Crashing waves and wildlife wonders. Cool exploration and small town festivals. It’s winter season in British Columbia.
Break the Waves (and Brace for Storms)
While skis and snowboards are primed for the winter season, boards of a different sort make an appearance on Vancouver Island’s west coast, namely November through March when waves are at their peak. Indeed, cooler temperatures mark the province’s annual surf season, a time when swells climb as high as six metres (20 feet) before crashing against the coastline. To best maneuver the boundless blue, adventurers can suit up with local pros, including Tofino’s female-focused Surf Sister and Long Beach Lodge Resort’s skilled crew, the latter boasting a Surf Club complete with a hot pool, sauna, showers, change rooms and cappuccinos by the fire. For a full coastal experience, Wya Point, further south in Ucluelet, promises First Nations-led surf lessons that offer historical insight into the traditional landscape. surfsister.com; longbeachlodgeresort.com; tourismtofino.com
Tip: Winter storms are a welcome sight on the Island and enthusiasts can make a night of it at either surf-side town, thanks to a variety of opportunities that embrace the elements — from Wya Point’s eco-yurt Winter Glamping Package to The Wickaninnish Inn's rain gear-clad Storm Watcher’s exploration in the wild. wyapoint.com; wickinn.com
Watch for Whales
While stormy surf draws adventurers to the west coast, cool-weather months also prove the perfect time for another, rather massive, migration. Come March, the coastal communities of Tofino and Ucluelet celebrate majestic grey whales during the aptly named Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a 16-day showcase of insightful events and cultural delights. On the roster: inspirational talks and interpretive walks, children's activities, First Nations workshops and more. As a bonus, the event, which runs March 12 - 27, 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of the larger-than-life fest. pacificrimwhalefestival.com
Birds of a feather flock to BC when the temperature plunges, a time when locals and visitors alike take in the province’s bald eagle migration. Here, select rivers and shorelines that snake through the landscape provide a temporary home for these mighty creatures, where they roost and feed on salmon that are reaching their journey’s end. Hot spots to break out the binoculars include Harrison Mills, north of Chilliwack, where the Chehalis Flats Bald Eagle and Salmon Preserve provides prime observation opportunities; for unfettered views tucked within heated boats, adventurers can climb aboard with Fraser River Safaris. fraserriversafari.com
Further west near Whistler, Brackendale’s Squamish and Cheakamus rivers provide respite for thousands of feathered creatures, showcasing stellar glimpses December through mid-January when eagle viewing is best. Here, the Sunwolf rafting crew also takes to the water, this time outfitting keeners in full rain gear for gentle floats down the Cheakamus River. These excursions prove a highlight during the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival & Count at the Brackendale Art Gallery (the annual count takes place Sunday, January 3), and this season marks its 30th year of the month-long January fest with cultural events, musical performances, art shows and a compelling lecture series — not to mention an ideal vantage spot for birders to revel in the winged masses perched high in the trees, coolly surveying the landscape below. sunwolf.net; brackendaleartgallery.com
Explore an Ice Cave, Sleep in a Snow Hotel
On Whistler’s doorstep to the north, Head-Line Mountain Holidays sets a dramatic scene in the province’s serene icefields. Following a short helicopter ride from the mountain town to the local ice cap, enthusiasts suit up for guided exploration through a natural ice cave, bedazzled with ice flows in stunning shades of aqua blue; a tasty mountain-style lunch tops the experience. For those who wish to linger, Head-Line’s own Snow Hotel, also set on the ice cap, promises cool comfort far from the madding crowd. Ice cave explorations, glacier walks, stargazing, a wilderness spa and even yoga sessions are all added perks to Head-Line’s snowy stays. headlinemountainholidays.com
Hit the Snowshoe Trail
While casual crunches through BC’s snow-packed landscape are commonplace in the winter months, the more adventurous can opt for multi-day excursions, many through thick forests of fir. In the province’s Thompson Okanagan, snowshoers will relish light-footed exploration through Wells Gray Provincial Park, particularly when they team up with the outdoor adventure crew at Wells Gray Adventure Tours. Their destination: Fight Meadow, in the province’s Bull Valley, where backcountry skiers and snowshoers seek solace amid a snowy sub-alpine meadow landscape. It’s here, too, that explorers will find respite at Fight Meadow Chalet, a backcountry lodge revered for its welcoming, rustic charm. skihike.com
One dogsled team, one trail and one white-knuckle thrill ride through British Columbia’s backcountry bear the markings of a memorable winter adventure. Indeed, dogsledding has come a long way from its roots as a traditional mode of transport; today, this tour of the terrain is a high-adrenalin, low impact (and shriek-worthy) way to make tracks. A few local events attest to that fact.
