My latest adventure was a six-day trip to Whitefish, Montana by train with One World Outing Club‘s Lance Young and seven cross-country skiers. But before we hit the snow, we had an adventure on rails. (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)
The Empire Builder
We met in the King Street Station in downtown Seattle. Our train was a typical (for this area anyway) Amtrak passenger train. The cars have two decks. Each coach has shelves for luggage on the lower deck, three toilets and some seating. A cramped spiral staircase leads to the upper deck, which is all seating; this deck has connecting doors that lead thru accordion-walled tunnels to other cars. The seats are spacious and convert into recliners, a good thing because it was an overnight train and I hadn’t been able to book a “mini-bedroom” (a closet with two folding bunks).
Amtrak routes typically have portentous names. Ours was dubbed “The Empire Builder,” honoring the nickname of 19th-century railroad tycoon James J. Hill. Our train was headed east to Chicago; its route was mostly thru open country, stopping at just a few small towns along the way, including Whitefish outside of Glacier National Park. This train included a coach, a dining car, a sleeping car, and a baggage car. When it reached Spokane, an observation car was added that had come up from Portland; but since it was after midnight by then, there was nothing to observe.
We had an awkward dinner in the jerking and swaying dining car; Amtrak could give more thought to how to serve food. I’d ordered a glass of wine; it came in a little bottle accompanied by a stem glass. From a recent train trip to Portland, I knew better than to trust my wine to a top-heavy glass. Instead I drank straight from the bottle, recapping it after each sip; better to be uncouth than wet. Salads came with their dressing in plastic packets. I had a hard struggle tearing mine open, and then it jetted its contents across the table. The salads included big cherry tomatoes inclined to roll thru spilled salad dressing and drop into peoples’ laps. Admittedly, my actual dinner, enchiladas, was pretty good.
I was curious about the sleeping car. Karen and Ruth were sharing a room, and they invited me to come and see it. It was a tiny space with a fold-down bed above two seats that combined to make a lower bed. I didn’t see how a person could dress in there without using the aisle. A standard room costs an additional $115 above basic fare (meals are included). I peeked into a luxury room; these feature a tiny washstand and toilet. I was told that showers were on the car’s lower level.
I went back to my seat to try to sleep. With the engine constantly honking for road crossings, and other trains roaring past in the opposite direction, this didn’t go well. After a couple of hours, the seemingly-comfortable recliner became excruciating. Another problem was that the mountains the train was climbing thru made my ears ache and pop. I gave up and tried to read; but I’d brought a wretched book, “The Martian” by Andy Weir. I’d liked the movie, but the book is mostly recipes for making water from rocket fuel, etc. Shortly after midnight, the train made an extended stop in Spokane. We were invited to get off and stretch our legs. I walked up to the engine and back thru the cold, exhaust-flavored darkness. But I kept worrying that the train would start moving, so I soon got back on.
I’d planned to get up at 6:30 for breakfast. But, due to crossing a time-zone early in the morning, this turned out to be 7:30. I made an early start on my skiing snack instead.
We arrived at Whitefish’s little station, and I was happy to see that it was surrounded by fluffy snow. While we waited for our hotel shuttle, I found a used book rack and swapped “The Martian” for John Le Carre’s “The Secret Pilgrim,” a wonderfully human collection of Cold War spy yarns. We checked into the Grouse Mountain Lodge, and changed to ski clothes while Lance rented a van. Our first stop was Round Meadow, a park offering free skiing. A donation box stood at the start of the trail to encourage the volunteer trail groomers. The snow was copious dry powder, spoiling me for the skiing close to Seattle, which is typically rattling down frozen snowmobile tracks in the rain.
I had worked my way to the top of a long hill, and was just starting to enjoy my reward when I came upon a lady I’ll call Shirley sprawled in the snow. “Are you all right?” I called as I sailed by.
So I stopped and helped her take off her skis, get up and put her skis back on. By this time the grooming machines had caught up to us, so I had to coax Shirley off the trail. I showed her how to control her speed skiing down a hill, and we slowly slid to the bottom of a slope that I would have loved to zoom down on my own. I was going to ski onward then, but, having worked her way as far from the parking lot as she could, she didn’t know the way back. I showed her a map I’d picked up at the donation box. Shirley said “Oh, I can’t read maps.” She wanted me to ski with her for the rest of the day!
We came upon Lance, and he patiently taught her how to get up when she falls and how to put on her skis. I conducted her to the last turn before the parking lot and pointed out the road to follow from there. Free at last. It looked like I was going to get back too soon, so I explored another corner of the track system and found the rest of the group in some hummocky woods that were pretty challenging.
Isaak Walton Inn
Next day we went on a long drive to a mountain pass from which Lance thought we should be able to see the continental divide (the ridge on whose east side water drains into the Atlantic, and the west side the Pacific). We paused at a nice little lodge, Isaak Walton. With its flagstone floor, heavy beams and roaring fireplace, it was classic National Park architecture. A map of its ski trails hung in the hall. The receptionist mentioned that they’d had three inches of fresh snow and had just groomed their trails. I found the allure of seeing the continental divide had quite diminished. I told Lance I wanted to take my skis out of the van and spend the day here instead. Shirley promptly did the same.
We worked our way up a steady, gentle climb to the top of a valley from which more advanced hills and loops descended toward the river. It was pretty cold; I stopped to put on warmer mittens. The snow had crystalized overnight; each time I stuck a pole in it, its shaft resonated with a humming sound. Shirley, a retired dental hygenist, talked steadily, itemizing all her trips, all her patients’ trips, etc. At the top of the hill I advised her to ski back down the way we’d come, because the other trails were hilly, and so she did.
