Skating in Banff

As much as I loved skiing in Banff National Park, I can’t deny that one of the real highlights of the trip for me was when we went skating on Lake Minnewanka. Lake skating is such an iconic Canadian activity, yet I get so few opportunities to do it living in Vancouver. I was super keen to go skating while we were in the Rockies, so I crammed my skates into my checked luggage.

While you do have a lot more freedom to set your own schedule when you bring your own skates, it’s definitely not necessary. Emily didn’t bring it any, so we still had to rent them while we were there. We assumed we’d get the opportunity to skate on Lake Louise, but I was still keen to find a less commercial skating experience. The hardest part about free skating on natural ice is timing. You want the ice to be thick enough, but if you wait to late in the season, the ice will likely be covered in snow, resulting in a lot of work to shovel the skating surface. How the ice freezes will also play a large role in how easy the skating will be.

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Since we were visiting in March, I figured our odds of getting to go lake skating were pretty slim. But it had been really cold and sunny the week before we visited, so I was hoping some lakes might be clear. It was calling for snow most of the week we visited, so the first thing we did was search for some ice before it got covered again in the following days.

There are several places to rent adventure equipment in Banff – we rented from Banff Adventures for $15. I was told Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake were good places to try, but the rental place told Emily the surface wouldn’t be good, so we decided to try the outdoor rinks first (I think the rentals are hesitant to recommend lake skating for liability reasons, so do your own research).

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If you’re nervous about lake skating, there are a few options in Banff, there’s a small natural rink by the train station and a bigger one behind the curling arena. Driving by the train station rink first (and seeing how small it was), we opted for the arena. I’m glad we went here first because it had been several years since either of us had been on skates and it was a comfortable place to get used to it again. There were a few people around with hockey sticks, but it wasn’t overly busy, so we had a good time doing laps.

But I was still really keen to at least check out the lakes while we had the rentals, so we decided to go to Minnewanka anyways, figuring if we couldn’t skate we could at least go for a little hike. You have to drive by Two Jack Lake on the way to Minnewanka, so we scoped it out, but it was a mix of very bumpy ice and snow, so we kept going to Minnewanka. Likewise, Minnewanka was a bit of a mix of ice and snow, but there were much larger ice patches and lots of people out exploring around on the ice, so we figured it was worth a try.

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Minnewanka is a huge lake, extending 28km up through the mountains. It’s absolutely wild to me that such a large lake is able to completely freeze in the winter. The shallow part of the lake was completely covered in snow, so you have to walk about 500-1000m to get to the parts where you can skate. Always be cautious if you are going out of the ice. It had been -20 degrees the entire week before we got there and we’d read up that people had been out skating all the previous week before visiting. It is somewhat risky going out on the snow to get to the ice because it provides a relative feeling of safety, but you can’t see the ice quality until you’re further out.

It was jarring when we did finally reach the ice. The ice in Newfoundland generally doesn’t freeze very evenly and is usually completely opaque, but the ice in Minnewanka is clear and we could quickly see that we weren’t going to have any concerns about ice depth. From the ridges in the ice, you can easily see that it’s at least 1.5-2 feet thick. 6 inches is the safe depth for skating, so we weren’t worried about ice depth at all, just freaked out by how scary it is to be able to see right down through the ice!

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It was very cool though. When we got to the edge of the snow we laced up our skates and put our boots in our backpack to go for a skate. The ice was bumpy in places, but it was a much smoother surface than I was expecting and there was tons of room to skate all over the lake. You can see all the air bubbles frozen in the ice as they tried to rise to the surface and we kept skating around looking for interesting features. It was pretty windy skating on the lake, but I think that’s why more of the snow was gone. Pretty much every other lake we saw was snow covered, but I think the wind blows it off Minnewanka since it’s so large. It’s such a fun experience and frankly, I’ve never felt more Canadian then when ice skating on a frozen lake.

Fortunately, if you’re still a bit nervous about the idea of finding your own ice, you can skate on Lake Louise. It’s still not a totally risk free activity as the ice isn’t managed by anyone, but so many people skate there and it’s very close to shore, so I think it’s more manageable risk. Lake Louise does get covered in snow though, so you can’t skate on the entire lake, just the section at the end near the chateau where people keep in shoveled.

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Later in the week we wanted to make a go for Lake Louise as well. It’s such an iconic place, so we figured it was worth skating there too. Unfortunately the day we visited was the worst weather we had on the trip. It was overcast most days, but on the day we went to Lake Louise it snowed pretty heavily and the clouds and visibility were really low. The rink wasn’t shoveled when we got there, so we decided to snowshoe across the lake instead. Cross country skiers traverse across the lake and walkers go up and down the edge to the back of the lake where there are some ice climbing opportunities.

