Deep in the Whitemud forest is a gnarled wooden shack. It sits on chicken
legs. The fence posts that surround it are enchanted human souls, petrified
at the wrath of Baba Yaga, the hideous witch who dwells within, meting out
wisdom or punishment at her discretion.
Those who dare seek her out risk the consequences of her unpredictable
temperament, but her guidance is valuable if it can be attained. Which is why
I’ve spent several hours in the bush, climbing steep, snowy hills, rappelling
off the anchored cement foundations of an aqueduct, skiing along wooded
trails and crossing bridges over frozen creeks. I’ve even fired a
In the dark, short days of an Edmonton winter I seek the same thing as many
others: light. Liberation from the days spent churning the bubbling pot in
the late, black afternoon, the cold wind blasting bitter white land, churning
ghosts outside and within. The tension of family bearing down on each other,
nerves worn raw from too much time in close quarters. The dulling prospect of
repeating it yet again each new day.
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We each seek our own distractions. But rather than dreaming of escape to the
sunny beaches of some tropical isle, the key is to embrace it. First, though,
you have to know how. For me, that led to tagging along with Winter Light
recreation director Matt Decore as he and his support crew test run some of
the new activities planned for the second annual Baba Yaga Trail Adventure on
January 22 – 23.
Tossing my skis in the car and hitting Snow Valley to make a few telemark
turns on a weekend isn’t unusual for me, although it’s always satisfying.
Rappelling, target shooting, immersing in old Ukrainian legends and skiing
all in the same trip—now that’s different and, I’d argue, something
That’s what Winter Light organizers are trying to achieve with this year’s
Baba Yaga event. “You get people out here walking the trails, absorbed in the
entertainment and activities and they are exercising without even realizing
it,” says Matt Decore, Winter Light’s recreation director.
Last year’s inaugural event was a great success, the organizers report, and
this year will be even better. Light displays will brighten the two-kilometre
walk to Baba Yaga’s hut as actors play out the folk tale. As a respite from
the cold, there will be a warming hut, music, fire pits and free hot
chocolate. This year also sees the return of the Zipfy, a specially designed
sled that can be maneouvered to rocket downhill at impressively high speeds.
It’s all part of organizers’ efforts to get Edmontonians out enjoying winter
instead of indoors avoiding it.
But for winter recreationalists, several new additions—rope climbing,
rappelling, high-angle rescue demonstrations and a biathlon shooting
range—may be the highlights.
The nearby hills of Snow Valley are a perfect study in the ways in which
people engage differently in winter sport. Look to the right of the double
chair and you’ll find 15-year old kids in the terrain park cranking iron
crosses and stomping rails. On the other side meandering down Rainbow Run
you’ll occasionally find the 40-year old from South America or Africa in a
knee-locked snowplow. I’m always more impressed by the latter.
It’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same comfort level or interest
in winter activities, however healthy and invigorating. Some are unmotivated
because of the cold, others because of lack of experience. Without sport or
cultural activities to encourage people to beat the cold and enjoy winter
outdoors, many will spend their time hiding inside and pining for
In the tale of Vassalisa, her wicked stepsisters send her out to Baba Yaga’s
hut to ask for fire to revive their hearth. It’s a simple folk legend but as
with all such tales there are underlying meanings. Cruelty is often a mask
for insecurity. While her stepsisters cower indoors, Vassalisa goes out and
embraces adventure. The stepsisters fail to see they have lost in the bargain
while Vassalisa stands to gain far more—new skills and experiences,
discovery, personal growth—simply by virtue of taking on a
Neil Bosch and Ernst Bergmann from the Alpine Club of Canada’s Edmonton
chapter have set ropes running on a high eastern face from the cement
foundations of an old drainage pipe spanning the valley.
Two ropes with handheld ascender devices are our way up. The ascenders, or
jumars (after the Swiss company that developed the first such device), are
essentially large handles with a braking mechanism. They slide forward freely
but brake against going in reverse. Rope in one hand, ascender in the other,
you can walk up a steep, slippery slope with ease.
Then it’s time to go down. Climbing harness on, Bosch helps me clip in to the
rope using a self-belay device. Soon I’m backing down the hill playing like a
kid, taking jump steps, right hand on the rope to check my speed. I pull the
rope down by my waist to brake, up to release.
Roped ascents and descents of this variety are core mountaineering skills. At
the Baba Yaga Trail Adventure, participants can get a free introduction to
these skills, a taste of mountaineering, right here in the city.
It’s a great way for the Alpine Club to promote the sports the members enjoy.
“We’d like to have more of a presence in the city,” says Bergmann. “As the
city tries to rebrand itself as more young and active, we’d like to get
activities like ice climbing and rock climbing noticed.”
Rappelling outdoors in Edmonton is a novel experience that the club hopes
will open doors to new participants and new possibilities. “Preferably, we’d
like to get a venue in the city where we can do those things outdoors.
Because we’re three and a half hours from the mountains it would be nice to
be able to go ice climbing after work at a lighted venue somewhere in the
Bergmann also hopes to spread awareness among aspiring climbers. “A lot of
people go to the mountains and start rock climbing without proper training.
I’d like them to know safe procedures.”
Back at Rainbow Valley campground, Allan Ball of Biathlon Alberta hands me a
rifle. Still breathing slightly heavy after skiing back along the trail, I
shoulder it and take aim, sighting the target through scope emitting a red
The electronic targets light up one by one as I pull the trigger: green, red,
red, red, green. Two out of five.
Ball smiles. “The longer you take the less accurate you are,” he points out.
While waiting for the perfect shot, the muscles in the body begin to move, he
explains. All the micro-adjustments end up taking you further from your
The system Ball has installed here, with an electronic rifle and targets
feeding out to a computer that reads the accuracy of each shot, is the same
system blind athletes will use in the Paralympics. It emits different
frequencies of beeps to indicate how close you are to the target. In my hands
the rifle becomes a conductor’s baton guiding a robotic symphony. I try a
second set lying down—my elbow on the ground providing a more stable
support for the rifle—and hit a much more respectable four out of
In February, Ball heads to Vancouver to help officiate biathlon for the
Olympics. But before then, visitors to Baba Yaga can get some instruction and
try their hand at target shooting with a local expert.
Blending myth, festive displays and forest adventure is a little like
witchcraft. In their revival of the Baba Yaga tale, Winter Light presents an
allegory to challenge Edmontonians.
Like Vassalisa, Baba Yaga participants are sent on a quest. The trail to the
witch’s hut is ripe with possibility, and each participant will encounter
challenge. Central to that is overcoming reservations and obstacles to
enjoying winter to its fullest.
What’s new to us is often either exciting or fearsome, or both at once. As
long as we don’t let fear overtake us in our discovery of new things, it can
But if we let ourselves become too afraid or apathetic we lose the ability to
act and end up fence posts. Still. Wooden. Rooted in place, rotting away. The
more fence posts joined together, the easier to remain a slat in a fence and
Adult or child, it takes only a little bit of wonder to escape the bewitching
effects of winter avoidance and discover the light at the end of the dark
Fri, Jan 22 and Sat, Jan 23 (2 – 9 pm)
Baba Yaga Trail Adventure
Whitemud Park/Snow Valley, Free
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