I DON’T GET SNOWBIRDS. Why do they flee winter? Worse, however, are people who hibernate for six months, afraid of the cold, frustrated with the snow and barely subsisting on a diet of “Hockey Night in Canada” and reality television. Winter is cold-fused into my Canadian heart, and to celebrate our heritage I embrace it. Naturally, this means skiing, skating and snowshoeing, but also experimenting and playing outdoors in unconventional ways.
Winter rappelling offers the same spider-on-a-wall feeling as ice climbing, minus the technical challenges of wielding ice axes and wearing crampons. Instead, you’re free to enjoy the panoptic view, which is stunning in western Newfoundland’s Humber Valley.
Nova Scotia’s mild winters are perfect for iceboating, a sport that blends the speed, thrill and carnage potential of alpine events such as ski cross with the obsessive characters of most fringe activities. Most iceboats are homemade and about three and a half metres long, with three razor sharp runners. On the black ice that’s prevalent on the lakes around Halifax and Dartmouth, these trimarans can reach expressway speeds.
The brother and sister team of Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry have redefined polar travel with their mastery of kite skiing — harnessing the wind with parafoil kites to travel vast distances on alpine skis over snow and ice. When they’re not setting distance records on the Greenland Ice Cap (595 kilometres in 24 hours) or traversing the Northwest Passage (a 3,300- kilometre feat they accomplished last spring), the siblings teach and guide in Iqualuit.
Faced with the challenge of getting to and from island villages across the partially frozen St. Lawrence River, 17th-century habitants built stout wooden canoes and propelled them with paddles across open water and over patches of ice. In La Grande Traversée, the kick off to Quebec’s five-race ice canoeing circuit, teams of five in 8.6-metre canoes retrace the old mail route between L’Isle-aux- Coudres and Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, northeast of Québec, across a gruelling eight kilometres of saltwater slurry.
Admittedly, sports sponsored by energy drink companies aren’t for everyone. But for spectators, the roller-derbymeets- ski-cross spectacle that is Red Bull Crashed Ice can’t be beat. That’s why more than 100,000 fans descended on Québec to watch four skaters race head to head on a downhill course in the world championship finals last March. Look for the event’s return soon.
Stokely Creek Lodge’s paintball biathlon doesn’t involve weapon combat on skis — how cool would that be? — but it’s certainly a unique take on the standard Olympic sport. During the one-day event, which is scheduled for Feb. 18 at this resort north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., paintball guns replace rifles and three-skier teams compete in a relay race on a onekilometre course.
As if they didn’t have enough winter activities to keep them busy, in the 1850s the Swedes invented the kicksled, a scooter-like contraption that glides on two runners. On packed snow, kicksledding is a more stable alternative to cross-country skis and far less hassle than dogsledding (though harnessing Rover up to a kicksled is an option). With its vibrant Scandinavian community and excess of frozen lakes, Thunder Bay, Ont., is just the place to try it.
To picture a snowbike, take a mountain bike and replace the wheels with skis, then put a pair of small skis called snowblades on the rider’s feet to complete the four-point stance. Among alpine sports, snowbiking offers two rare benefits: respite for tired knees and a truncated learning curve. Snowbikes are allowed on the lifts and all terrain at Manitoba’s Asessippi Ski Area and Resort. Rentals and lessons are available.
Naturbahn, or natural luge, is to tobogganing what the Autobahn is to Canadian highways: a faster, more adrenaline- charged experience. Natural luge uses downhill ski-style courses without the intimidating, icy banked corners and half-pipe track of the Olympic discipline, and the slider uses body mechanics to control their sled. Natural Luge Alberta’s member clubs offer instructions in four locations.
Beelining across Fitzsimmons Creek between Whistler, B.C., and Blackcomb on a zipline (top) is like an open-air version of the resort’s famous Peak 2 Peak gondola — only faster. Ziptrek Ecotours offers daily winter tours ranging from family-friendly to extreme.