After a fine morning of skiing uphill and down and admiring the waterfall at the head of the valley, I went back to the lodge for a hot lunch, an indulgence I seldom get while skiing. The restaurant was small, and it was mostly taken up by a birthday party of what sounded like real estate developers. But my patience was rewarded with a wonderful grilled curried salmon sandwich.
I went back to the tracks to ski some more, and found Shirley lying in the snow near the footbridge. She was talking happily to an elderly couple who’d come strolling past, and was not making the least effort to get up. We stood her up and pointed her at the lodge. I didn’t see her again until Lance came by at the end of the day to pick us up.
Thursday we explored Blacktail Mountain, which offers a nice view of Flathead Lake . (Shirley stayed at our hotel and skied on its golf course.) The sun came out; so I skied off the trail onto a knoll with a view to put on sunscreen. I put my hat upside down on the snow, put my glasses and the cap of the sunscreen bottle inside it, and got to work with the sunscreen. When I looked down again, the hat was gone. Fortunately, my glasses and the bottle cap were still lying on the snow.
I looked around and spotted my hat in a gully at the left side of the knoll. There seemed no hurry in going after it. So I finished what I was doing, planning to ski around the base of the knoll and climb the gully from below. But when I looked again, the hat wasn’t in the gully either.
Now I was annoyed. It was my favorite winter hat, a lightweight Gortex cap with earflaps and a fleece lining; and I was determined to get it back. A steep stand of trees was beyond the gully; I supposed it was stuck in the trees somewhere.
I turned right and started downhill to make my way around the knoll with a series of kick-turns. I’d cross underneath it, climb up thru the woods and look for the #%$#** hat. Halfway along my first downhill run I came upon a black object lying in the snow; it was my hat. It had blown around behind me from the left side of the knoll to the right while I was busy with my sunscreen.
Since I was part-way down anyway, I went on and explored the steep meadow below the trail. It was pretty neat.
A night on the town
We returned to Whitefish. Lance delivered Shirley to the train station for an early trip home, due to a previous engagement in Seattle. Meanwhile I accompanied Karen and Guiana to town for dinner. We ate at the Buffalo Cafe, which features fresh local foods. (It doesn’t actually serve buffalo.)
We moved on to the Great Northern Bar and Grill and played pool while a competent one-man band entertained the growing crowd. Karen turned out to be a crack shot. “I learned at a Lutheran college,” she explained, “because there was nothing else to do!” We’d bought raffle tickets supporting the town’s annual festival in the hotel; our stubs were good for a beer each, which was all we wanted, so it was a cheap night. A Canadian from the next table came over to boast to the ladies about how wealthy he was. Later, when we summoned the hotel shuttle, it turned out that he was staying in our hotel. He’d had a few too many, and had to hold the bus still in order to climb on board.
Glacier National Park
On Friday Lance took us to Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park. The park facilities were closed; but a ranger let us into the headquarters to use the restrooms, and we stayed for a while to talk. Ken was curious about gun regulations in the national parks. The ranger explained that each park follows the laws of the state within which all or most of the park lies — in this case, Montana. She thought that (unofficially, in her private opinion) bear spray was a better defense against bears.
It has to be fresh; stale bear spray loses its potency. There’s a risk of getting it on yourself. Also, you have to shoot it close to the bear. Bear spray works on people, too.
When the time came to ski, Ken was dismayed to find that he’d brought his hiking boots instead of his ski boots. Ken didn’t let it spoil his fun. He spent the day tramping around the lake and up the river, and covered quite a bit of ground, investing half an hour in stalking a couple of deer with his camera.
Lance led a group of us across the river to a trail that gave a view of MacDonald Falls. Snow was sticking to my skis, which meant that the weather had warmed up to near freezing. I stopped to wax them and fell behind the group. I got to the waterfall just as the rest were leaving, stuck my poles into the snow and took off my backpack.
The setting was wild. The river created enough clear space for a view of the opposite valley wall, a nearly vertical forest stuffed with snow that disappeared into the low clouds. I took a couple of pictures, and bent down to get my pack. I’d forgotten about the poles, and I jammed the handle of one of them into my throat. That hurt. I didn’t know how much I’d injured myself, and nobody else was in sight. I was a bit scared for a minute. But I could still move; and even if I couldn’t, Lance keeps track of us and wouldn’t have left me behind.
The river bank was too rough to ski on, so I took off my skis as the others had done, and carried them half a mile to a footbridge that brought me back across the river. It hurt to swallow, but I was okay other than that. I had no trouble eating my lunch. I met Guiana on my way back. I couldn’t talk her into climbing down to the river’s beach and skiing up it toward the falls, so we skied thru some woods together.
The Empire Builder II
Back in Whitefish, we changed in the hotel’s restrooms (we’d surrendered our rooms in the morning), had dinner and got back on the train. That night went better than the trip over, because I had a better book; but Lance grumbled that he had a nightmare about a runaway train roaring thru a canyon.
We met in the dining car for breakfast. Ruth asked for a seat on the right side of the train. The waiter told us to sit at the first table on the left, as it was his plan to seat each party in a circular manner starting from there. Ruth balked. “There’s a river on this side. I want to see it.”
“The view is always changing,” he argued, flustered.
“I want to sit here.” So we did. A hollow victory, as it turned out; it was so dark outside that all we could see in the window was our reflections. The waiter sat the more docile parties that came in later according to his circular plan. Breakfast was dreadful; the scrambled eggs were some kind of prefabricated mash-up, and the omelets were formed into cubes. Train food! Next time, I’ll order the oatmeal.
The train reached Puget Sound and turned south, and our adventure together was over too soon. Pat picked me up at the station and brought me home for an overdue shower and some real sleep.