Take, for example, the annual Northern BC Caledonia Classic Dogsled Races in Fort St. James, an exciting mid- and long-distance sprinting event that attracts racers from across North America each February. In addition, the annual Gold Rush Trail Dog Mail Run, January 21 - 24, 2016, draws the faithful to the province’s Cariboo region for three days of official service. During the high-octane event, dog sled teams, skijorers and snowshoers journey over three separate looped trails between Quesnel and Barkerville, all to deliver official Canada Post mail. It’s not all business, though: additional activities include a banquet and an auction alongside backcountry games and skills-testing sessions. fsjcaledoniaclassic.com; dogsledmailrun.ca
Rev the Engines
With its snow-blanketed swaths of white, British Columbia’s winter canvas proves the ultimate destination for avid snowmobilers, a.k.a. sledders. Couple this with easy access into the province’s backcountry and adventurers have more than enough incentive to rev their engines.
Options? The Kamloops area in the Thompson Okanagan showcases a range of trail options, with everything from lake and meadow vistas to abundant powder and picturesque mountain terrain often tackled when cruising with Sun Peaks Adventure Tours, situated at Sun Peaks Resort. Further east, the Rocky, Purcell, Selkirk and Monashee mountains in the Kootenay Rockies beckon with vast backcountry and panoramic views. Here, adventurers can hop in the saddle with Rocky Mountain Riders — just one outdoor crew that can guide snowmobilers into the alpine near Golden. sunpeaksresort.com/winter/activities/snowmobile-tours; rockymountainriders.com
The Bridge River Valley, located in the south Chilcotin Mountains, is something of a sledder’s paradise, too, with a vast network of trails and local outfitters in the neighboring communities of Gold Bridge and Bralorne; Chilcotin Holidays and the folks from Bralorne Adventure Lodge are stoked to lead the charge through this wintry landscape. Also in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park’s Rainbow Range, accessible from Highway 20 near Heckman Pass, is a prime snowmobiling destination, with a cabin that can be reserved through Tweedsmuir Ski Club. chilcotinholidays.com; bralorneadventurelodge.com; tweedsmuirskiclub.com/overnight-cabin-reconstruction-1
In Northern BC, the snowmobiling options are limitless, but two popular trail networks are at Tumbler Ridge, with its offering of designated snowmobile trails, and Terrace, with its groomed routes in the surrounding mountains. Here, sledders can find their way with Wild River Adventure Tours (near Tumbler Ridge) and Harvey Mountain Adventures (east of Terrace) blazing the trail. wildrivertours.ca; smitherssnowmobiletours.com
Retreat to Small Towns
When the snow begins to fall, thoughts instinctively turn to wintry celebration. And in BC, small towns with big-time charm prove the ideal destinations to embrace winter’s chill — or get out of the cold.
In Prince George, for example, the Coldsnap Winter Music Festival provides an excellent opportunity to warm the fingers and toes during its annual nine-day fest, an inspiring showcase of blues, jazz, indie rock and world music masters. On the roster for January 22 – 30, 2016: the hypnotic piano sounds of The Devin Cuddy Band; stylistic jazz musings, courtesy of Jaclyn Guillou; on-point harmonies from the all-female trio The Sweet Lowdown; righteous beats from Vancouver-based The Matinée and more. Complementing additional mainstage performances, Coldsnap promises local music nights and free workshops throughout the week, featuring many of the festival’s big-name draws. Cool, man. coldsnapfestival.com
Further southeast, BC’s Kootenay Rockies is home base for the Rossland Winter Carnival, an annual festival steeped in tradition. Set for January 28 – 31, 2016, this fest has been going strong since the winter of 1898, when local resident and ski enthusiast Olaus Jeldness officially kicked off the community’s celebration of snow. While much has changed since the carnival’s inception, the gathering still holds fast to its original credo of family-focused fun, thanks to a jam-packed schedule that includes a Bobsled Race, the Blizzard Music Festival, a fast-paced King of the Mountain Race at RED Mountain Resort (featuring ski, telemark and snowboard disciplines), a costumed Carnival Parade and plenty of activity for the little ones. rosslandwintercarnival.com
Adventurers can point their compass north for Fort St. John’s annual High on Ice Winter Festival, a free family-favourite slated for February 5 – 8, 2016. This signature event embraces all things frosty, be it international ice carving displays and snow sculpting challenges, sleigh rides, an ice-fishing derby and even outdoor baseball. Little ones won’t be left out either, thanks to slippery rides on hand-carved ice slides, toboggan races and more, all set within a friendly community shaped by the mighty Peace River and its surrounding valley. Come in from the cold? Not a chance. fortstjohn.ca/ice