Mini-Break in the Mountains: Jasper in January

With the low Canadian dollar and cheap gas prices, I imagine many families are considering staycation options this year. Moreover, although Calgarians often point out Edmonton’s comparable distance to the Rockies as one of our shortcomings, the four hour drove to Jasper really isn’t that much to overcome. It’s definitely close enough for a weekend jaunt, and personally, knowing that a vacation from work is implausible over the next few months, a short getaway is exactly what I’ll need come spring.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

My familiarity with Jasper began only a few years ago as an adult, as Banff was my family’s destination of choice growing up. A weekend at the Jasper Park Lodge’s famed Christmas in November in 2014 opened my eyes to the town as a destination in winter. I continued learning about Jasper’s possibilities a few weeks ago, along with Mack and some other media folks, including Linda, Mike, Gail, Phil and Robyn. Tourism Jasper covered our accommodation, transportation and most of the meals that we enjoyed over the weekend.

Linda

Linda takes an #elkie

Jasper in January has been taking place for twenty seven years, and what started as a celebration of skiing and snowboarding at Marmot Bason has grown into a wide-ranging festival that features other winter sports, arts and food.

Getting There

Did you know that there is a shuttle that runs daily from Edmonton to Jasper? Well, neither did we, until we booked the Sundog Transportation and Tours bus. It departs from West Edmonton Mall at 3:50pm, to arrive in Jasper by 8pm, with brief stops in Hinton and Edson along the way ($89 one-way ticket for adults). The ride was comfortable, and as Mack noted, it was nice not to have to drive, especially after dark.

That said, the only departure time from Jasper back to Edmonton was at 7am – which means it wouldn’t be possible to make the most of a two-night trip to Jasper. We ended up carpooling home with Phil and Robyn to extend our stay into the afternoon.

Also, as we were shuttled around the Jasper area as a group, had we been without a personal vehicle, it would have been difficult to make our way from one destination to another outside of anything within the town site. While taxis were a reliable source of transportation, they may not be the most economical solution for a holiday.

Scenic Pastures

The highlight of our visit was an afternoon at Marmot Meadows, a Parks Canada Winter Hub. Throughout the season, there will be opportunities to learn more about wildlife, Aboriginal culture, and winter activities at a site that encourages interaction with the outdoors. A skating rink was in the process of being formed (which, as a TV junkie, reminded me of the picturesque mountainside rink in the first season of Everwood), and a cross-country ski track was well-worn in the valley.

Untitled

Yes, I’m having Everwood flashbacks

Our group participated in a beginner snowshoe activity. Unlike the snowshoes I remembered from my youth – those wooden frames based on more traditional models – Parks Canada staff introduced us to lighter, metal frame versions that were easier to use. We padded into the woods with our guide, relishing the steps into fresh, undisturbed powder.

Mack & Sharon

Snowshoeing

Left to our own devices, Linda and I engaged in some friendly competition, racing short distances in the snowshoes. It was the most fun I had all weekend, and a winter activity I am now inspired to continue in the future.

Linda & Sharon

In it to win it

On Sunday, Phil and Robyn took us to some of their favourite natural wonders. Athabasca Falls is beautiful in the warmer months, but is perhaps even more breathtaking in the winter, with cascades of ice and snow churning below.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

With the hard packed trail, it was obvious that many have come to admire the Falls in the winter. But given the parking lot was uncleared, and the walkways were for the most part snowed over and unsanded, it doesn’t seem to be an officially sanctioned attraction in the winter.

Robyn & Phil

Our tour guides

Pyramid Lake, in the shadow of a peak that shares the same name, is set up as its own outdoor activity hub in the winter, and is only about a ten-minute drive from the town of Jasper. Mountain Park Lodges, which operates Pyramid Lake Resort adjacent to the lake, maintains several rinks and ski trails. They offer rentals for visitors without equipment, but we spotted many families who brought their own equipment for an afternoon of shinny, skating or cross-country skiing. In some ways, given the picture-perfect setting, we were surprised there wasn’t evidence of overt commercial sponsorships from national brewing or coffee brands.

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in winter

We had some fun throwing around curling logs, and warmed up in the lodge with some brunch. Afterwards, we took part in a genuine horse-drawn sleigh ride (no wheeled wagons here). At $25 per person, it could be a steep price to pay for families, but for us, it was a manageable cost that weekend. The rides are especially popular around the holidays, but continue to be offered on weekends until the end of March, conditions permitting.

Sharon

Curling logs!

