Jan. 17, 2017

Baby, it’s cold outside!

When it’s winter, inertia can rule.  What’s the point of heading outside?  Mitts, toques and scarves must be put on and taken off, over and over.  Exposed skin is always mildly shocked by the dramatic change in temperature – fingers and toes and cheeks take forever to warm up.

But as Canadians, we know the up-side. 

As long as there’s little or no wind, being outside on a sun-lit Alberta day in January is gorgeous.

The cold, crisp air is a tonic.   Mental cobwebs are swept away.  Headaches caused by the stuffy indoors magically disappear.

But where to go once you are dressed for the elements?  Especially when you lack athletic skills such as skating, playing hockey or skiing, when you’re too old and brittle for toboganning?

To Hawrelak Park!

Edmonton’s most popular park in the summer (Heritage Days etc.) is also a haven for outdoor winter activities.

For the second year in a row, the Ice Castle project is back.  It’s about the size of the fur-trading fort in Fort Edmonton Park, but made entirely of ice.

The Ice Castle is a commercial undertaking by an American firm that builds them across North America using a technique known as “icicle farming” -  making icicles, then moving them to create the bones of the castle and using nothing but frozen water to complete the entire structure.

On the upside it’s an extraordinary, fun, semi-alien environment – a man-made version of Jasper’s Maligne Canyon winter walks.  For fantasy references, think of the kingdom of Narnia, under the ever-lasting winter spell of the White Which, or the great ice wall keeping out the wildlings in Game of Thrones.

The downside is there isn’t all that much to do once you are inside the Ice Castle – walk around, ride the mini-ice slide, squeeze through a few ice tunnels, take photographs …  still the sheer beauty of the glacier blue ice makes the visit worthwhile.

For more information on the Ice Castle, check out icecastles.com/Edmonton.  Entrance tickets range from $10 to $20 depending on time of week and time of purchase.  Hours are 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays. In the evenings, the castle is lit from blue lights embedded in the ice.  

Once done at the Ice Castle,  plenty of hard-packed trails run across the park for winter walking.  You can watch the hundreds of skaters at the Hawrelak Park pond,  even venture onto the ice in your boots for slip-sliding fun  as long as you have a well-padded posterior.

The cross-country skiers are out in droves at Hawrelak, and at the far end of the park is a big ice surface for plenty of games of pick-up hockey – nothing organized, no fancy boards or whatnot, just a spot where anybody with skates, a stick and a puck can have a little impromptu fun.

More organized fun comes with the first truly successful, lasting winter festival in Edmonton. It’s taken 27 years for the Silver Skate Festival to grow naturally from a series of speed-skating races to an outdoor winter festival taking over most of the park from Feb. 10 to 20.  How satisfying to see a winter festival that’s not force-fed down Edmontonians’ throats by city councillors and city recreation staffers determined that YOU MUST ENJOY WINTER!!!

Not most important, but important to remember.  Many, many Edmontonians are not well enough, or nimble enough, or simply too old to venture out to trod on the least of slippery surfaces.

But for them, simply a chauffeured super-slow drive around Hawrelak park in the company of their adult children and grandchildren is a tonic.  Simply to witness the fun, to share the outdoor energy, can be a true highlight to a week of being stuck inside due to cold weather.