I just don’t like to ski, but there was still plenty to do in the skiier’s haven of Banff. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
By Sherry Ott / Ott’s World
Quick – what’s the first word that pops into your head when you hear Banff Alberta? For 80 percent of you I’m sure you thought, “skiing”. With six months of winter to downhill ski, champagne powder, and three (yes three!) ski hills to choose from, skiing is really the obvious answer.
It’s too bad that I hate obvious answers.
It’s also too bad that I hate downhill skiing.
Banff Lake Louise area has no shortage of world-class ski runs. You can experience the skiing hat trick in Banff – Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise ski resorts. However, much like a gay guy on a date with Heidi Klum, these resorts went unnoticed by me during my month long stay in the Banff Canmore area.
I just don’t like to ski. Hurtling down a mountain with no control isn’t fun to me, it’s stressful. And I really don’t need to willingly take on any more stress in my life, so I decided I didn’t need to ski. And considering I love underdogs, the idea of being in the Banff area and getting to do other activities besides skiing really excited me. I wanted the underdogs in this ski town to get some love.
I didn’t have to look far to find things to do in Banff in winter that didn’t include downhill skiing – and no, I’m not talking about sitting by the fire and waiting for your friends to finish skiing. These heart-pounding adventures were things I had never done before which made them all the more exciting to me to try.
“Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.” –Dickinson
1. Cross-Country Skiing
My behind hurts. My first attempt at trying new things was a bit painful! Even though I survived my first time cross-country skiing, I was made aware of how old I feel when I try new athletic things! Why didn’t I do this stuff when I was younger? Apparently I was too busy drinking vodka and going to raves.
Peter, my instructor was from the Czech Republic, was really encouraging as I wobbled along trying to mimic the technique he taught me. I realized after I put the skis on that I had been worrying about the wrong thing leading up to this lesson. I had been worrying about my lung capacity and stamina, but I should’ve been more concerned about how much balance this was going to take. When you can hardly balance, the stamina becomes pretty secondary! With Peter’s help, I was able to stay upright and use the tracks for balance. See for yourself how I fared when he sent me off on my own!
(Video: Sherry Ott)
How To Cross Country Ski Around Banff:
2. Snow Shoeing
The choices are endless for snowshoeing around Banff and it’s an excellent way to play and get exercise in the snow, but without the speed of skiing! I was hooked after trying it for the first time stomping around the forest in freshly fallen snow. So I did it again, and again, and again. There are plenty of marked trails around the area for snowshoeing beginners and enthusiasts. And you can also go off trail via helicopter or snowshoe into the backcountry and stay in cabins. I loved it so much that I did it all!
Snowshoeing trails are marked all over Alberta. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
How to Snowshoe Around Banff:
Lake Louise: Hire a guide from Great Divide and make your snowshoe educational!
Chester Lakes Kananaskis: Rent shoes and head out on your own. You’ll run into plenty of people on the trail to Chester Lake.
Sundance Backcountry Lodge: This is for the serious snowshoe enthusiast – hike in 10 miles to stay overnight at this rustic lodge in Banff’s backcountry – it was such a rewarding feeling to see the cabin that evening!
Heli Snowshoe: Get really remote by taking a helicopter to backcountry snowshoeing!
3. Ice Fishing
These two are keepers! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Big Jim was called big for a reason – he towered over me in his camouflage gear and fishing poles. It did give me confidence that if the ice could hold him it could hold me I guess. But under the camo gear, was a really sweet guy who had passion for the outdoors and nature. This was my first time ice fishing and I was excited to finally get the question answered that had been floating through my head for years – why do people like ice fishing? Big Jim was the ambassador of ice fishing and outdoor living around Banff. On one of the most beautiful days in all of February, we trekked out on the ice of Spray Lakes to his fishing hut and spent the day running around the ice checking lines, baiting hooks, and enjoying some of the most stunning scenery around. Jim supplies everything you need, including warm shelter and lots of laughs and encouragement. I caught 8 fish that day, and let 6 go, the remaining two made it onto our plates. After a day with Big Jim, I was hooked…ice fishing was my favorite new winter adventures.
How to Do Ice Fishing Around Banff
Hire a guide: Banff Ice Fishing Guides
4. Ice Climbing
“We have more winter than summer so you might as well get out in it,” Carl, my ice-climbing instructor said with a smile. After gearing up, we traversed a fresh blanket of snow and hiked into the Junkyards at Grassi Lakes. The Junkyards is actually a large frozen waterfall, and apparently a perfect place for beginning ice-climbing.
Since ice-climbing was a first for me, I didn’t know how my fear of heights would react to this situation. It’s a strange feeling to be paralyzed not wanting to move for fear of falling. My head seems to see everything as much steeper and dangerous than it actually is. I try to tell myself that it’s an illusion, but it is a process to have to try to ‘talk myself’ out of being terrified – and literally – I mean talk to myself verbally. Luckily I got placed with a random partner, Jeff from Calgary, who was the nicest, patient, most encouraging guy I could ever ask for! He would tell me I was doing great – even though I was cemented in place afraid to move at times. He even encouraged me when I was belaying him.
