From tracking polar bears to snowmobiling under the stars, reward yourself this winter with an adrenalin rush and memories to last a lifetime. Whether you like high-octane thrills or something a bit tamer, consider these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
If you feel like you’ve done your share of travelling in other parts of Canada, look to the untamed north for something new. Churchill Wild features packages that bring visitors to northern Manitoba, the polar bear capital of Canada, to study, observe and photograph these massive carnivores that can weigh up to 600 kilograms.
The 13-night Den Emergence Quest is focused on finding mother bears and their cubs as they leave their earthen dens some time in February and March. They’ll begin their trek from forest to sea ice where they’ll wait for the thaw to hunt and feed. The company’s most remote property, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, is in the perfect spot to see them.
“The lodge is located right on the bears’ migration path,” explains Jad Davenport, director of wolf programs with Churchill Wild and a National Geographic photographer, who hosts workshops to help guests with storytelling through images. “We scout out potential den sites, then travel by sled to set up snow blinds and wait for them to come by. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had a guest, a police officer from the U.K., who was able to watch a mother nursing her cubs for over an hour. She was so moved by the encounter that she was in tears.”
We’re completely off the grid here. The sky comes alive in a way that you can really experience it.— Katherine Johnson Ingebrigtson, director of sales and marketing at Blachford Lake Lodge
Sightings of mothers and their babies are not guaranteed, but as Davenport points out, it’s all about the quest, not the end result. Under bright, clear skies, visitors may also see packs of wolves, wolverines, foxes, moose and snowy owls in the Arctic wilderness. Well within the safety of the lodge (which is completely fenced in), guests can watch for wildlife from the warmth of the great room before enjoying five-star cuisine and bedding down for the night in their rooms under warm duvets.
Winter in the north is also a perfect time to see the Northern Lights, thanks to the longer, dark days. At Blachford Lake Lodge, 100 kilometres east of Yellowknife, NWT, you can watch nature’s most spectacular light show while sipping a steaming maple toddy in the outdoor hot tub. “The Northern Lights are one of the main reasons guests come here,” says Katherine Johnson Ingebrigtson, the lodge’s director of sales and marketing. “We’re completely off the grid here. The sky comes alive in a way that you can really experience it.”
In winter, guests arrive by bush plane, landing on a frozen lake, to experience the serenity of the north. “One of the things they’re often struck by is just the pure silence,” says Ingebrigtson. “When you’re on a hiking trail, you can stop, pause and take in the peacefulness. It is so recharging for people and can really change your view of the world.”
While at the lodge, you can do as little or as much as you wish. Go ice-fishing, learn how to build an igloo, chill indoors with a book, or try maple syrup served on fresh snow. It also has fat bikes, snowshoes, skates, skis and boots available to use to explore the marked nature trails, glide over the ice or even play a game of pond hockey. At the end of the day, guests sit down to gourmet meals showcasing local, seasonal ingredients and homemade fare, like bread, stews and soups.
In British Columbia, adventure reaches new heights. Skiers looking for fresh peaks to conquer around Whistler and Pemberton can get to untouched powder through a provider like Blackcomb Helicopters. After a scenic flight, you’ll be dropped off at the top of the mountain, ready to make your first descent of the day; then, it’s a gourmet lunch from the Fairmont Whistler. At the end of the day, your chopper will bring you back to Whistler in time to enjoy its lively après-ski scene.
On the East Coast, at Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn, it’s sometimes the simple pleasures visitors seek from the award-winning property. Though spring, summer and fall might be the most popular times to visit, many locals will say winter is their favourite season, according to Sandra Cull, the inn’s community hosting co-ordinator. “This is the season when we can enjoy a greater variety of outdoor activities, such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking frozen landscapes, playing ice hockey or ice fishing on frozen ponds, snowmobiling and sledding,” she explains. “While inside during winter, locals continue the traditional crafts of knitting, quilting and rug hooking, as well as cozying up to the fire while reminiscing of days gone by with plenty of good conversation and hearty laughter.”
The inn makes stays meaningful by connecting guests with locals who can offer insights on the island’s natural, history and cultural heritage. “They have fished the Island’s shores, climbed its rocks, driven its roads, and walked its trails hundreds of times over,” said Cull. She recommends the Winter Cabin experience where guests can visit Fogo Islanders in their cabins nearby to hear stories by a roaring wood stove, and perhaps enjoy some singing and dancing. Once back at the inn, they can retreat to rooftop saunas and hot tubs to relax after a day of adventuring.
Visitors may also sign up for a snowmobiling-under-the-stars excursion. Accompanied by a guide or community host, guests can experience the magic of the starry skies. It’s well worth the journey. “Our winter season is a mesmerizing time when caribou roam our landscapes, which are almost always glittering with snow,” says Cull.
In Ontario’s Oxford County, near Tillsonburg, connecting to nature is at the core of the From Tree to Table experience offered by Ottercreek Woodworks. It starts with a guided forest walk with David Schonberger, an artisanal woodworker and carpenter, who shares his deep knowledge of what makes this part of the Carolinian forest special, from its unique fungal (mycelium) network and wildlife to the unique trees found there.
Over tea – made with foraged ingredients – next to a bonfire, participants learn more about his passion for conservation and environmental issues, then learn to identify patterns in the snow, like the imprint of a hawk’s wing that landed in the snow in pursuit of prey or the tracks of a lone rabbit. “It’s an incredible sensory experience,” he says. “As you stand there, you can hear the creak and moan of the trees as they sway in the wind.”
It deepens the appreciation of what comes next – picking a piece of locally sourced wood that you’ll turn into a one-of-a-kind charcuterie board. Guests will be taught by Schonberger how to shape their boards to bring out the natural beauty of the grain, using a mix of new and antique tools (once owned by his grandfather).
It’s a daylong experience, which includes a gourmet lunch with products from the area and individual instruction to help create bespoke works of art with a story to tell.
This is the first time From Tree to Table is being offered in the winter, says Schonberger.
“I think people will discover what I love about the season,” he says. “The forest has a beautiful desolation when the trees are bare. There’s a tranquillity and calmness that is good for your soul.”