Lake Louise, Alberta -- Participating in outdoor winter sports is a lot like doing my taxes: both are unavoidable in Canada, and afterwards I'm always left feeling a little bruised.
Yet here I am in Alberta, one of six people ready and willing to participate in a snowshoe hike around the tear-shaped lake at the base of the majestic mountain behind the historic Fairmont Hotel in Lake Louise.
Standing beside the equipment shack, I'm steps away from one of the most photographed scenes in western Canada. The glacier-carved view is postcard-perfect, and so is this February day, and that's why we've opted to take this gentle hike with the help of a professional.
Standing before us, snowshoes in hand, our lanky, red-and-black-ski-suit-clad guide looks like a lost superhero (sans cape) who leapt off a tall building and landed in the wilds of Alberta. Excited to get our adventure under way, he bounces from foot to foot while explaining the ins and outs of winter hiking. He's anxious, all right, like an ecstasy user waiting in line outside a rave, but I know he's n0t using. This isn't that kind of a trip.
I attach my snowshoes, binding them to my borrowed no-heel boots. I clip the metal clasp and can raise my foot easily. Okay, this isn't so bad.
Then I follow the group straight up the side of the mountain.
On step one, I'm okay. By step four I feel my hamstring muscles vibrate. Step five, my thigh muscles are begging for mercy. Step six, snot is rolling down my chin and I'm gasping for air while my lungs deflate like a three-day-old party balloon.
This is impossible. Panting like a dog, I grab for tree branches as I pick up my circus-clown feet and slap them down on packed snow, feeling to see if my now frozen ass is still behind me. No surprise, I'm at the rear of the pack, trailing the woman with a knee injury from a near fatal car accident.
Then our guide half-turns his head to announce, "I hope you don't mind, but the next part is a bit steep. It's only 15 minutes or so."
Fifteen minutes straight uphill! I see blood. The only thing keeping me from killing him right now is the fact that I can't lift my arms higher than my knees. Nor can I make fists.
I've lost all sensation from the wrists down. My head is aching. I can no longer feel my tongue.
There are many reasons a city girl who believes sitting in front of hot tub jets is a cardio workout should never, ever go snowshoeing. Here are my three personal favourites:
First, I do not enjoy sucking the lining of my lungs in and out through my nose.
Second, altitude sickness is real. And being plopped down several feet above sea level with no time to adjust is not a good thing.
Third, I am in no way interested in bear feces. Or bears at all. Or feces, for that matter. I do not care what is hanging off a tree branch, piled under it or sitting high in it. When all I care about is somehow keeping my heart from imploding inside my chest, no amount of pointing to fuzzy lichen, dangling god-knows-what or the promise of a spectacular view is going to distract me from the fact that I could at any time hyperventilate into shock.
The trip downhill is the fastest I'll ever walk. I'm lured by the promise of a four-star lunch and lengthy cocktail menu. It's not yet noon and I don't care. My pants are wet in places I don't want to discuss, my legs are throbbing so hard the pain is audible.
Counting slowly to 10, I join my colleagues at the table and order a drink called Purple Haze, pronto. I have a vision of Jimmy Hendrix consoling my battered pride with a few soothing riffs and something mind-altering. The martini arrives. It's purple a deep shade like the inside of a hip urban loft. Now we're talking.