My girlfriend lost her bet. But then, how many people would bet that a man can actually fall asleep while lying half-buried in deep powdery snow in the mountains around dreamy Lost Lake and Spruce Grove parks, just north of Whistler Village, British Columbia, Canada?
OK, I cheated, sort of. I’ve always had this ability to zone out and reach an almost meditative state in wintery settings, maybe dating from my days as a wild back-country skier in Canada’s Bugaboo and Caribou Mountains. It could also have been from a tendency back then to consistently sip wine from the leather bota bag always slung over my shoulder or in my backpack, or the effect of the wine with my usual fare – a baguette of bread, some cheese and an apple. But, here in the woods surrounding Scandinavia Spa, where some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world exists for anyone who loves snow-brushed alpine scenery at it’s loveliest, it took no wine at all to doze off.
Having said that, I lost the next bet. That I could fall sleep while jouncing about with her a few hours later in a dog sled as we careened and bounced through the same landscape. It was not quite as easy, especially since she was ensconced between my legs, ahem, and her nails could be felt digging into my flesh even through my heavy nylon snow pants and her thick winter gloves. We felt as if we were the first people ever to see the pristine scene around us. Indeed, like we were the first people ever being pulled along by a team of dogs, with our musher yipping out “Hike, hike!” as if the dogs had needed encouragement. We’d watched as they did the yipping, excited to be hooked into the gang-lines in preparation for their run through the woods, though they’d done it many times before.
These dogs’ early forbears set the pattern long before our fun dash into the frigid wilds of Canada. Historic research indicates that men used sled dogs for work purposes and transportation over 4,000 years ago. Records also suggest that human existence in Northern Canada might not have been possible without sled dogs. Arctic dogs have been bred since at least the 10th century to withstand cold temperatures (Arctic winter temperatures hit – 50 °C / – 58 °F) and to endure pulling sleds over distances of up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) a day. They can even reach speeds of up to 32 km/h (20 mph).
Anyone who has seen a movie about the Arctic or Antarctica (just as I saw “Ice Station Zebra” as a sledding boy) has shivered through a scene showing a “whiteout” – blinding snow-driven conditions that cut all visibility and can literally kill in minutes. So revered are sled dogs for their tough natures in such conditions, that a recent report of a helicopter rescue of the victims of a downed craft in Alaska included the names of the sled dogs retrieved, not just the humans.
One of the most famous sled dogs known, was Balto – lead dog on the final leg of the 1925 run to Nome, Alaska, which relayed diphtheria antitoxin by a string of organized dog sleds to combat an epidemic. Historically, Sled dogs assisted hugely in the conquest of both the North and South Poles. They are easy to feed on expeditions since they eat readily available seal meat, and since they can sleep under wind-driven snow they are super low maintenance. Of course, sled dogs have been replaced largely by snowmobiles in many places today, but the experience of being pulled along by them is one of the most exhilarating travel moments I can remember.
Later, back at Scandinave Spa’s lush mountainside location, with dogs’ barking only a faint memory, the coldness numbing our digits and other body parts was replaced by warm, soothing steam in the hotel’s Eucalyptus steam bath and Finnish sauna. While my girlfriend resisted the pore-opening (and fairly heart-stopping) Nordic waterfalls that followed these relaxing treatments, she loved the blood stimulation it obviously prompted, mixed with muscles being worked and soothed by our side-by-side Duo Swedish massage. The next day, I opted for an amazingly physical Thai massage, and she got a relaxing hot stone massage, both 90 minutes long and including access to the baths. Hydrotherapy has long been recognized as one of the healthiest benefits a body can have, keeping skin youthful, releasing tension and negative energy, and making one feel just damn great.
Of course, me being me, with fond memories of several teenage skiing trips spent in many of Canada’s wondrous mountain lodges – of course, with bota bag right at hand, shorts shucked and friends alongside that I cannot name – I had to run outside after the hot jacuzzi bath, to melt the snow. I did have on my shorts this time, and I absolutely did not fall asleep.
Travelling in Canada during the deep winter months is a fabulous experience, but mother nature also presents a significant number of challenges. Here are some safety tips to smooth a trip through the ice and snow:
- Winter whizzing through chilly Canada: While it can be refreshing, you’ll find that Canada’s winter temperatures are generally colder than those in the United States or Western Europe. Check TV and Internet weather reports a day before leaving, to be aware of any snowstorms or icy conditions between you and your destination. Pack a warm jacket, even if conditions don’t look bad – weather can change for the worse quickly, especially near mountainous areas. Alter travel plans if you need to.
- Winter driving – icy, not dicey: Always clear snow and ice from your rental vehicle before driving off, even if driving only a short distance. The extra weight makes your vehicle more unwieldy and less manoeuvrable, blocks vision if windows are obscured, and hides important lights and turn-signals. Snow and ice on top of the car (made more solid with interior heating) can dislodge and become deadly once airborne. Be aware of this when following taller vehicles like trucks, or walking near tall buildings – don’t become the victim of deadly flying ice.
- Walk the walk – slip sliding away: Bring a pair of light-weight and warm winter boots with good protective features. Make sure they are waterproof and well-insulated,have thick, non-slip soles and heels with good tread (I find rubber less likely to freeze up than plastic-type materials); wide, low heels for safety. You don’t need fashionable footwear when your bones and life are at stake. Vacation time spent by a warm fire is not as fun when your leg is in a cast.