice Fishing Alberta has a half-day ice-fishing trip for two people costing $343. See icefishingalberta.co. Fishing licences are available at albertarelm.com.

The writer was a guest of Canadian Tourism Corporation and Travel Alberta.

GETTING THERE

Qantas has flights from Sydney to Los Angeles with connections to Vancouver on Air Alaska. Phone 131313 or see qantas.com. Transfer to Jasper aboard VIA Rail, see viarail.ca. Transfer between Jasper, Banff, Lake Louise and Calgary with SunDog Transportation and Tours, see sundogtours.com. Westjet has flights from Calgary to Los Angeles, westjet.com.

STAYING THERE

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, for spectacular views of the Victoria Glacier and Lake Louise. See fairmont.com/lake-louise. Fairmont Banff Springs is known as the "Castle in the Rockies" because of its building styled after a Scottish baronial castle. The resort has restaurants, shops and a spa, see fairmont.com/banff-springs.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

travelalberta.com; canada.travel

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