With exactly one week till take off, I just stumbled upon New Zealand Tourism's "Top 10 Instagram spots in 2017."
Which ones are already on OUR itinerary?
Full disclosure: I'm trying to like Instagram. I have an account I use now and then, but as a travel writer I can't help but feel it undermines my chosen field. A click is a click is a click, I suppose, but when you get paid by the word the power of digital photography becomes highly disconcerting. Then again, 375 million active users can't be wrong, and many of the posts I come across are pretty damn cool. That must be why Instagram is making me feel so optimistic about my family's upcoming trip to New Zealand.
With exactly one week till take off, I just stumbled upon New Zealand Tourism's "Top 10 Instagram spots in 2017."
Which ones are already on OUR itinerary?
On the northeastern flank of British Columbia's 2,408-metre Terminator Peak, a group of 10 skiers, some with avalanche transceivers in hand, charge into a small stand of pines.
"Over here!" shouts Martha Handford of Canmore, Alta., as soon as her beeping device locates a buried target. Her Australian rescue partner, Scott Burley, immediately deploys an extendable probe and begins stabbing it into the snow in a spiral pattern. A direct hit is made in less than a minute, prompting the pair to start digging like crazy.
It's a scene that would send chills down the spine of any back-country veteran; thankfully, this isn't a real rescue. There are no physical signs of an avalanche and two ski patrollers in red jackets shout instructions from a groomed trail nearby. If any doubt remains, it evaporates when a member of the group pauses to snap a selfie.
The skiers are in the midst of a weekend-long avalanche skills training (AST) course run by Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. The six men and four women, from the ages of 23 to 63, aren't locals or staff. All of them are here on vacation.
Until quite recently, most resorts did little or nothing to educate visitors about avalanche avoidance and survival. Ski areas such as Kicking Horse spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on snow-safety measures such as forecasting, signage, fencing and ballistics, but they aren't technically responsible for the terrain outside their boundaries or for lift-ticket holders who choose to enter it. So safety training for guests was typically left to third-party outfitters and alpine organizations.
What has changed? Back-country skiing has exploded in popularity in the past decade, so now many of the resorts that tacitly enable the inherently risky activity are working harder to educate resort skiers on back-country safety. Most of British Columbia's big resorts – Kicking Horse, Revelstoke, Whitewater, Sun Peaks and Whistler Blackcomb, to name a few – have all been expanding their snow-safety education programs in recent years.
"We're at the start of a shift in resort mentality," says Sean Nyilassy, a member of Kicking Horse's mountain safety department who leads the weekend-long programs. "From our boundaries, you can instantly enter uncontrolled back-country terrain, where inexperienced or uneducated skiers can run into trouble. We still see a lot of people out of bounds without the proper equipment, and for every 10 we see there are 100 who get away with it. This puts our guests and our rescue personnel at risk. But with the proper education, the risk goes down."
Snow-safety education got a shot in the arm in 2004 when Avalanche Canada's headquarters opened in the town of Revelstoke, B.C., 150 kilometres west of Kicking Horse down the TransCanada Highway, the aptly nicknamed "Powder Highway." Among much else, the NGO issues daily avalanche forecasts for Canada's most popular back-country regions via its website and smartphone app – both of which are invaluable AST tools – and shapes AST curriculum. Revelstoke is a fitting home for the centre, given that snow safety is such an inescapable fact of life in this part of the world. A few blocks away, the Land of Thundering Snow exhibit at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives explores avalanche research and snow science, with an online component that focuses on skier safety both in and out of bounds.
Ten years after Revelstoke hosted its first course, a variety of AST programming occupies just about every weekend from December to March. A day-long companion rescue skills course, meanwhile, is designed to refresh rusty skiers and educate time-crunched visitors.
Then there's the "Avalanche Ranch," which Revelstoke unveiled in 2014. The wireless transceiver training area, the first of its kind in Canada, occupies a hockey rink-size basin at the top of the resort's busiest lift and allows skiers to hone their transceiver and probe skills. "This is as much about awareness as it is about ability," explains avalanche forecaster Chad Hemphill. "It gets the seriousness of back-country safety across more effectively than a bunch of signs."
