COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Dec. 6, 2013

Jessica Iron Joseph
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I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand last weekend. My husband and I won a contest for a free weekend getaway to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.

To celebrate their 125th year, Fairmont Banff Springs gave away 125 complimentary nights at their hotel to 36 different people in their Pay it Forward contest. People nominated whoever they thought deserved a night and previous contest winners would then choose a new winner from all the nominations.

To be honest, I had no idea this contest was even being offered, until I was notified that I had won. At first I thought it was a scam, like an email saying I had won 10 million pounds and needed to send personal information to claim it. Really, who wins a free weekend at the Fairmont?

Then I felt like I was in a Murder, She Wrote episode. It seemed plausible -- sending a writer a free pass to a gorgeous hotel … clearly there was a murder to solve, right? Or maybe they were going to put us in a haunted suite, so that we could solve the mystery that was scaring guests away. We could be Daphne and Scooby-doo! OK, OK -- Velma and Fred.

When we arrived at our room, it was readily apparent there was indeed a ghost nearby. The room was opulent, and captivating, for certain. We had a corner room with windows on two sides, a king size bed, a gorgeous bathroom, and wine and chocolate awaited us. But my Zesty Doritos went missing. Seriously. I saw the valet load the bag on the trolley, but then the chips disappeared. Never to be found the rest of the weekend. Ghosts were probably having a party without me.

Thankfully, I was easily distracted from that pressing mystery. When we awoke the next day, we went to a wonderful breakfast at the Bow Valley Grill, a Fairmont hotel restaurant. I was impressed by the selection. There was something for every diet: macrobiotic, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, etc. Even room service listed selections for any diet you could think of. Those were very cool touches.

After breakfast we got ready for part one of our winter Snow Experience package -- because every prize winner received a different package throughout the year. Ours included dog-sledding and snowshoeing on a mountain top.

I was totally freaked out about dog-sledding. Everyone was. You could tell. The instructor, Adam, of Snowy Owl Sled Dogs, did an excellent job explaining what to do and what cues to use, but one look around the assembled people, and you’d think he was prepping us for battle. In an effort to be courageous, I volunteered to drive first, while my husband sat in the sled. I wondered if we were too heavy. I am a girl, after all, and we are genetically predisposed to obsess about our weight. We had six spunky dogs, but I was sure they’d turn around and shake their heads at me, refusing to budge.

But as it turned out, the dogs were pros. They didn’t really even need my help. We travelled in a convoy with other teams. The dogs didn’t go too fast, but I was surprised to discover that we had to run with the dogs uphill, assisting them with the sled. That was an unexpected workout!

The ride was peaceful and amazing with a mountainous backdrop. I thought dog-sledding was a wonderful confidence booster. Everyone seemed so much more relaxed after we finished. We all survived! I also learned that I prefer to drive the sled than sit in it.

So the next day, when we went snowshoeing on top of Sunshine Valley, I was ready for anything. Well, that was after I got over the gondola ride and the ski lift, which were necessary to take us to the peak. Heights can make me queasy.

Once we arrived, Gordon, from White Mountain Adventures, skillfully led us through the snowy terrain. He was very patient with me because I repeatedly held up the group to take five million photos. But I learned how to run very fast in snowshoes, to catch up to the group again and again!

We started off on the B.C. side of the mountain, crossed the continental divide (which separates waterways) and then crossed back onto the Alberta side of the mountain. I only got stuck once, and that was actually pretty funny. I took photos of the guys digging my leg out.

It was so much fun, and we really were on top of the world! The walk was breathtaking and exhilarating and I cannot wait to go snowshoeing again.

On the descent back down the gondola, Gordon whipped out his handy-dandy phone app which he had set to track our route. He showed us on a GPS map exactly where we walked, how far we walked, the height of the mountain and our pace. We trekked 3.4 kilometres! And at our peak, we were at 2, 375 metres (roughly 7,800 feet)! I was amazed because it didn’t feel so far. Or so high, once we were actually up there.

We’re thinking of making another trip to Banff in the summer because Gordon leads hikes in the same area.

It was an amazing mini-vacation, a truly out-of-this-world experience. If anyone reading this wants to go to the Fairmont, or dog-sledding or snowshoeing in Banff, I would highly recommend it. It was all so unbelievable and I’m so thankful to Lori Q. McGavin, for her beautiful essay about Kevin and me, which won us the trip. Suzannah Patmios, Don Mooney, and all the staff at the Fairmont were so unbelievably gracious and accommodating, along with everyone at Snowy Owl Sled Dogs and White Mountain Adventures.

Banff is beautiful this time of year, and there is so much to do. I’ve always travelled there in the summer, so this trip was a wonderful eye-opener for me. I hope to return again next winter.

Next week, Sharon Thomas will be making her debut here, followed by Lori Q. McGavin. Kevin Joseph will write the last column for December.

See you next year! I’ll be back in January. Happy Holidays! Stay safe.

Organizations: Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, Banff Springs, Fairmont hotel

Geographic location: Banff, Sunshine Valley, B.C. Alberta

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