With the jangle of sleigh bells and the breathtaking mountain in front of us, it felt like a postcard experience. The sleigh even had fuzzy warm blankets for the ride, appreciated on that blustery afternoon.

Jasper in January

Horse-drawn sleigh at Pyramid Lake

Good Eats

Jasper in January had three themed weekends: arts, appetites, and adventures, though some activities spnned multiple weeks. Our trip centred around appetites, and I’m happy to say, we discovered some culinary gems.

The Wicked Cup is a great place to start your day. It’s a charming establishment with a restaurant, cafe and gift shop, and based on their brunch offerings, I wouldn’t hesitate to return for other meals. The pancakes ($10.50) I ordered were not for the faint of heart, served with a wild berry compote and whipped cream. They were fluffy and delicious, and yes, felt a bit like having dessert to start off the day.

Wicked Cup

Classic pancakes from The Wicked Cup

Jasper Brewing Company is a brew pub located within the town site. They have locations in Banff, Calgary and Fort McMurray, which all have individual identities and offer different signature brews. John Palko, the brewmaster in Jasper, was noncommittal about a future location in Edmonton, but didn’t rule it out.

Jasper Brewing Co

John Palko of the Jasper Brewing Company

Their model is to sell their beer from the brew pub itself, with the exception of festivals or fundraisers they participate in. Jasper Brewing Company prides itself on serving fresh beer – from mash to pint in 10 days – and produced 115,000L in 2015. Their most popular beer is their Jasper the Bear honey ale.

Mack tried a flight of their beers, which is a great way to sample the six they had on tap. His favourite ended up being the Liftline Cream Ale.

Untitled

A flight of beers from Jasper Brewing Company

We also learned a bit about backcountry cooking at a session led by Wild Current. For winter camping excursions, because of the cold, it’s even more important that people stay hydrated and consume nutrient-rich foods. We sampled some rehydrated pastas and chilis (made by adding hot water directly to the package), as well as a stew put together by Wild Current staff.

Jasper in January

Serving up stew

It was somewhat curious that instead of assembling the stew as a demonstration, we were told it had been put together off-site and just reheated on the campfire. Hopefully Parks Canada reworks the session in the future to make it more hands-on and interactive.

For dinner, we were ushered to the majestic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. We enjoyed a three-course meal consisting of highlights from Orso Trattoria’s regular menu, and for me, dessert took the cake. The Tarte de Nero, paired with a ten year Tawny Port, was a rich and satisfying way to end a wonderful evening. As has been my experience at the JPL, the service was once again top-notch.

Jasper in January

Tarte de Nero from Jasper Park Lodge

Wines in Winter is an annual wine tasting event hosted by Mountain Park Lodges. The $30 ticket was perhaps the best value item all weekend – besides the appetizers that were included within the price, attendees were able to sample over 100 different types of wine.

I would have personally liked to have seen more Canadian wines represented, but we did find our way to the Ontario and BC labels being poured. Mack couldn’t help but be drawn to the Great One.

Wayne & Mack

Enjoying the Wayne Gretzky Series Cabernet Merlot

Our last meal before departing for the weekend was both scenic and delicious (typically, it’s only one for two). The Pines Restaurant inside the Pyramid Lake Resort has a lakefront view, and is beautifully designed to take advantage of the panoramic sights.

Pyramid Lake

The Pines Restaurant

Mack and I both couldn’t resist the decadent croissantwich ($12), layered with a fried egg, avocado, tomatoes, chorizo, and cheddar. The only downside was perhaps not having the foresight to order two sandwiches each.

Pyramid Lake

Croissantwich from The Pines

If you’re planning to attend Jasper in January next year, take a look at Jasper in January for what to expect, or more broadly, at any time of year, on Tourism Jasper for ideas – I’m already looking forward to our next mini-break in the mountains.

Thanks again to Tourism Jasper for the opportunity to further explore Jasper!

Check out Mack’s post about our weekend here.

In the Dark of Night: Luminaria

In a northern city like Edmonton, it’s somewhat surprising that we don’t celebrate the inevitable darkness of winter more. It could be as simple as highlighting Elk Island Park, a dark sky preserve perfect for star gazing, or taking advantage of the opportunity to light up the night, outside of the holiday season.

This weekend’s Flying Canoe Volant is a great example of this, lighting up the trails of the Mill Creek Ravine to encourage families to explore an area typically avoided after dark. And every December, the Devonian Botanical Garden’s Luminaria transforms the Kurimoto Japanese Garden into a beautiful canvas of lights.