Hidden under the snow blanketing the Ranch are eight targets. Each is toggled on or off at a junction box, and when each is struck the box emits a loud beep. Hemphill's demonstration draws the attention of several youngsters, who shout encouragement to the target-seeking travel writer struggling through waist-deep snow.
Young skiers such as these, and their worried parents, are the focus of other resort-based programs such as Whitewater's month-spanning "Avalanche Awareness Beyond the Boundaries" – a free course now in its seventh year – and Sun Peaks' All Mountain Skills weekend camp, which launched in 2014.
"What do kids want to do? They want to duck the rope and ski out of bounds. And I would say the vast majority of them are unprepared," says Bodie Shandro, who runs Sun Peaks' camp. "Kids show up and say, 'I'm here because my dad says I have to be here,' but by the end of the day, they're totally into it."
READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE GLOBE AND MAIL (AND FIND OUT WHERE YOU CAN TAKE AN AST COURSE)
Travel elicits many emotions, from awe to anger and from upgrade ecstasy to gift-shop remorse. But over the course of my Canadian wanderings there’s something more: Pride. That's what this daily series is all about: Sharing my proud perspective on the places and experiences that make my country the greatest on Earth. Some of my selections are world-famous, others are little-known, a few are acquired tastes, and this one celebrates the ski resort where I grew up — and learned to duck the rope.
“Trapper” Jerry Kernen, the 93-year-old local legend who’s been skiing Sunshine Village for the past three decades, simply tips his alligator-tooth cowboy hat and heads downhill when he’s hailed near the bottom of the Banff resort’s revamped Strawberry chairlift.
Behind him, the soaring windows of the Sunshine Mountain Lodge’s new west wing reflect the brilliant remnants of the afternoon.
This moment of contrast encapsulates the changes at Sunshine, as well as at Marmot Basin in Jasper, during the 2011 ski season. Together, the two Rocky Mountain resorts have seen more than $50 million in new development in the last decade, all while complying with strict Parks Canada regulations that favour conservation over expansion.
Indeed, Sunshine’s limited on-hill accommodations prevent what spokesman Doug Firby calls “mountain sprawl.” Most of Canada’s large ski areas — Whistler, Big White, Mont Tremblant and the like — are located outside of protected areas and have been able to grow aggressively, adding condos, hotels, shopping plazas and other amenities.
Sunshine, however, offers just one large day lodge, the aforementioned 84-room boutique hotel, and a single saloon — Mad Trapper’s, named after Kernen — once skiers step off the 4.3-kilometre-long gondola ride that connects the parking area to the resort’s nine chairlifts and 3,000-plus acres of skiable terrain. Fact is, for overnight guests seeking rows of souvenir shops and non-stop nightlife, Sunshine won’t fit the bill.
It’s the “Champagne powder” and jaw-dropping national park scenery that keeps Kernen and millions of other skiers and snowboarders coming back, Firby says. “There’s nowhere in the world that has this snow, these views, and we don’t make you wait in lift lines. It’s not a sea of condos up here, so it never gets too crowded.”
From the top of Mount Standish, the smallest of Sunshine’s three peaks, the panorama seems little touched by the hands of man. To the west, beyond a sea of alpine meadows, looms 3,620-metre Mount Assiniboine, which straddles the Great Divide separating North America’s continental watersheds. To the east, the valley cradling the resort winds toward Goat’s Eye Mountain, which nearly doubled Sunshine’s size when it opened to skiers in 1995. Lookout Mountain soars into the clear northern sky, providing access to the legendary Delirium Dive extreme-skiing area and a 15-acre terrain park.
Read the rest of the story in the Toronto Star
WHERE TO STAY
With its full-service Grotto Spa and locally-sourced Evergreen Restaurant – both of which can be enjoyed for free with enough Marriott Rewards points – the luxurious Delta Hotels Banff Royal Canadian Lodge is the ideal place to ease tired muscles and refuel after a day at Sunshine Village.
