When Winter Goes Missing

Castle Mountain ResortWhen I think of winter, I think of cold temps and snow, lots of it. But this year winter didn’t show up in western Canada. Castle Mountain Resort in southern Alberta closed its ski hill in mid February because the white stuff disappeared. In Banff, parka-clad tourists strolled Banff Avenue as locals scurried by in shorts, the clear sidewalks and brown hillsides more in keeping with late April than mid-winter.

I had headed to the mountains to try fat biking, a cross between mountain biking and skiing. “We are not renting out fat bikes due to the lack of snow,” chirped Jenn at Soul Ski & Bike, “but you can rent a mountain bike.” With dreams of winter adventures fading fast, White Mountain Adventures came through with a promise of snow in the midst of one of the warmest winters on record. It wasn’t fat biking, but several days each week White Mountain Adventures take snowshoers to the alpine meadows above Sunshine Village. At 2,240 meters, “there’s lots of snow up there,” guide Magda Idasz promised, when she picked me up for a half-day tour.

At the Sunshine parking lot, Idasz handed out snowshoes, the light metal, synthetic fabric, and meter-long length suitable for navigating deep powder. After assuring our group of ten that we would not be in avalanche terrain even though we were headed to the backcountry, Idasz had us carry our snowshoes onto the gondola and then Standish chairlift.

To avoid being struck in the bum, dismounting a chairlift on foot means hitting the ground running. That was my last burst of speed for three hours. If you can walk, you can snowshoe, but waddling with the wide stance needed to avoid stepping on your own platter-size feet, gave me lots of time to enjoy the scenery. It felt like we were on top of the world as we walked across the Continental Divide and into British Columbia. “All the water on this side of the mountains, flows to the Pacific,” Idasz said,” and all the water from the mountains on that side flows to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Unfortunately, there is not as much water this year to flow to either ocean. Idasz unfolded a probe and punched it through the snow at her feet. It disappeared an impressive 150 centimeters. However, Idasz said, “normally we would have another 50 to 100 centimeters at this time of year.”

As we had left Sunshine ski resort, Kim Titchener, a local bear expert, had told us to watch for bears as some were stirring with the warm weather. Now, I looked at the shallower snow pack we crossed en route to Rock Isle Lake and wondered if we might encounter a confused grizzly. I asked Idasz what signs people had seen that indicated bears were waking up, thinking perhaps of empty dens. “They are actually seeing bears,” she said, ” a black bear was spotted near Bow Pass in the park.” With our puffy winter clothing, we could have been mistaken for giant corndogs by a hungry bruin, but Idasz was carrying bear spray and the only tracks we saw belonged to snowshoe hares and pine martins.

My hopes for blue-sky photos faded as skies darkened and snowflakes began to drop from the sky however it gave me hope that winter would continue to provide snowy adventures, even if we have to travel higher to find them.

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