Winter Wonders

Our winter guide has tips for keeping warm, cool facts about snow and info on things to do during the season. Don’t worry, those are just shivers of excitement.

Illustrations by Kathy Boake

Expert Precision Fire

Because nothing compares to the real thing, it’s best to talk to someone who’s a fire expert.

For 25 years, guest services manager Tim Melanson has worked at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. For some of those years, his job was to maintain the fires in over 40 rooms and keep four main hearths lit daily.

He took us through the six steps to a perfect fire: 

(1) First you need to be sure the flue is open, so the smoke doesn’t stay in the room.

(2) Then, you lay a bed of crinkled newspaper under the grille and on it.

(3) On top of the paper, you place kindling and twigs – all the small stuff.

(4) Now, you place small logs (make sure they’re not green) on top.

(5) You should only need one match to make it start.

(6) Once it’s going, you can add the bigger logs and it should burn beautifully.

Battery Operated Burning

Day or night, turn on Shaw’s Yule Log channel and see dancing flames accompanied by calming music. Sounds like something the staff came up with to extend their holidays, but viewers love it – so much that when the station cancelled it in 2010, viewers demanded the logs be put back into their rightful spot. Now they glow for 24 hours a day from November until the first week of January. If you don’t have cable, or even a TV, download the FirePlace app on your Apple device or Classy Fireplace on your Android to have the comfort of a burning fire anytime, anywhere.

A Little S’more Warmth

Who says s’mores need to be a campfire thing? Characters Fine Dining chef-owner Shonn Oborowsky has it on the menu year-round. When it comes to making your own at home, he’s got some expert advice: “Always use good chocolate. You should never skimp on the main ingredient – or any ingredient for that matter. So, a rich chocolate like Bernard Callebaut is recommended.” When it comes to the fire, he says, “Create the flame using half fuel gel and half cherry wood. Cherry wood burns with very little smoke and works the best.” And don’t rush the cooking of the s’mores, as the heat will melt the marshmallows and make them expand between the graham wafers.

Bowls of Comfort

To make the perfect homemade soup, chef Cui Kouch of Glenora Bistro, Normand’s Bistro and Normand’s Restaurant says the secret simply comes down to “time and good ingredients.” And, he adds, there’s nothing in a can that makes up for it. So Kouch makes his stock from scratch, often using duck bones, and cooks it overnight before adding it to a wild mushroom soup or wild-game goulash.

For the irresistible comfort of mac ‘n’ cheese, take a note from the Hardware Grill and put together a dish of organic pasta, lobster, truffle oil, cream, three-year aged cheddar and shiitake mushrooms. So you’re a traditionalist? Listen to Blue Plate Diner and just add lots of different cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella and asiago.

Snow Holidays

After spending nearly 35 years in snow removal, Bob Dunford, the City’s director of roadway maintenance, has received everything from nasty emails about snow piling up in people’s streets to home-baked cookies from those happy to see their streets cleared. He’s also witnessed all kinds of weather and knows all the city’s tricks for dealing with a big dump of snow. He gave us some insider information on the white stuff.

How many pieces of equipment does the city use to clear snow? 

131 trucks with plows, 20 graders, 20 walk plows and 12 snow blowers, plus 150 contract graders.

How many employees does it take?

550 employees and 300 contractors.

Where does the cleared snow go?

There are five storage sites where the snow goes into a huge pile. In 2011, there was a pile almost 60 metres high.

Craziest snowstorm in recent memory?

There was a huge dump of snow in January 2011, totaling about 45 cm in about 48 hours.

Least amount of snow?

The lightest snowfalls on record were in 2001-02, when we had only 58 cm – less than half the average.

City’s annual snow-clearing budget?

$49 million.

Reindeer Games

These elk-related animals won’t be found at the North Pole, but rather your backyard. Terry Church of Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch raised the animals from 1996 until 2009, and he’s got a lot to share about the animal’s origins, antlers and, yes, meat.

Are there still herds of wild reindeer in some parts of the world?

Most of the reindeer in northern Europe are semi-domesticated. People in Northern Europe – either individuals or villages – claim ownership over the herds. They mark them with ear notches (small holes), and let them roam around without any fences. Then, once a year, they round them up and harvest some for meat.

Is it true that Santa’s reindeer would have to be females because the males lose their antlers in the winter?

No, it’s not true. But it would seem so because only females could go around the world without asking for directions, not missing any houses, while pulling a little fat man on a sleigh. But actually steers [castrated males] usually pull sleighs in Northern Europe. They also keep their antlers until the spring like females.

Where’d the flying reindeer thing come from?

When they are running in the snow, out on the tundra, the snow obscures their legs going back and forth, giving the impression of flight like in the Christmas story.

What’s the main use of reindeer in Alberta?