Travel elicits many emotions, from awe to anger and from upgrade ecstasy to gift-shop remorse. But over the course of my Canadian wanderings there’s something more: Pride. That's what this daily series is all about: Sharing my proud perspective on the places and experiences that make my country the greatest on Earth. Some of my selections are world-famous, others are little-known, a few are acquired tastes, and this one takes hiking, and hot-tubbing, to new heights.
“Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying…”
Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” reverberates through my headset as our soundtrack-equipped helicopter soars over the bluest lake I've ever seen. At that moment, the lips in question belong to the awestruck passenger next to me. But it’s easy to see what she’s saying: “Wow!”
Her mic isn't working, but no matter. All six passengers in the West Coast Helicopters chopper are clearly dumbfounded by the Coast Mountain scenery assaulting their senses.
An hour earlier, our mid-morning lift-off from Nimmo Bay Resort shattered the misty serenity of the luxurious eco-lodge. Here on the southwestern edge of B.C.’s remote and rugged Great Bear Rainforest, exploration is only possible by sea or air. We would soon discover why helicopters are so well-suited for the latter.
If the tiered waterfall powering the resort, the bronze grizzly bear statues in its effluence, and our towering breakfast skillets had seemed like aspects of a wonderful dream, then the next seven hours push the experience into died-and-gone-to-heaven territory. Indeed, I expect “Stairway to Heaven” to continue the classic-rock theme as our chopper veers away from Corsan Peak and its impossibly blue kettle lake, and returns to a wide river valley where larch trees mottle the banks with their autumnal yellows.
We’ve touched down just once so far: On a parking space-sized boulder near the base of a gushing waterfall, where Dave Wigard, our good-natured pilot, demonstrates the chopper’s remarkable versatility.
His point is driven home emphatically as we approach Silverthrone Glacier. As its jagged expanse unfolds below us and its namesake peak looms ahead, I half expect to see Superman emerge from what looks like his Fortress of Solitude. I also realize just how lucky we are to admire scenery that would otherwise require some serious mountaineering skills to reach.
Wigard skilfully lands the chopper on a moraine flanking the glacier, where we rendez-vous with the tour’s other two birds. Within minutes our guides cover a flat-topped boulder with a decadent lunch spread, which tastes that much better 8,000 feet up.
After cramming our memory cards with “I’m King of the World!” snapshots, we climb back into the choppers and leave the glacier in dramatic fashion. We fly low over the ice, past sinewy waterfalls and towering cliffs, then suddenly swoop upward. Within seconds, we’re looking down on Silverthrone Mountain, its snowy peak punctured by dark pillars of volcanic rock that resemble giant claws bursting from an icy lair. Forget Superman: This is more like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Read the rest of the story in the Globe and Mail
WHERE TO STAY
Most Nimmo Bay guests arrive via YVR, where the nearby Vancouver Airport Marriott Hotel provides free shuttle service, elegant accommodations, and 24-hour room service.
Travel elicits many emotions, from awe to anger and from upgrade ecstasy to gift-shop remorse. But over the course of my Canadian wanderings there’s something more: Pride. That's what this daily series is all about: Sharing my proud perspective on the dozens of places and experiences that make my country the greatest on Earth. Some of my selections are famous, others are little-known, a few are acquired tastes, and this one features 280 metres of mountain air beneath a shiny glass floor.
“Do you want to jump?”
I wouldn’t usually accept this invitation when standing on an alpine lookout high above a rushing river. But I jump anyway … and again, and again. Turns out my guide and I both have to keep hopping to achieve the desired effect: Making the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park tremble like a suspension bridge.
This isn’t the first thrill I encounter on the award-winning catwalk, a cantilevered structure that juts 30 metres out from the cliff face. It takes me a minute or two to venture out onto the glass floor, which, like the ones at the CN Tower in Toronto and Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona, delivers the disconcerting impression of stepping into thin air. It’s also one of the few lookouts in the world where visitors will immediately stare at the floor, rather than out a window or over a railing at the beauty beyond.
