Snow doubt, a doggone good time
Working like a dog ... a sled ride through a snow-covered forest in Kananaskis Country. Photo: Alamy
In an oft overlooked region of the Rockies, Debbie Neilson-Hunter finds loads of winter holiday thrills.
Where I stand, there's a whole lot of huffing and puffing going on.
Eight huskies, harnessed two-by-two, are jumping with excitement, whining impatiently and straining at their tethers, eager to start their afternoon run.
Outdoor adventure ... a pony trail on Rafter Six Ranch, Kananaskis. Photo: Debbie Neilson-Hunter
Having cuddled them into a further frenzy (their thick, soft fur is impossible to resist), my daughters then snuggle under a blanket and tarp, one in front of the other, in our canoe-shaped sled. I'm hitching a ride on the back, two gloved hands wrapped tightly around a handle bar, both booted feet balanced on one of two protruding back runners.
Next to me is my guide Rikard, who warns in a thick Scandinavian accent: "Whatever happens, don't let go" just before he releases the brake. You don't have to tell these dogs to "mush" twice. We instantly jerk forward and rapidly gather speed on the frozen surface of Spray Lake. While I cling tightly, an icy wind tugs my neck warmer loose exposing my nose and already chapped cheeks, but with Rikard's words still echoing in my mind, I'm not daring enough to adjust it. Anyhow, I'm enjoying the rush too much to care.
The scenery is breathtaking. Above us, clouds float like wisps of curly wood smoke, occasionally parting to reveal patches of a blue and gold-edged sky. For over an hour we glide in the shadows of the jagged Goat mountain range.
Spray Lake flows into the dammed Spray River, which streams into the bends of the clear Bow River, passing through one of the wildest, most photogenic (the movies Inception and Superman, and the family road-trip flick RV, were filmed here) regions of Canada's Alberta province.
Situated at the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, this area, known as Kananaskis Country, is a one-hour drive from Calgary. However, most international tourists pass through it unaware, their eyes glued to Highway 1, which leads on to the better known Banff National Park, a further 50 minutes away.
A protected recreational area spanning more than 4000 square kilometres and developed in the 1960s for Albertans to use, "K Country" as it is locally referred to, offers a range of winter and summer outdoor pursuits — hiking, biking, rafting, fishing, skiing, even golf.
Rafter Six Ranch is ideal for families that want a taste of pioneer days. Dating to the 1880s, when the mounted police bred horses here, this working ranch today accommodates day visits and overnight stays.
Owned and expanded by the horse-loving Cowley family since 1976, three-star year-round accommodation options range from the cosy 18-room lodge (with an excellent in-house restaurant that serves chef-prepared cowboy cuisine), seven log cabins, four cedar chalets with kitchenettes, and a camping ground.
Activities include horse and pony trail rides, whitewater rafting, and wagon and sleigh rides.
There is also the newest winter thrill (snow dependent) - horse-drawn toboggan rides.
Based 25 minutes away in the pretty township of Canmore, dog-sled tour expeditions company Mad Dogs and Englishmen operates a 90-minute Ranchland tour, which features a hot chocolate break in a native teepee.
No visit is complete without a look inside the Passing of the Legends Museum, which houses an extraordinary collection of First Nations and western artefacts. Rafter Six's latest living treasure is Teton, a rare white buffalo.
Detour from Highway 1 onto Highway 40 and there are miles of hiking and biking trails that fan out from the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis Village. Surrounded by clear rivers, lakes, mountains and evergreen forests, the 412-room, hotel-style lodge (due for major refurbishment in 2014) is part of a one-stop multipurpose venue that was built for the Calgary Olympics in 1988.
The venue is a popular meetings and events destination. Travellers, particularly families, will find it a comfortable and convenient place. There are six on-site restaurants, including a steakhouse, sports bar and Italian eatery. Children under six can eat free and under-12s are half price, from special kids' menus. There is also a day spa, indoor salt-water heated pool and a large indoor/outdoor hot tub.
The village has additional accommodation at the Signature Club and Mount Kidd Manor (which features family suites).
At the Kananaskis Outfitters store it is possible to book tours, purchase sports apparel and rent ski gear, snowshoes and ice skates (there is a frozen pond and hockey rink to skate on in winter). There are tennis and basketball courts; a baseball diamond; a toboggan hill (in winter); and a children's playground and creative centre. There are also stylish boutiques to purchase souvenirs, clothes and accessories.
At Christmas, the lodge goes all out for its young, wide-eyed guests with festivities that include "reindeer" and "elves" to tuck them in at night.
The lodge's other big plus is that it is only a five-minute drive (or shuttle) to Nakiska Mountain, the closest natural ski field to Calgary. It hosted events including the men's and women's downhill, giant slalom and super-G at the 1988 Games.
Used as a national training centre today (which also gives an indication of the level of skiing and boarding available), day trippers can ride across 413 hectares with 71 groomed trails — the longest at 3.3 kilometres. The area includes a rail park and challenging glades.
While the upper mountain is a bit thin on long, easy, green runs, many of the wide open blue runs are traversable for confident novices.
The range of short, gentle, beginner slopes (featuring Alberta's longest magic carpet), multilevel learning options, on-site rental, retail and dining facilities, and childcare make it ideal for families who want to experience the sport for the first time.
Although abundant powder snow cannot always be guaranteed, especially in the early months of winter (the best snow storms arrive late February and March), the ski area is well equipped to make its own snow, which ensures a season stretching from early November to mid-April. I found conditions here in January (after an unseasonal mild spell) similar to those on Australian or New Zealand slopes.
The views from the top of the Gold, Silver and Olympic chairlifts make buying a lift ticket worthwhile.
The writer travelled to Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism British Columbia and Travel Alberta.
Air Canada flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver with connections to Calgary. Air New Zealand flies to Vancouver via Auckland (connections to Calgary are with Westjet). Other flight options are with Qantas to Dallas (with a connection to Calgary) or Virgin, Delta, Qantas or United to Los Angeles (connections to Calgary with Westjet, Air Canada or United).
Ski Max has a stay four, pay for three night deal at The Delta Kananaskis from $449 a person in a Delta room, and includes a three-day Nakiska Ski Resort lift pass and return airport transfers from Calgary. This price is valid for travel from March 15 to April 15. 1300 136 997.