Fort McMurray puts the epic in winter adventures

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Fort McMurray redefines its “boom” character, with focus on community, adventure

Climbing behind the “wheel” of a Sherp is a surreal experience, beginning with the lack of wheel itself. This large, near-indestructible, amphibious tank of a vehicle has a manual transmission and two large levers to pivot and turn left and right. Its wheels are as tall as the average adult, and the squat body of the thing hunches over them, keeping a low profile (if that is possible for such a wild contraption).

The vehicles were designed in Russia for use in the boggy tundra of the north, and get plenty of commercial use in the oil sands up beyond Fort McMurray, but the local entrepreneur Yeti Roughrider who provides these machines to industry here is now developing a new line of business providing tours of the area in these crazy machines. It's just another way Fort McMurray is re-inventing itself with winter adventure offerings. 

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It’s big, it’s audacious, it’s mechanized, all of which seems perfect for a town like this - and it is - but that would be too easy. Fort McMurray is too controversial, too complex, too diverse to be easily generalized, despite how it is often portrayed.

It’s true that Fort Mac is a place to dream big and build big. Even the fires of 2016 haven’t seemed to diminish that. Just the opposite, in fact, for those who have chosen to stay and rebuild are developing even more ambitious plans for the city.

And yet, at the same time, there has been a humbling effect since the fire and the economic downturn, a recognition that what is needed here is not just more barrels per day, increased profits and bigger toys, but a greater sense of community. Underpinning those efforts, the city is undertaking new riverfront development, investing in new arts and cultural attractions and cultivating bigger and better adventure tourism in the region, capitalizing on the city’s position as the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park and the north (for example, check out Expedition Ice Road Alberta story).


Fort McMurray
Photo: Jeremy Derksen

The Ptarmigan Nordic Ski Club is a popular spot for people in winter.

Newly built in 2019, the Ptarmigan Nordic Ski Club’s Doug Barnes Cabin is buzzing with people, as kids head out for training on a late January night. There is community here, and it’s growing. Hanna Bishop, a Fort Mac resident who relocated here from Finland nine years ago, joined the club just last year.

“I hadn’t gone Nordic skiing in years. Just last season I found out about the club, now this is my second season as a member. I like that they offer classes on technique,” she says. “I also signed up my kids for classes this year and they love it. It’s such a good way to enjoy the outdoors in winter.”

Fort McMurray
Photo: Jeremy Derksen

It's a one-stop cross-country shop at the Ptarmigan Nordic Ski Club, where you can access the trails and even rent your gear. 

Just out the door of the lodge, the extensive Birchwood Trail system has 35 kilometres of groomed tracks challenging enough for world-class ski racing events, but with enough variety to be accessible for everyone. The ski club offers lessons on Saturdays, and ski rentals are available on site.

Lucas Seaward takes Fort McMurray's bitumen and turns it into surreal works of art.

There is also growing support for local artists like Lucas Seaward, whose work hangs in Points North Gallery. Seaward’s art is infused with the lifeblood of the local economy, bitumen. Literally: he paints with it, creating large black and white statements on canvas, and he creates almost psychedelic designs by taking photographs of seeping bitumen deposits, blowing them up and sculpting 3D shapes onto the photos with the oily clay.

Vista Ridge is the local ski hill that offers all kinds of fun winter sports.

Vista Ridge. As a non-mountain ski area, it’s probably the least “supersized” of the city’s attractions, but it makes up for that in the multitude of its offerings. With a tube park, free skating at the covered ice rink, ladies’ nights programs and $12 night skiing on Fridays, the hill acts as another community collector.

There are those who might look at the boom history of Fort McMurray and assume they know what it’s all about and don’t need to see it. But for those with open minds, this is also a community with a big heart and big adventures, perched next to one of the biggest natural spaces in western Canada. You could say, it defies definition.

When You Go

Learn more about the North on Explore Wood Buffalo's Facebook page.  

Edmonton to Fort McMurray is about a four-hour drive, which includes travel on a new twinned highway. The Fort McMurray Airport has regularly scheduled flights from major carriers.

SnowSeekers asks you consider flight offsets if air is included in your itinerary.

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Learn more about what Northern Alberta has in store for you this winter by visiting our #SkiNorthAB page, where more stories and videos will be coming out all season long.

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