While ice climbing is an excellent winter adventure option in lieu of skiing, I decided it wasn’t for me – you can’t like everything! But it may be for you!
Ice climbing at the junkyards. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Ice climbing gear. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
How To Ice Climb Around Banff:
Ice Climbing lessons: Yamnuska Climbing – I did the half day workshop which is intended to get you introduced to the sport. The true beginner course is a full weekend of instruction.
Related: Best Winter Road Trips to Plan Now
Once you are in – there’s only one way out. I may be scared of heights, but I’m not scared of small spaces! I went all ‘in’ for my first caving experience and did the 6 hour Adventure Tour where we spent 4 hours in the cave, including a 60 ft. repel in the dark and the laundry shoot where you had to slither through a long tunnel section. You can cave year around as it stays a constant temperature inside the cave.
Once we were in, our guide Diane decided to tell us about the rats. For some reason I was worrying about too many other things such as the repelling down a dark hole and had lost sight of the fact that the cave’s name was Rat’s Nest Cave. The caving experience at times felt really surreal. At times I found myself looking around for the Exit sign, as if it were a Disney ride and you could abort at any time and safely end up back in Tomorrowland. However, then you’d realize there was no other way out but the way you came. Nothing happens quick in a cave, yet the time seemed to fly by and I loved it – rats and all.
(Video: Sherry Ott)
How to go caving around Banff
Tours – Canmore Cave Tours – This is wild caving – meaning no interior lighting, no handrails, no walkways; a cave in its natural state. A wonderful adventure!
Push off the blocks , glide, and gently let go. Curling looks so fluid and easy…on TV. Then I tried it. My first attempt was pathetic – I pushed off, cracked my knee on the hard ice, wobbled for 2 feet and fell over! Thanks goodness I had Hugh, my instructor, who had the patience of a saint and confidence in me. After about 30 more minutes of doing iterations of the 5 point stance and process, I was gliding 5 to 10 feet. And it’s not just about the gliding, there’s also sweeping! We got our brooms and tried it for the first time, nearly falling as we tried to keep up with the stone that seems to sail down the ice much faster than we could run/slide down it. It didn’t help that we were doubled over in delicious laughter. That’s it – I was ready to move to Canmore and join a curling league!
(Video: Sherry Ott)
How to do Curling around Banff
Banff Curling Club: The Banff Curling Club hosts Learn-to-Curl Wednesdays at the club from 6:30PM to 8:30PM
Canmore Curling Club: At the Canmore Curling Club you can go to watch league play or try to coordinate lessons.
7. Dog Sledding
Operating my own sled! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Anyone can go for a sled dog ride while their guide drives the dog team, overshadowing the entire experience. However, with Snowy Owl everyone has the opportunity to get hands on. I found myself yelling out commands, peddling along side, and learning to never let go of the sled while dishing out a ton of doggy praise on a day tour with Snowy Owl. They are one of the few companies in Canada that provide tourists with the thrill of driving their very own dog team. I was excited and nervous to get to drive my own team for the first time, but luckily the dogs knew how to handle newbie mushers. From the moment I arrived at Spray Lakes, I could tell these dogs were different than the regular dog sledding dogs. They loved having people around them, petting them and interacting. It wasn’t just my imagination; they were bred to be dogs that interacted with tourists. Learn the commands and you’ll be off mushing in no time – just don’t let go!
How to Go Dog Sledding In Banff
Snowy Owl Dog Sledding: Check out family run Snowy Owl Dog Sled Tours>
8. Fat Biking
Fat biking in freshly fallen snow makes for soft landings! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
After getting stuck a few times in the deeper soft snow uphill and trying to get started, John says “The easiest way to do this is to just walk up the hill.” – He gets off his fat bike and pushes it.
“I like you John.” I reply.
I had ridden many bikes before, but never one of these that looked so strangely disproportionate; fat, knobby tires on a skinny frame. I hired a guide, John, to take me out on the Canmore Nordic Center trails and teach me the basics.
The low tire pressure fat tires were great for riding in the soft, deep snow – like riding in sand. It didn’t take long for me to be huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely. The bikes go slower than regular mountain bikes due to the tires and gears so I found myself wobbling as if it were the first time I had learned to ride a bike. I fell off a few times thanks to being in the wrong gear at the right time. But for some strange reason, everything seems like more fun in the snow – even falling! I survived this new activity and even liked it enough that I’d happily do it again!
How You Can Fat Bike Around Banff:
Who needs skiing?! The only good part is Apres Ski anyway! As you can see, you’ll have plenty of activities to choose from in Banff even if you don’t ski. It’s the perfect place to get out and try new winter adventure activities for the first time. I hadn’t had this much fun in winter since I was a kid back when snow was just fun falling from the sky.
And if Emily Dickinson was right, then I released a whole bunch of demons all over Alberta!