Now that spring is here, I am willing to forget winter, but in March I was longing for it. This past Vineyard winter for me was neither cold nor snowy enough. So early last month, desperate for genuine winter, I packed my snow boots and ski pants and anorak and headed for northwestern Canada.
Once there, I did some of the usual touristy things, like being driven in a horse-drawn sleigh at sunset along Lake Louise in Canada’s Alberta Province. A chateau-like hotel has stood there for more than a century. But what I really wanted to do was something athletic as well as outdoorsy.
Of course that requires a certain stamina, but I felt prepared for it. After all, rain, snow or sun, I trudge each morning somewhere in West Tisbury — around the Panhandle or down Middle Road, through the woods or the cemetery — to assure I will be ready for more exotic experiences.
Jasper National Park was where I ended up on my search for winter activities. I knew resorts there offered snowshoeing and ice skating, skiing, dog-sledding and ice canyon walking. I am far too wobbly for ice skating or skiing, but balance was not likely to be a major problem, I felt, for either snowshoeing or ice canyon walking. As for any dog-sledding adventure, I assumed that would be in the paws of the dogs.
As it turned out, I might just as well not have packed my snow boots and anorak and waterproof mittens because my luggage did not arrive when I did. I had to be outfitted instead at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge where I was staying.
An outfitter proffered a wide variety of items. The boots he supplied were not so snug of foot as mine, but they would do. Cleats were attached to them to forestall slipping. The gloves weren’t waterproof and there were no charcoal finger-warmers inside. I had invested in some of those as well as in silk gloves to line my woolen ones for this chilly winter adventure. Vineyard outdoorsmen Garrett Orazem of Edgartown and Mike Flynn of Vineyard Haven had suggested both. The outfitter wasn’t offering them, but what I was given would do. (Once, in Kenya, my luggage was lost and I was forced to go out on safari in a nightshirt. This was surely better than that.)
I had been traveling from the Vineyard in a long black waterproof coat and snug woolen hat and both proved quite satisfactory in the yawning, cold canyon where I went to see a frozen waterfall. The long coat turned out to be particularly practical for cushioning falls.
When everyone had been properly outfitted, we were driven by van through the snow to a starting point above the canyon. There, a guide talked at length about Palister limestone and sedentary rock. Geology has never been a forte of mine and I was not particularly interested. Much as I had been longing for the cold all winter, I began to think I had made a mistake as I stamped my feet to keep them warm.
What was of interest, though, was the coyote that had loped across the road and a big-eared mule deer with a black-tipped white tail that we also saw. I have an occasional deer that comes in spring to munch the flowers in my Tiasquam Road garden, but a mule deer — with mule-like ears — was something I had never seen before. And I was on the lookout for elk and gray wolves and caribou — all of which inhabit the park.
When we finally set out on the canyon ice, I was a bit fearful of slipping. I broke an ankle once on ice near the old Grange Hall. If I could do it that close to home, there was no telling what I might break abroad. I did have travel insurance, but all the same . . . So forgetting all that, I looked up from my feet long enough to admire the stunning frozen waterfall, wondering how cold it had to be to freeze a drop of water as it fell.
As luck would have it, of course I fell then. The guide wanted to know if I had hit my head. I had, but not very hard, and while I clambered to my feet, he droned on about the Devonian Period 363 million years ago when the canyon had formed.
After about three hours, we were driven back to the lodge and fed enormous sandwiches of ham and cheese and turkey to give us strength for afternoon snowshoeing, the second sport I had opted to try.
Some 40 years ago, I had gone snowshoeing in Maine and found it quite delightful to shuffle quietly through deep woods on the snow and enjoy the fragrance of spruce and fir and the soughing of pines in the winter wind. I felt confident that I could snowshoe again. The snowshoes I had worn then had been hand-fashioned of white ash by a Maine wood craftsman. They were fastened at the heel with copper rivets and fitted with cowhide lacings that stretched. They had come in either Alaska or Beavertail styles — the former for fluffy snow, the latter for crusty.
