"Wood warms you three times,” goes a wise old Canadian proverb. “Once when you chop the tree down, again when you split it into firewood, and lastly, when you burn it.” To put it another way, it is foolish to run away from winter. Your challenge is to run—or skate, or ski, or toboggan—toward it. And that exertion will be what heats you up to reveal a thrilling realm that you never knew existed.
Justin Brown, from the City of Calgary Parks Department, knows all about sub-zero action. He heads the crew responsible for keeping the good times rolling all winter long at Bowness Park, an idyllic patch of nature on the city’s west side. Among other things, that means keeping the bonfires lit, all eight of them—half fuelled by natural gas and half that burn aromatic chunks of Alberta fir. “Trust me, if we don’t have them stoked up for the first wave of visitors, we hear about it,” says Brown. “People love to come, sit down at a fire, and put on their skates or wax their skis.”.
But sitting is not what Bowness is all about. Even on frosty days, notes Brown, the park is a beehive of high-energy, cheek-reddening activity. “We’re as busy in winter as we are in summer, and that’s because there are so many fun things to do. We have groomed cross-country ski trails. There’s places to snowshoe, and hike or bike along the Bow River. This year we built two kid-sized curling rinks complete with rocks and brooms. The centrepiece is our huge, perfectly smooth skating lagoon that extends down a canal into the forest.” Plus, as a guy who understands that family fun can get expensive nowadays, Brown hastens to point out, “It’s all free.”
Well, not quite. Even though you won’t be asked to chop wood, there are still energy dues to be paid. Because job No. 1 for the Alberta wintertime fun-seeker is to get out there and light the furnace within. Start your engine. Burn off that pancake breakfast.
There’s an art to it, of course, and it starts with proper clothing. Newcomers to Canadian winters mistakenly believe that heavy coats must be the way to go. They’re not. If overly swaddled, you can’t move well enough to build up that all-important internal heat. Thus, the key is wearing multiple layers of garments designed to allow maximum mobility—three, even four layers of preferably high-tech clothing. Down insulation is your best friend, along with merino wool, polyester and shells of nylon. There have been astonishing advances in warm, yet breathable, clothes in the past few decades, and luckily, no better place on Earth to shop for them than Alberta.
Even if your budget prevents you from fully stocking up on winter gear, don’t let that be an excuse. Do what smart locals do. Not far from Bowness is the University of Calgary, whose outdoor education program is one of the world’s finest. For reasonable prices, they rent all manner of gear such as skis, fat-tire mountain bikes and even clothing like state-of-the-art jackets and super-warm gloves. They also happen to run the rental shop at Bowness, where they’ll set you up with skates (hockey or figure), a helmet and even a skate trainer, a sliding support bar that lets you take your first strides with total confidence.
Once geared up, your next challenge is learning how to take a proactive approach to thermal management. When starting out on skates or skis, wear slightly less clothing than you think you need. Always remember that adding and subtracting layers, or strategically unzipping, are integral aspects of the thermostatic art. Also, keeping an extra layer or two in a bag on the side is part of the game.
Then, before you know it, all notions of being cold are banished. Your thoughts clear as you cruise across the ice or down the trail, feeling the beating of your heart and watching steam from your lungs billow past you. You’re a human locomotive train with a full head of steam. Now you’re free to notice things like the pristine winter landscape. This is a glistening world unbothered by vexations like dust or insects. Look around, look up. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of a bald eagle out hunting for one of the snow-white jackrabbits you’ll spot bounding through the park.
Eventually, and long after you’d expect, you’ll call a temporary halt to the burning of calories. That’s when those bonfires come into play. Hopefully you brought something to cook over the coals. Throw on another layer and take a seat. Like the lumberjack, you earned this fire.
Here, on a day where the temperature is so low that it would be declared a state of emergency back where you live, suddenly you’re sitting around roasting wieners and meeting new friends, feeling as warm as a cup of cocoa. Your cheeks radiate vitality. In fact, your whole body feels magnificently alive. And that is how you learn, much like the ice-wise Albertan, how to laugh in winter’s face.