With a few exceptions, much of the U.S. has been experiencing an unseasonably warm and dry winter. While that may make some people happy, those of us who welcome snow, sweaters, skating and skiing are missing winter’s frosty grip.
If you’re feeling as blah as the brown landscape outside, consider a mid-winter adventure to colder climes. There’s nothing like nature beauteously transformed by an icy white veneer to lift even the most listless spirit. From dog sledding to tracking wolves, sleeping in an ice hotel and watching the Northern Lights, cold-weather travel is all kinds of cool!
See the Northern Lights
I know of no natural wonder as mystical as the Northern Lights. Watching the sky dance with color in glowing curtains of green, white or pale red is the most mesmerizing of nature experiences.
The best place on earth to maximize your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis is Churchill, Manitoba. This small hamlet in the Canadian North, also famed for the planet’s best polar bear viewing, lies directly beneath the auroral oval in the Northern Hemisphere. Here near the earth’s geomagnetic pole, the light displays are caused by the collision of charged particles with atoms in the high-altitude atmosphere.
With auroral activity occurring on more than 300 nights a year, Churchill offers unique access to this phenomenon. The view from directly under the aurora shows dazzling bands of light with huge depth, and often with vivid color. Natural Habitat Adventures offers a Northern Lights and Arctic Cultures expedition to Churchill in February, where you’ll also meet native people and learn about their traditions.
In Europe, northern Norway generally offers the best location for seeing the lights. The Norwegian Coastal Voyage, or Hurtigruten, is a unique way to experience auroral displays. The 12-day classic voyage makes a round-trip between Bergen and Kirkenes, well above the Arctic Circle, though you can book either northbound or southbound legs individually.
Go dog sledding
What winter adventure could be more exciting than a chance to mush your own team of dogs through the snowy wilderness? While there are plenty of places where you can take a dog-sled excursion for an hour or two, usually as a passenger, a chance to captain your own sled and sleep overnight in the absolute stillness of the winter landscape takes the experience to a much more captivating level.
Northern native cultures have relied upon dog teams for centuries, and there’s no more authentic place to get a feel for this classic practice than in the regions where dogs are still used and celebrated as a means of traditional transportation, such as Alaska and Greenland.
Denali Dog Sled Expeditions out of Healy, Alaska, offers multi-day backcountry dog sled adventures into the remote reaches of Denali National Park. Each trip begins with a training day at EarthSong Lodge. Participants are paired with seasoned guides for hands-on instruction, soon ready to mush their own team of four to six dogs behind the expedition leader. The dogs are hardy and friendly, from bloodlines that originated with Denali Park Kennels in the 1980s. Typically, you’re on the trail 4-5 hours a day, averaging 28-30 miles, conditions permitting.
The experience of solitude is profound. In this roadless wilderness, expect to see moose, caribou, fox, lynx, wolverine, Dall sheep and always, the presence, if not the sight, of wolves. Fresh tracks are often visible, and occasionally wolves howl in harmony with the dogs at night. The Northern Lights are also a frequent highlight. Dog sledding can also be combined with Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Options include both cabin-based and cabin/heated tent combo trips ranging from the 3-day Sushana River Sampler to the 10-day Denali Wilderness Expedition, which circumnavigates a large swath of the vast park. For those who want just a taste, the company also offers day trips.
If you’re in search of an extraordinary adventure and want to experience dog sledding where it’s still a part of everyday life as it has been for millennia, travel to northwest Greenland with Explorers’ Corner. The company’s 17-day Dogsledding the Ultima Thule expedition, offered in March and April, was called one of the world’s Top 25 Greatest Adventures by National Geographic Adventure.
Though you’re a passenger rather than a musher on this trip, you are immersed in the high Arctic homeland of the Polar Inuit as you travel overland by dog team from the village of Qaanaaq. The journey follows a circuit along sea cliffs, fjords and glaciers, through mountain passes and across arctic tundra. Conditions permitting, the group will reach the village of Siorapaluk, the world’s northernmost community, visiting a noisy sea bird colony along the way. En route, spend time with Polar Inuit hunters and their families, watching them in action as they hunt and fish and sharing tea in their camps while learning about their traditional culture. Many of their ancient practices — hunting with harpoons, wearing skin clothing, and traveling exclusively by dog sled — have survived for centuries.
Sleep in an ice hotel
Sounds crazy, huh? But this unique form of boutique accommodation is a lot more comfortable than you might imagine — not to mention a great source of travel stories to impress your friends with.
The IceHotel is the world’s original and largest ice and snow hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Swedish Lapland, a village of 1,000 125 miles north of Arctic Circle. In its 22nd season, the IceHotel is a remarkable structure, rebuilt annually, which covers 59,000 square feet. It offers 47 rooms including 17 individually themed suites, an ice kyrka or chapel where weddings are a frequent event, and the Absolut Ice Bar, with crystal-clear vodka served in ice glasses, kept chilled by temperatures between 17 & 23 F.
To create the IceHotel each winter, 10,000 tons of ice blocks are cut and hauled from the Torne River, enhanced with 30,000 tons of fresh snow. The project is the work of ice artists from all over the world. Beginning in mid-November till it’s completed at the end of December, a new part of the IceHotel opens up to guests. Snow is sprayed on huge steel forms that are removed once the snow is frozen solid, leaving a maze of free-standing corridors. Within the corridors, walls are built to create rooms, and fabulous sculptures are created from blocks of ice for interior décor.