Unfortunately we didn’t catch much of the views with the poor visibility, but we have been there in the summer, so we just tried to enjoy the snow on the trees instead. There were some people starting to clear the ice when we got back, but it was a relatively small surface and a lot of people, so we decided to skip it since we’d had so much success at Minnewanka already.

So that’s my advice on skating in Banff National Park. Definitely go for it because it is a super fun activity, but stick to your comfort level and always make sure the ice is safe before going out onto it!

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Ski Resort Series: Apex

I’m finally up to date on my ski series and I can write about my latest trip, which I went on in late February, to Apex Mountain resort. I’m super excited to write about this one because it ended up being one of my favourite ski trips! Originally we had planned to visit Revelstoke this year, but there are limited group reservations available on the mountain and we couldn’t find anything big enough for our growing group, so we ended up renting a chalet at Apex instead.

I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Apex and I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but we ended up getting some fantastic conditions along with an amazing condo, making for one of the best trips. I’ve heard Apex called one of BC’s hidden gems of a ski resort because it is one of the lesser known resorts and therefore sees fewer visitors than some of the other resorts. We got really lucky this year though because it snowed all over the province for pretty much 2 weeks before our trip, including the day we drove out there, so we had unbelievable conditions on the mountain! Our first runs on Saturday were some of the best skiing I’ve had in a long time because there was about a foot of undisturbed powder on every run.

For those unfamiliar with the resort, Apex is located about 4.5 hours out of Vancouver in the southern part of BC. We drove through Manning Park and Princeton to get to the mountain and it’s about 30 minutes south of Penticton. Last year we visited Silver Star on the Family Day weekend, and while it was great to make use of the holiday, it was really crowded! So this year we went the weekend after Family Day, so there were barely any crowds on the mountain. I don’t think I ever waited longer than 5-10 minutes to get on a lift and most times there was no wait at all.

Apex is definitely smaller than some of the other mountains we’ve visited, but it had a really nice variety of runs. It only has 2 lifts, but like I said, it never felt crowded. We started our day on the far side of the mountain on Stocks Chair, which is a 3-person lift. It’s not a very fast lift, but we spent most of our first morning there because it has a lot of really nice blue runs, great for getting warmed up. Then in the afternoon we switched over to the main chair, which is a high speed quad chair. Many of the runs on the main lift are blacks, so we mostly stuck to the blue runs on the first day.

On the second day I got a little more adventurous and spent the whole day with my sister, Emily, who just recently moved to BC. We slowly worked our way through a good portion of the blacks. I find the black diamond runs at Whistler to be pretty intimidating, but I like trying out the black runs at smaller mountains and working on improving my skills. We started with some of the shorter black runs and slowly worked our way up. Plus, it was a great time to try some tougher runs since the snow conditions were so good! Some of the runs got a bit chewed up over two days, but it was surprising how many still had some really nice powder on them! My only complaint about the mountain would be that they need to update their map because there are a lot of runs on the mountain that aren’t actually showing on the map right now and it made it a bit confusing trying to figure out where you are.

As usual, we ate all our meals in our condo. This was our 4th trip and 3 out of 4 of the trips we’ve had ski-out access. We had ski-out access at this place too, which makes for a really nice experience when you can come back to the warm condo at lunch to eat and have a beer. As usual, I cooked traditional Newfoundland Jiggs Dinner on the first evening and Brandon cooked hotpot on our second evening. Carolyn and Seth made some lasagnas and chili for lunches, which we paired with leftover turkey sandwiches. Finally, Karen cooked us the most wonderful hot breakfast every morning!

We found our condo on Airbnb and we definitely paid a pretty penny for it, but it was one of my favourite places we’ve stayed. There were 15 of us staying there in total and we had a great view of the hill and a nice balcony with a hot tub.

While we didn’t spend much time in Apex Village, we did discover the most precious gem hidden in the trees! Apex has an adventure skating loop that runs through the woods for ~1km. I’m so pleased that we actually did it – I saw it on a facebook post a few months ago and tagged everyone in it because it looked so quaint. You always see those kinds of cool things on social media, but you almost never go, so I was thrilled that we actually got the chance to go to this one. A few of us brought skates with us and everyone else was able to rent them in the village. The loop is really nicely done and only costs $4, although it happened to be free on the day we visited! Speaking of costs, the lift pass at Apex is also incredibly reasonably priced. I believe it’s about $85 a day, but you can buy passes in advance at Costco for just $65!

The amazing ski conditions, small crowds, and awesome accommodations all combined to make this one of my favourite ski trips.

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