Once again, the outfitter provided the gear. The snowshoes were aluminum and clearly of the one-size, one-style-fits-all-for all-types-of-snow ilk. Nonetheless I looked forward to my snowshoeing afternoon.
There were about a dozen of us in the party, including an exuberant 11-year-old boy. I hoped I would be able to keep up since clearly I was the oldest of the group.
Our route took us across a frozen lake with boulders jutting up through the ice. Since a dozen of us seemed a rather heavy load for the ice to bear, I charily asked the guide how thick the ice was. Probably three feet thick, she said, but three inches would be quite enough for all of us anyway, she continued in a sprightly fashion.
Visualizing a two-inch thick ice cube in my ice cube trays, I wasn’t quite so sure, but I said nothing. Instead I admired the Alberta scenery. The plan the tour guide outlined for us was to snowshoe about three miles across the lake and then climb up into the forest.
As we set out, a chipmunk scurried across our route — not exactly the big game I had been hoping to see. The guide stopped to tell us that there are 69 species of animals and 277 species of birds in the Canadian Rockies. The 11-year-old boy wanted to know more specifically what some of them were, so the guide illustrated by hooting like a great gray owl and hoo-hoo-hooing like a great horned owl. After that she howled like a gray wolf as she led us up toward the forest.
I was trying to keep up with the group and doing pretty well until a red squirrel startled me hurrying by. The back of one snowshoe caught in a hole and down I fell. I got up relatively easily and in the fluffy snow, bundled in my long coat, I suffered no injuries, but the snowshoe had to be reattached and that took awhile. I hoped my fellow snowshoers were not too put out by the delay and regretted that it had not really been big game that had caused my accident.
In the distance we saw a mountain range. Jasper is the site of 12,293-foot-high Columbia Mountain, the highest mountain in Alberta. Another mountain of note I had seen earlier was The Whistlers, dome-shaped and named for the hoary marmot. Although I had never heard of a hoary marmot before, it sounded impressive. Big game-hunter that I was trying to be, I asked our guide if she could find one for us. She said that was really out of the question since hoary marmots sleep from September to May. She wasn’t sure exactly where.
As for big game, she said she didn’t think they’d fill the bill. They are furry, bushy-tailed 27 to 30-inch rodents related to woodchucks, she said. Their most interesting characteristic apparently is their whistle.
When I was back on my feet, we started toward the woods of cedars and lodgepole pine, spruces and junipers. The guide did more ominous wolf-howling for the benefit of the 11-year-old. We climbed up into the woods and every now and then had to make our way over rocky terrain. One of my snowshoes got caught again, but at least I was not alone. Two of my younger, more agile companions lost their snowshoes too and had to have them reattached. By then, my companions had apparently had enough. Once down from the woods, they whisked off across the frozen lake. Meanwhile, I slowly and carefully made my way over the ice, bearing in mind that however sprightly I might be with all my Island walking, I was more brittle-boned than most of my younger companions. Happily, the 11-year-old’s mom and dad stayed behind to keep me company.
I knew I had slowed the others up a little, but not too much I hoped, and I was more than gung-ho for another snowy adventure before the day was done. That was to be the dog-sledding. I was wondering if I could qualify to be a driver, but I was quickly told the company offering the rides had its own trained drivers. Novices need not apply. So I allowed myself to be snuggly tucked beneath a blanket on the dogsled. I sat back, relaxed, and let the driver tell his team of eight shepherd-husky-pointer-mix dogs to mush through dark evergreen woods.
Altogether, I stayed five days in the Canadian snow. After my suitcase arrived, I still had three days in which I could look properly stylish lounging before a lodge fire in ski pants, boots and my West Tisbury Dumptique Ralph Lauren jacket.
By the time I got back to the Vineyard, I was ready for pussy willows and daffodils and robins. It took awhile, but at last the forsythia is in bloom and there is even a dogwood decked out in all its finery in North Tisbury. I am delighted. Spring has been so late in coming that I had been fearing I would have to go abroad again in search of a missing season.