West Canada: On a Rocky Mountain high in Jasper and Edmonton
North American journeys
Tom Galvin combines the cool city life of Edmonton with the icy, bear and bison-filled wilds of Jasper.
My guide on a brisk morning, Joy, takes me to a spot known locally as the edge of the world.
"Because it's like looking out over the edge of the world," she explains. And behold the Rockies, the purest of winter wonderlands - the horizon punctured by snow-capped peaks and the landscape laid out like a patterned quilt of frozen lakes and forests.
The perfect stillness is disturbed only by my laboured breathing, having snowshoed through forest and across a meadow blanketed with waist-deep powder. I could have gone on all day but the journey was cut short by a sign to go no further.
"Caribou," I'm told.
Woodland caribou have adapted to life in the deep snows beyond, but their predators haven't. So breaking trails into their habitat will only provide a path for the wolves.
Joy then tells me her bear story - when she ran into a black bear on one of the trails beyond Jasper town.
Seems everyone in Jasper has a bear story and it's great to meet the ones who are still around to tell them. Our driver, Deiter, could only lay still when he found himself between a grizzly and her cubs as she pawed and sniffed at him to be sure he wasn't a threat. You're as close as you can get to the edge of the wilderness here; while being reminded how essentially alien you are to the environment too.
Rambling through the streets of the laid-back little town of Jasper, elk pick at tufts of grass that haven't been covered in the snow. A coyote darts across the rail track before a train as long as a ballad rumbles through. On the trails, squirrels chatter like you're not even there and I'm told you don't walk alone at night because of cougars.
But it's the activity that brings tourists here. And pounding the more than 1,000 kilometres of trails is the gentle approach. Less than 20 minutes from town lies Marmot Basin, with four mountain faces for skiing and snowboarding and a total of 84 trails. For cross-country skiers, there are 100 kilometres of groomed tracks, while up on the frozen Pyramid Lake you can go ice skating, or strap a pair of cleats to your boots and hike the ice of Maligne Canyon, rivers and waterfalls on pause for the winter, contorted and sculpted.
Then there's dog sledding at Cold Fire Creek, an hour or so up the Yellowhead Highway in British Columbia. This is probably the highlight, a boast you can't take back from the winter resorts of Europe. Trips can vary from an hour to five, with campfire lunches along the trail. Mushing a team of Alaskan Huskies is a real buzz - you ignore the biting cold, the breaking wind and the steam from the dogs, who can hit speeds of over 20mph; fast enough when you're standing on two sled runners no wider than the spine of a Jack London novel. At night in Jasper, nature still exerts its influence - all you have to do is look up, as Jasper is one of the world's largest dark sky preserves.
Personally, I preferred the lights of Jasper Brewing Company in the town, where apart from the magnificent beer, the fare includes elk meatloaf (a tough choice after seeing them nibble on the footpaths all day) and bison curry.
Jasper is about a four-hour drive from Edmonton along the new 'Mountain Escape' route, a rolling road trip that glues you to the window. And Edmonton, the gateway to the Rockies, is worth a two-day stopover to wander the hip, bohemian stores in the Old Strathcona district with its quaint farmers' market, or, for the more contemporary-minded, there's the Jacek designer chocolate house downtown and the West Edmonton Mall - a shopping centre of such insane proportions that it houses the largest, indoor triple-loop rollercoaster. Seriously.
But the high point of a trip to Edmonton has to be supporting the local ice hockey team, The Oilers, at Rexall Place, an obnoxiously fun experience where fans gorge on hot dogs and nachos and consume copious amounts of beer. And you join them.
But for some respite, you can head out to the bison refuge of Elk Island National Park, which is an 'island of conservation' rather than an actual island, and is home to both the largest and smallest mammals in North America: the bison and the pygmy shrew.
Hard to believe that near the turn of the century, there were fewer than 200 plains bison left in the world. It was down to a few private citizens in Canada to collect small herds in an attempt to save the bison from extinction. This amazing place is the result.
KLM (klm.com) fly non-stop to Edmonton, three times a week, from Amsterdam. As well as the 178 economy seats, you can choose from one of 35 economy comfort zone seats on board, which is worth it for the extra space. Flight time is a comfortable 8.5 hours.
Jasper: Activities and tours in Jasper National Park: Sundogtours.com; General: jasper.travel/winter; Jasper's best food and beer: jasperbrewingco.ca; Dog sledding: cfcdogsledding.com; Hotel in Jasper: bestwesternalberta.com which includes pool, hot pool, sauna and steam room.
Edmonton: exploreedmonton.com; Best food: albertahotelbarkitchen.com; mercertavern.com and ampersand27.com; For chocolate lovers: jacekchocolate.com; Best of handcrafts: kristinemacdonalddesign.com.