How does one sleep on a bed of ice? Well, there’s a bit of a secret: while the bed is framed in ice, a mattress rests within the ice-block perimeter, covered with reindeer skins. Exceptionally warm sleeping bags go on top, blanketed with more reindeer skins. Though you’ll have to get out of bed to use the facilities, there are warm bathrooms, showers and a sauna in the heated building connected to the IceHotel. The dining room is also heated, and an overnight stay includes breakfast. A host of activities is available to guests, including Northern Lights tours by snowmobile and horseback.
IceHotel, committed to environmental stewardship, provides all its energy, including that used in the intensive construction, from 100% renewable sources, with a goal to become carbon-negative by 2015.
Other ice and snow hotels that are open typically between January and early April include the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, Alta, Norway; Kirkenes Snowhotel, Kirkenes, Norway; LumiLinna Snowcastle, Kemi, Finland; Ice Hotel Romania; Hotel de Glace, Quebec City, Canada; and the Aurora Ice Museum and Hotel, Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. The latter is, ironically, not allowed to advertise its overnight accommodations due to fire department regulations — it has no sprinkler heads installed, which are required for a hotel — but if you inquire, they’ll tell you about their rooms.
Track wolves in the wild
The best place to see wolves in their natural environs is Yellowstone National Park. And the best time of year to see them is in winter, when their dark coats contrast against the mantle of white snow that blankets the wide-open expanse of the Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of the park.
In 1995 a small group of gray wolves was reintroduced to the park and quickly acclimated to their traditional hunting grounds, spreading out and forming new packs in the greater Yellowstone region. While controversial among ranchers, the wolves’ presence has helped to re-balance the ecosystem, keeping prolific prey such as elk in check.
It isn’t easy to spot wolves on your own, however. They are notoriously elusive and can cover vast amounts of territory in a day. To maximize your chances, join a guided trip led by experienced naturalists who regularly track wolves and know the best ways to locate and view them.
Natural Habitat Adventures offers two wintertime wolf expeditions, the 6-day Yellowstone Wolf Quest and the 7-day Ultimate Wolf & Wildlife Safari, which also includes Jackson Hole and the National Elk Refuge, against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons.
Both adventures are led by expert guides, many of whom have worked for years with the on-site scientists who monitor the wolves on a daily basis. In the company of such in-depth knowledge and high-powered spotting scopes, guests have excellent opportunities to view these elusive icons of the wild in their natural surroundings, as they prey and play. Wolf watchers are also likely to see elk, bison, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, in addition to Yellowstone’s geothermal features, which warm the frozen winter air with steam and spray.
Visit an ice and snow sculpture festival
Tell your friends you’re headed to the city of Harbin in northeast China for a February getaway, and they may wonder if you’ve gone completely nuts. But chances are, they’ve never heard of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, a dazzling display of astonishing ice sculptures, snow carvings and cold-weather revelry.
The top snow-and-ice festival in the world, Harbin has taken breathtaking advantage of the Arctic air blasting in from Siberia to the north to create a peerless winter spectacular. From Jan. 5 for at least a month, and usually into late February, Harbin is a global showcase for ice and snow art and architecture.
Harbin Ice and Snow World is a veritable frozen city, where massive buildings constructed of ice blocks from the Songhua River soar 160 feet high — skyscrapers, fairy-tale castles, elaborate pagodas — and snow sculptures sprawl longer than a football field, like a recent replica of China’s Great Wall. New technology and old traditions meld in dazzling displays: from laser-sculpted formations illumined by computer-controlled LED lighting in a spectacle of changing color and design, to fire-lit ice lanterns, an innovation of area fishermen who needed a way to keep their lamps burning when they were out on the lake in winter. The tradition dates to the 17th century, when fishermen would fill a container with water and let it freeze. They then removed the container, leaving only the ice form, and put a lamp or candle inside.
Today, the ice lanterns have become very elaborate, and a highlight of the annual festival is the Ice Lantern Garden Party in Zhaolin Park. The park’s 16 acres are set aglow by hundreds of multi-colored ice-lanterns utilizing 71,000 cubic feet of ice! Other festival attractions include fireworks, snow slides, ice-boat sailing, winter swimming and a soccer match played on snow.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival, held Feb. 6-12, 2012, is also one of the world’s most famous, drawing some 2 million visitors. The festival began in 1950 when local school boys built six snow sculptures in Odori Park. By 1974, the international snow sculpture contest was launched and is now a centerpiece of the event. For a week each February, Sapporo is transformed into a crystalline dreamland as more than 400 snow statues and ice sculptures fill Odori Park and line the main street of the Susukino district. Most are illuminated at night, creating a magical spectacle.
Closer to home, enjoy a lively tribute to winter at the Quebec Winter Carnival in Quebec City, a 17-day bash held this year from Jan. 27-Feb. 12. Carnival highlights include a giant illuminated ice palace, snow sculpture contest, night parade of lights, “snow baths,” outdoor arctic spas and sauna, inner-tube snow slides, snow rafting, ice skating, a dogsled race and an ice canoe race on frozen St. Lawrence River. Although its dates do not coincide with Mardi Gras, the often-raucous event is a true “carnival,” begun as a celebration held prior to the somber season of Lent in the Catholic liturgical calendar.
Who needs a beach break when you can revel in the best winter has to offer? We’ll be sweltering in summer’s heat soon enough. Go enjoy a snowy sojourn or ice-bound escape; the planet’s warming fast enough as it is!
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Feature photo: Explorers’ Corner