Luminaria

Luminaria

Mack and I had been meaning to visit Luminaria for years, but never planned well enough in advance to do so. Tickets are sold fast and furious weeks prior to the annual festival, held the first weekend in December. In 2015, organizers added another layer to the tickets, asking patrons to choose between limited on-site parking and free shuttles from either the University of Alberta or Devon in advance. Mack and I found the shuttle option both convenient and seamless – we hopped on the LRT from home and walked over to the waiting yellow buses parked across from Health Sciences/Jubilee Station, and allowed the able drivers to take care of the rest.

Luminaria

Angels among us

It was clear that for some, Luminaria is an annual family tradition that helps mark the beginning of the holiday season. Patrons varied in age, with some groups spanning multiple generations.

Luminaria

Kurimoto Japanese Garden

The main attraction is, of course, the Kurimoto Japanese Garden, its paths lined with 2,000 candles. Each night, volunteers light the candles, all carefully placed into paper bags weighted down with sand. To recreate this magic at home, the gift shop even had ready-made kits for sale.

Luminaria

Small but mighty

Just to the right of the garden was a section called Memory Lane, meant for those wishing to light a candle in remembrance of a loved one. Volunteers reminded us to be mindful of those in mourning along the path.

Luminaria

Memory Lane

The rest of our stroll was a mix of quiet reflection and appreciation of the lights in a context of darkness, and a reminder that the festive season was around the corner. A highlight for me was enjoying the complimentary hot apple cider while listening to roving Christmas carollers.

Luminaria

Carollers under the lights

Besides the main attraction, there was a small hay bale maze for the young ones to explore, and those of all ages had the option of writing down a wish to hang on their trees (reminding me of the Nuit Blanche Wishing Tree installation in Churchill Square last fall). There was also a small indoor craft sale to peruse for those thinking ahead. Our only complaint was with the food offered on-site, as the choice was limited to beef stew. Perhaps other options could be offered in the future that would be equally easy to eat and venue-appropriate? A broader menu would at least encourage patrons to linger, as we found we were done exploring the garden and the surrounding attractions in about an hour.

Luminaria

Wishing upon a star

Our first time at Luminaria did not disappoint, and we really did appreciate how easy it was to get to and from the Devonian Botanical Garden. If you’re interested in checking it out for yourself, mark your calendars for December 2-4, 2016. Tickets go on sale September 1, 2016.

Recap: Winter Shake-Up Festival

After work on Friday, I met up with Mack and Hannah to take in the first ever Winter Shake-up Festival and Market at Churchill Square.

Winter Shake Up

A public event, it capped off a two-day conference all about winter: design, marketing, business opportunities, and of course, how to encourage more people to embrace the season. Although it ended up being unfortunate timing that the festival coincided with the coldest evening this January, it resulted in a true winter experience – one the organizers had to plan for, and attendees had to dress for.

Winter Shake Up

We loved the overall feel of the Square – they kept the layout tight, and the welcoming light installations and scissor-lifted lights added some magic.

Winter Shake Up

Given nature’s unpredictability, organizers had a number of ways for folks to warm up. Our favourite was through their selection of hot drinks, including apple cider, spiked coffee and mulled wine.

Winter Shake Up

There were also three brave food trucks on hand, and the even braver souls who ordered from them. I’m sure a topic for future conferences could be designing winter al fresco-friendly food – most people ducked into tents to consume their fare, while others huddled under heat lamps to keep their exposed fingers warm.

Winter Shake Up

Over forty market vendors participated, either in large heated tents, or in the individual huts we’d first spied at All is Bright. On this cold night, this set-up seemed to put those in the huts at a slight disadvantage, as they were on the periphery of the action, but the aesthetics of the covered stalls are closer to the European-style markets organizers wanted to emulate. It will be interesting to see how this aspect might be improved for future events.

Winter Shake Up

I really loved that several dynamic activities were also being offered on the Square. Attendees could try out segways, fat bikes, and a snow slide built on top of the steps of the amphitheater.

Winter Shake Up

Although I recognize the liability the slide presents if unattended, it was unfortunate the structure had to be demolished the day after the event. I know maintaining it would require a cost, but something as simple as a slide can bring so much joy to children and adults alike, and would provide a reason to interact with the outdoors in a space otherwise pretty barren in the winter.

Winter Shake Up

Kudos to the organizers for a great first time event – let’s hope the momentum continues!