Ice 1

Most birds fly south

This is the time of year when we hunker down in the midst of a bleak Canadian winter and dream of warmer places. Except this year, where’s the winter?

I know some people who read those colourful plant catalogues, and imagine their garden when the thaw finally allows digging and planting. But in Canada, that’s not until the long Victoria Day weekend in May.

Others thumb through travel catalogues and make a list of exotic destinations for their bucket list. With air travel continuing to be a nightmare, cruising on very large ocean-going boats is the ticket for some. I’ve tried that twice, and not enjoyed the experience, though I have many friends who have made it their passion. David Moorcroft has an outstanding blog, a must read for any potential cruiser, which you can find in our travel section. I’ll defer to his expertise on the subject and move on.

Taking a couple of weeks away from winter in February or March certainly breaks up the tedium of short cold days and long cold nights, and I’ve enjoyed sharing some of the fabulous destinations I’ve visited and fun experiences I’ve had with a gang of friends chartering our own sailboats and exploring the Caribbean. Even when a rain shower hits, and they never last long, it’s warm rain. The locals call it liquid sunshine.

Many of those who live in northern climes, with very short winter days, such as Canada, Scandinavia and northern Europe, become snowbirds and head for islands such as Barbados, the Bahamas, Hawaii, the Canary Islands or the Seychelles. Or land destinations like Florida, Arizona, Morocco, South Africa, Goa, Thailand and even Australia, where winter escapees are always welcome.

Sunset from the Hicaco bar, Jaco, Costa Rica

Sunset from the Hicaco bar, Jaco, Costa Rica

Personally, I dream of a warm pool, a lounger to stretch out on, a pile of trashy novels for distraction, some sea breezes nearby to cool me down, a good bar to watch the sunset, some tolerable and not too expensive restaurants for nights when I’m too lazy to cook, a rental property with no stairs, a comfortable and decent size bed, a small kitchen with enough room to boil a kettle, toast some bread and put ice in the cocktails, and Wi-Fi. Most important of all is the company of someone you love (or if you aren’t ready for that much commitment, at least someone you like).The past few years we’ve managed to find places with almost all those criteria and Diane has made travelling to exotic places a dream. First, she is an outstanding travel-bargain finder. Next, she packs like a well-trained butler. And finally, we magically like all the same type of experiences, so we never argue about what we’re doing next.

However, if you really have to stay in the land of snow and ice for the winter, then the smart thing to do is find some outdoor leisure activities that are fun and different. Anyone can go skiing, skating or ice-fishing, but how about snowshoeing or dog sledding?

The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa is the first JW Marriott resort in Ontario, and as good as you’d expect from a luxury brand.  It’s built on the grounds of the old Paignton House Hotel, not far north of Port Carling. Shortly after it opened we were treated to a very pleasant couple of days there, including a memorable dinner in Teca, their fine dining restaurant.

Snowshoeing at The Rosseau

Snowshoeing at The Rosseau

One crisp February afternoon we set off with guide and naturalist Robin Tatley for a one-hour jaunt. It was tiring at first, but one soon gets used to handling the snow shoes in powdery snow. Not much level of fitness is required as we stopped many times to check out the wildlife, identify tracks in the snow and sample edible plants that would help us survive, were we to get lost. I’m glad for my thermal trousers and Canada Goose jacket with the coyote fur around the hood.  The low winter sun slants through the woods and across frozen beaver ponds, casting long blue shadows on the pristine snow.  We make a big loop and are reminded that we have passed this way on the outbound journey. Thank goodness for Robin, for without him I am sure we’d have been quite lost. To our eyes it all looks the same, but he reads the signs accurately. We were back at the lodge in time for a soak in the tub and cocktails at Lakes, naturally overlooking Lake Rosseau.

On the other side of the country, Banff is noted as a summer and winter resort town as well. We stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, one of the old Canadian Pacific baronial style lodgings. On a winter visit, we arrange to go dog sledding. It’s almost called off as the temperature has dropped below minus 20, but the sun comes out and we are on again. It’s not us they are worrying about, but the dogs. A few minutes by van from the hotel we are at the dog park. It’s feeding time and the sled dogs, surprisingly small huskies and husky-crosses are chowing down on frozen chunks of meat. There’s a lot of growling and snapping and we wonder how they are ever going to sort the teams out, but it comes together quickly once all the food has gone. We are strapped into the sleds and I am advised to put my camera away as the ride will be bumpy and cold. Anything exposed will be subject to frostbite, so I pull on my goggles and huddle in my parka, tucking my hands into a sleeping bag that wraps around me. I am helpless in a cocoon of warmth as the sled driver, a cheerful and chatty young Quebec lass, tucks me in with a canvas cover. She explains that a lot of “stuff” is kicked up when the dogs get going.

All bundled up on the trail

All bundled up on the trail

The dogs are excited beyond belief in anticipation of their run. They are literally jumping up and down in their traces. The first group is ready to go and we are off. The speed is quite amazing as six really quite small dogs pull all 200 pounds of me and a slight driver along the trail. We bump over icy ruts and for a moment I think we will spill, but our speed pulls us out of trouble. It’s the thrill of a lifetime. The young lady keeps up a running commentary, about half of which I can follow, something about a “hit and miss” form of navigation through the bush. At least I think that’s what she said. It soon turns out she actually said something else. The dogs are trained to defecate and urinate on the run, which is an extraordinary trick to see. One dog after another lets go while hopping on three legs, or humping along on two in the case of number two. It’s a bit smelly and I now understand that she really said a “sh*t and p*ss” form of navigation.

It’s one thing they don’t put in the guide books and something the dogs have in common with the swimming pigs in the Exumas. The pigs aren’t house trained either.

This article was originally published on December 29, 2012.


Featured image: On a rare snow day Diane insists on shovelling

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