Here along the Icefields Parkway, the 230-kilometre ribbon of asphalt linking Banff and Jasper, that beauty is world-renowned. Each year, about a million travellers come by car, bus and bike to admire its glacier-clad peaks, turquoise lakes and rushing waterfalls. Thousands of these visitors venture deep into the surrounding wilderness, but they are the exception. According to Parks Canada, less than a third leave a paved surface.
Fostering deeper connections with the outdoors is one of the main goals of the Skywalk, explains David McKenna, president of Banff-based Brewster Travel Canada, which owns the new attraction. “We’re luring people into nature in a very controlled, safe environment that also educates and cultivates respect for the park,” he says, adding that the Skywalk allows visitors to explore independently and “take a step into the wilderness that feels a little bit daring.”
Still, the seven-year project has drawn plenty of opposition, even after Parks Canada approved Brewster’s environmental assessment in 2012. Given the project’s scale, visibility and $21-million price tag – McKenna calls it “the first significant attraction to be built in a mountain national park in 50 years” – this controversy is unlikely to disappear any time soon, what with a tiny percentage of Jasper zoned for outdoor recreation projects like the Skywalk, which opened in 2014.
Read the rest of the story in the Globe and Mail.
WHERE TO STAY
A relentlessly spectacular 2.5-hour drive south of the Skywalk, the luxurious Delta Hotels Banff Royal Canadian Lodge features a mineral pool and full-service spa.
You are known by many names: "Khione" by the ancient Greeks, "Kun Aymara" by Bolivian tribes, and "Ullr" by both Norse cultures and that Rastafarian dude on the chairlift. But you have shown me great favour when I call you "Nigel," so I’ll just stick with that, OK?
Take my ski trip to B.C. this past week: Over those seven days, oh great and powerful Nigel, you blanketed the respective slopes of Sun Peaks, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke in 26, 25 and 47 (!!!) centimetres of snow.
I may have arrived too early to partake of the recent favours you granted Sun Peaks, but with Canada’s best groomers at work it was no big deal. Besides, your powdery handiwork was still plentiful and pristine in the newly in-bounds and hike-accessible "Gil's" terrain atop Mt. Tod (pictured above).
As is my custom, I "sacrificed" a pair of frosty local microbrews in your name – Okanagan Spring 1516 Lager, to be exact – and humbly requested that you focus your benevolent, exuberantly-bearded powers on Kicking Horse, my next stop.
But in your infinite and fleecilly-vested wisdom, you held off. You waited until I had crossed 360 clicks of Trans-Canada Highway – including Roger’s Pass, home to the world's largest mobile avalanche control program – before unleashing your powers of precipitation. This not only made for a relaxing ride, oh merciful and transcendentally-trousered Nigel, but it allowed me to pause while passing the Enchanted Forest, 3 Valley Gap and the Burner Restaurant (pictured below), as well as the various other roadside attractions that make this stretch of highway the quirkiest in all the land. Also, it gave me both the time and courage to dine upon a very large cinnamon bun (pictured below) at Sprockets Cafe near Salmon Arm.
Very large cinnamon buns, it turns out, are also worthy "sacrifices" to your gloriousness, for no sooner did I partake of the outdoor hot tub at Kicking Horse’s Palliser Lodge than fat flakes started falling from the sky. You may not have unleashed your full powers, but your efforts that night, and again two days hence, were joyfully received on the north ridge of the Terminator 2 peak. (That must have been why the Rastafarian dude never stopped grinning.)
Your powers were not quite as joyfully received as I retraced my route along Highway 1 en route to Revelstoke. But at least you didn’t cause an avalanche closure. On that note, the timing of the Rogers Pass shutdowns – the day before I arrived at Kicking Horse, and again the day after I departed – did not go unnoticed.
The double-edged sword you wield also fell heavily upon Revelstoke Mountain Resort that day, turning Greely Bowl (pictured below) into a powdery paradise I'll never forget. It was so sublime, oh portly and fashionably-bespectacled Nigel, that I saw fit to "dedicate" anywhere from two to five Mt. Begbie microbrews (pictured below) to your glorious, polysyllabic and relatively common name.
Your most humble and achingly-legged servant,
PS: Do you also like nachos? Just wondering…
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