Bored with the usual skiing, snowboarding, skating and snowmobiling?
One of Mother Nature's most impressive winter playgrounds -- and home to a new lineup of winter extreme sports -- is hitting peak season.
The best time to explore the snowy, ice-cube cold Canadian Rockies is between March and May, when the weather's not so brutal.
As ski season wraps up farther south, Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, rev up for some challenging offbeat winter adventures: snow biking, dog sledding and ice hiking.
Snow Biking: Tour de Snow
For those who have already mastered skiing and snowboarding and are searching for the next adrenalin rush, this is it. It's daring but the beauty is, even if you're not the most coordinated person in the world, no problem; you can easily scoot down the hill at your own pace. Once you figure out the balance issue, snow biking can be exhilarating. On the flip side (no pun intended), daredevils and BMX masters will be satisfied with snow biking's endless possibilities.
It's basically a combination of skiing and riding a bike. But instead of tires, your bike has skis, and you also wear special ski boots and snow blades (short skis). The bike is very light, so there's no problem getting on and off ski lifts. Snow biking downhill is similar to skiing; you make S turns and turn sharply to stop. The trickiest part is figuring out how far forward to lean. Go too far, and you'll fly over the handle bars into a classic "face plant."
Snow biking is allowed at all three ski resorts in Banff National Park, but the only place you can rent the equipment is at Sunshine Village. It's about $60 a day, which also includes a half-hour lesson -- a great way to go if this is your first time snow biking. Learn more at www.skibanff.com
Dog Sledding: 'Ruff' Riders
If your legs and ego are worn out from snow biking, try getting some love and respect from man's best friend and sign up for a dog-sledding adventure. The tradition has been around for thousands of years, and, while there are several great sledding operations in the Banff, Lake Louise area, the only group allowed to operate inside the protected Banff National Park is Kingmik Dog Sled Tours.
On the two-hour trip you'll travel through the park's amazing landscape and get a chance to drive the sled yourself.
One of the first things you'll notice is how skinny the dogs are -- some just 30 pounds. But as guides like Geoff Kooy explain, these are Alaskan huskies, not the Siberian huskies you usually see in the movies. Alaskan huskies are bred to be fast, agile, smart and lean. They're called the "marathon runners" of sled dogs, which is why they're the breed used in the Iditarod.
Each sled holds two people, both bundled up in a cocoon of blankets to keep dry and warm. If the trail has bumps, you're going to feel them because there's only a thin piece of wood between you and the snow.
Once you're down at the dogs' level, you can feel their excitement. Before you take off, the dogs bark like crazy but as soon as they're given the command to go -- "hike up!" (not "mush!") -- they're off like a shot. After that, the only sound you hear is the sled swooshing across the snow and the dogs' feet flying across the trail. Make sure you have easy access to your camera because with the dogs traveling at about 15 mph it's tough to unearth it from the layers of blankets.
The turn-around point is the Alberta, British Columbia border, at which point it's your turn to drive the team. You have to balance on one thin runner while you hold onto the back of the sled, but the musher stays on the back to make sure things don't get out of control. It sounds precarious, but the view from this vantage point is completely different, so it's worth every wobbly moment you might have.
Ice Hiking: Slippery Slope
Recipe for spicing up a hiking trip: add some slippery ice, a steep canyon and freezing temperatures. It's a challenge just to stay on your feet. The trick? Attaching special ice cleats to your boots and stomping your feet into the ice for balance.
One of the most popular ice-hiking choices is Johnston Canyon, outside of Banff, where you'll spend about an hour and a half making your way up to the canyon's famed upper falls.
While this trek is free to the public, it's a smart choice to sign up with a tour operator like Discover Banff Tours. The guides pick you up at your hotel, drive you to the canyon and provide ice cleats and much-needed tips for navigating the steel catwalk suspended from the canyon walls.
Guides like Pam Manning also share tidbits of canyon history, pointing out where you can see fossilized coral along the walls and explaining how it developed 250 million years ago. Stay camera-ready: Your journey to the top takes you past several dozen frozen waterfalls with cascading curtains of ice.
Dress in ski gear because it gets chilly in the canyon, and part of your trip will take you through a thick forest of Lodge Pole pines before you reach your goal of the upper falls. Also note that the best time to hike the canyon is on a Monday or Tuesday. Avoid Saturdays; that's when tour buses come. If you want to try this trek on your own, you can buy some good ice cleats at several sporting good stores in Banff for about $30.
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