Reindeer makes great meat, but the main use is in Christmas displays. There are probably less than 100 of the animals in the province now, and you can mostly see them at Christmas time because the meat never really caught on. In Northern Europe, though, aside from using them for meat, there are tons of races every year, including skijoring, where a skier is pulled behind a reindeer that runs extremely fast.

Cold Busters

You don’t know Jack Frost. True or false?

You’ll catch a cold if you go outside without a hat, or gloves, or a full snowsuit with electronic heating pads.

FALSE. Many cold viruses are more stable in cold and dry weather, but it doesn’t matter how cold you get. If you’re not exposed to germs, you won’t get a cold. According to public health and preventative medicine specialist, Dr. Hakique Virani, we get more colds in the winter because we tend to be inside more, in close confines with other germ-ridden people, and so our exposure level is higher.

Getting frostbite once makes your skin more susceptible to getting it again.

True. In really cold temperatures, or at high altitudes, it takes only seconds to freeze tissue. And, according to University of Alberta clinical professor Don Groot, if you damage nerves or blood vessels, you can develop a cold sensitivity and get frostbite more easily the second time you’re out in a blizzard with a treacherous wind chill.

It’s warmer when it snows.

True. “It tends to snow in milder weather,” says Gerhard Reuter, University of Alberta professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences. “Often we have snow if the warm rises over the colder air. The amount of snow depends on how much humidity is contained in the air mass. Cold air doesn’t contain a lot of humidity so warmer temperatures give rise to more humidity and, therefore, more snow.”

Blizzards and Bragging Rights

Maybe your engine won’t start, maybe your driveway’s snowed in, but you’ll go out on the town come blizzard or frozen water. 


Dec. 8-9, Devonian Botanic Gardens,

Imagine the pathways along the Kurimoto Japanese Gardens lit by thousands of candles and punctuated by strolling groups of a cappella singers, including Leap of Faith and the Chance Barbershop Quartet. What’s more, this walking tour includes actors decked out in sparkling, illuminated snow-sprite costumes, dancing across the garden.

Snow Sculpture Workshop

Dec. 15, Snow Valley Ski Club, 

A three-metre high stone sculpture could possibly take a year to create but, with snow, Ritchie Velthuis can do it in a day. However, the sculpting instructor says using snow doesn’t mean you can just easily cover mistakes. “Once you remove snow from the compressed block, it’s nearly impossible to put it back. The motto is ‘measure twice, cut once.'”

Ice on Whyte

Jan. 25-Feb. 3, 2013, End of Steel Park,

If you were given 35 hours and 15 blocks of ice, could you produce a stunning piece of art? That’s the challenge given to ice sculptors from around the world at the 10th annual Ice on Whyte ice-carving competition. But don’t overlook the music, food and oral storytelling activities that revolve around the cultural celebrations of other northern nations, such as Russia, Latvia and the Netherlands.

Polar Bear Plunge

Feb. 9, 2013, Lake Summerside beach club,

The polar bear plunge pretty much guarantees you bragging rights that extend beyond the normal “braving the cold” stuff. But it’s not just about the thrill of saying you plunged your body into the two metre deep Lake Summerside; you’ll also be raising money for the Special Olympics at the same time.

Silver Skate Festival

Feb. 15-24, 2013, Hawrelak Park,

More than skating, this festival invites artists to construct towering sculptures representing their fears out of bulrushes, willow, weeds, fabric and a little kerosene so that they can light the structures after dark. Then they watch their fears melt away along with the cold night.

2013 Hypothermic Half Marathon

Feb. 24, 2013, Highlands Golf Club,

A winter marathon is better than running during a heat wave, right? Just be sure to warm up your muscles, wear layers and cover your ears – after all, there’s probably a greater risk of frostbite  than hypothermia when you’re running in subzero temperatures. And regardless how the marathon goes, some good will come out of it, as money raised goes towards Nature Alberta.

Season of Giving

Unique volunteer opportunities to not only get you out of the house in the cold but make you feel great about it. 


Reading the morning newspaper is usually a solitary activity. But with this volunteer position at the office of Accessible Media Inc., you can read all the hard news, sports and entertainment sections while your voice is recorded to benefit the seeing impaired and people with learning disabilities.

An Early Start 

With the Roots of Empathy program, the minimum age of volunteers is two months. New parents and their two- to four-month olds interact with school-aged children. The older children see how babies develop, and their increased understanding of feelings can lead to reduced aggression and bullying.  

Wild Ride 

Ever had a bald eagle or porcupine in the back of your vehicle? Probably not, unless you’ve volunteered with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton. The organization helps injured, contaminated and orphaned wildlife and starts volunteers out in other areas, such as teaching school children about wildlife and helping with special events. But, in due time, you may be able to volunteer directly with the animals.

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