The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Jan 2013

Frozen Experiences of a Lifetime: See the Northern Lights (Alaska; Northwest Territories)

The first time I saw the Northern Lights in their full glory—I’m talking the real show, not just a faint, colored smudge on the horizon—I was in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, deep in the Alaskan interior. I’d stayed up late three nights running hoping to see them, and finally there they were. Just two green curving lines on the northern edge of the sky at first, their ends curling and reforming, then expanding into a series of long parallel streaks stretching from horizon to horizon like the lines on a blank page of sheet music. The ends vibrated, sometimes lengthening the line with their motion and sometimes rolling it back up again.

Never mind that one of the old Alaska hands I was sharing a public use cabin with declared that unless the lights appeared in multiple colors, they weren't "worth getting dressed for." The all-green show was enough for me. I stood with my head back and watched as the lines became fat spirals and then short, medium, long lines again, until my neck ached and my fingers started to go numb inside my sheepskin mitts. They were worth the wait.

If you’re going to go on your own aurora hunt, this is a good year to do it. The magnetic activity that causes the show is cyclical, and the upcoming season has been dubbed “aurora max” because we’re at a high point in the cycle. Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, are your best jumping-off points for aurora viewing.

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Frozen Experiences of a Lifetime: Build Your Dream (Snow) Home

Growing up in Canada, my vision of an ideal snow fortress was formed early, the first time I saw a Quebec-made movie called La Guerre des Tuques, or, in English, The Dog Who Stopped the War. A whole generation of Canadian kids was raised on this flick, in which a small group of misfits builds the world’s most epic snow fort to defend themselves against a bunch of snowball-hurling bullies. Cue the siege and a fight to the bitter, snowy end.

The key to a good snow fort—besides good snow—is planning. Decide on your fort’s footprint, and clear the area, then start building the walls. Solid walls take time, so don’t rush. The simplest way is to roll giant snow balls, the way you would for a snowman, and use them as building blocks for your wall. Pack them tightly together, both side by side and, as you add higher layers, fill any gaps with more snow. There are whole schools of thought about watering your finished walls to strengthen them—a little water can seal the wall up nicely, but too much water can melt the snow, or create an icy fort interior. That’s no good when the time comes to start tossing snow grenades over the walls.

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Frozen Experiences of a Lifetime: Hunker Down Over a Hole in the Ice

A lot of winter activities involve speed or adrenalin or both: Think heli-skiing, bobsledding, ice climbing. Ice fishing is a little more zen. Waiting for the fish to bite—and trying not to freeze—leaves plenty of time to ponder the nature of existence, or to crack a beer or three.

The west dominates the mountain sports, but for serious frozen fishing, head east to the Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec, Vermont, and upstate New York. Local angling associations and tourism boards will have the latest info on hut rentals and hot spots.

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Frozen Experiences of a Lifetime: Ski, Shoot, Repeat (Whistler, British Columbia)

Okay, so maybe mixing cross-country skiing and target shooting is a little weird. At the very least, biathlon has got to be the only competitive shooting event conducted entirely in spandex. But if it’s good enough for the Olympics, it’s good enough for me.

There are plenty of local biathlon clubs that will let you give it a whirl. And if you want to shoot and ski where the Olympic biathletes did their thing, the Whistler Olympic Park has a “Discover Biathlon” package that starts at $59, as well as competitive development programs for adults and children.

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Frozen Experiences of a Lifetime: Glide the Length of the World's Longest Skating Rink (Ottawa, Ontario)

Growing up in Canada’s capital city, I was one of those kids who was more inclined to eye-rolling than to hometown pride. Ottawa was staid, tidy, a bureaucrat’s city. Our hockey team stank, and the best bands always skipped over us on their way from Montreal to Toronto. But there was one city fixture that I loved without embarrassment: the Rideau Canal skateway. Each winter, the canal that cut through the city—a military relic, built on 19th century fears of an American invasion—was transformed into a five-mile skating rink, the world’s longest. The frozen canal was more than a tourism gimmick: My grade school held gym classes on its plowed surface, and when I moved on to junior high I could lace up my skates and glide to school along its length; my dad would skate off in the other direction, headed to his downtown office building.

These days, the canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its season isn’t as reliable or as long as it once was, but it tends to be open from early January through early March, weather permitting. It hits its peak during the first three weeks of February, when Ottawa’s Winterlude festival takes place on and around it. There are skate rental shacks, hot chocolate stands, and other services available right on the ice.

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