Category Archives: XC skiing and snowshoeing

XC skiing in Banff National Park, AB; February 2018

Four of us, along with our Outing Club guide Lance Young, flew from Seattle WA to Calgary AB for several days of cold but beautiful cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Canada’s Banff National Park.  We were all retirees (we’re the ones with the time for trips like this); Linda and Terry, originally from Ketchikan AK, had operated a seafood company specializing in the Asian market.  Photographer Monica had worked at T-Mobile.  And your humble reporter Paul formerly in IT at the City of Seattle.IMG_3849

Monday 2/5: My adventure started right after my wife Pat, daughter Alice and her partner Jenn dropped me off at Seattle’s airport.  I’d had trouble packing because Lance said we’d be snowshoeing and my snowshoes didn’t fit in my suitcase.  Also, Air Canada has strict rules against putting anything other than skis in a ski bag; and my stuff didn’t all fit in my suitcase.  So I’d brought three bags.  The agent at Canada Air’s checkin counter was horrified at what he’d have to charge me to check three bags.  He implored me to carry one bag on board.  So I hung onto the suitcase.  But as Lance walked with me to TSA it dawned on me that I had a problem.

I hadn’t packed the suitcase to pass inspection as a carry-on, because I’d planned to check it.  I found a quiet corner under a wall of Pearl Jam posters and opened it up.  It was a simple matter to gather the liquids and stick them in a plastic bag; fortunately they were all small.  (From now on I’m going to pack every bag this way; who knows what I might have to carry on board?)  But the Swiss Army knife that I meant to put in my backpack while skiing certainly would be confiscated; Pat has lost two of them that way.  Lance snatched it and headed out to the airport to meet my family and hand it off to them.  For about 20 minutes they roamed around the airport looking for each other.  Now and then my family would swing by to see if Lance was there; so I got bonus goodbye hugs.

TSA usually awards me pre-check, considering me harmless, which is convenient if a bit humiliating.  I didn’t have to take off my shoes.  I’d hit on the plan of putting all my pocket items in a vest that I could slip off.  And I was wearing a plastic belt.  So, with my hastily-edited suitcase in hand, I strolled quickly thru security.  Then I turned my suitcase over to the gate attendant to check for free.

The flight to Vancouver BC was in a propellor plane too small to fit against a boarding ramp; so we were led onto the taxiway to climb up the plane’s own folding steps.  We were seated in the mostly empty plane at widely spaced intervals, arranged I suppose to keep our weight balanced.  A 25-minute hop brought us to the Vancouver airport.  Here Lance led us thru Canadian Customs’ maze of corridors and security wickets that had been built into the ceiling of the terminal.  Canada had no intention of considering me harmless; so I had to go thru another more rigorous security screening, shoes off.  On a little shelf at the head of the conveyor belt I saw a row of abandoned water bottles and one can of mace.  I drank all I could from a bottle of water I’d bought in Seattle and added it to the shelf.  Later, Lance told us that Customs had once confiscated his ski wax because it resembled TNT.

The flight from Vancouver to Calgary AB was about 90 minutes, on a much larger and fuller plane.  As the plane landed I saw a thick layer of snow blanketing Calgary; inland and at 4,000 feet, it has prairie weather.  I’d worn flannel-lined pants and brought a goose down coat, and I was glad to have them as we wandered the rental car parking lot looking for our van.  It was a large, comfortable Kia Sedona, “The worst car for snow that I’ve ever driven,” Lance concluded later.  We overnighted at a Calgary motel.

Canmore Nordic Center

Tuesday 2/6: The forecast high for today was 10 F. / -12 C.  Lance’s GPS wasn’t working, so Terry navigated us with a paper map to Highway 2 and Canmore’s Nordic Center.  It had been constructed for the 1988 Winter Olympics, and had a good lodge and an outstanding trail system.  It was quite cold, so I dropped two chemical heating pads into each mitten and put on all the layers I had.

The forest and the surrounding ridges were very beautiful.  The snow had a peculiar dry, grainy consistency like the tiny styrofoam pellets in a bean bag chair.  It wasn’t very fast, and I kept sliding sideways on any slope.  I ventured off the groomed tracks into some woods, but soon gave up the idea.  My skis were too narrow to stay on top of the snow, and wading in snow up to my shins wasn’t much fun.  The sun lowered and a mist rose, and I couldn’t see the contours in the snow any more.  So I quit at 2 PM and retreated to the fireplace with a mug of hot tea and a cookie.

We moved on to Banff, the biggest town inside Banff National Park, and checked into The Inns Of Banff, a large, rambling hotel whose buildings seemed to have been hooked together with sky-bridges and tunnels as an afterthought.  We picked out a promising dinner restaurant, but it turned out that they only offered Mexican food.  Monica wanted something else; so she and I walked on to the Maple Leaf Grill And Bar and had a nice dinner (seafood pasta for me).

Lake Louise

Wednesday 2/7: Lance led us thru the labyrinthine hotel to breakfast.  We went to the park information center, a grocery store, and touched the hotel again; the cold in town had persuaded me that I needed my heavy fleece.  Then we drove up to Lake Louise.  Cross-country skiing here is centered around the luxurious Fairmont Chateau hotel.  (Downhill skiing is at a separate resort south of the highway.). It was warmer here, 28 F. / -2 C., and there were billows of fluffy snow.  I skied up onto the wooded ridge above the hotel, imagining that I would get to a clearing with a sweeping view of the dramatic peaks; but I never found one.  Several inches of snow had fallen since the trails had last been groomed; this gave a nice feeling of skiing on virgin snow while still having a definite route to follow.  Previous skiers had skied very neatly, leaving a pair of perfect grooves; and snowshoers had kept to their own parallel trail.  I practically had the place to myself; I met only two other skiers on the ridge.

After noon, overcast moved in and it began snowing in earnest.  I skied down to Lake Louise; it was frozen and covered in snow, and there was a groomed ski trail on it.  I figured that if the ice could hold a grooming snowcat it could hold me, so I headed up the lake.  I met some friendly Canadians (really this is redundant to say, because they’re all friendly) who recommended a frozen waterfall halfway up the lake.  They warned against proceeding any further, because they’d seen some footprints that had broken through the ice.  Monica had been here earlier, and later she told me that she’d seen ice-climbers making their way up the waterfall.  They weren’t up there when I was looking, but all the same, seeing the pale blue icefall made the long ski worthwhile.

I could hardly see the craggy ridges on each side of the lake thru the snow, there was no point in taking pictures.  I followed the shore trail to the hotel.  It turned out that horse-drawn sleighs complete with jingle bells use this trail for excursions to the icefall.  I heard single bells and scrambled up onto the embankment; a two-horse sleigh full of heavily-muffled tourists glided past, taking up the whole width of the trail.  The sleigh had bench seats furnished with red blankets.  A blade attached to the rear of the sleigh smoothed out the hoof prints.  This happened two more times.  Monica said the same thing happened to her; she’d lost her balance and rolled down the hill to the edge of the lake in front of all the tourists.

At the hotel I stood my skis in a rack that the doormen pointed out and withdrew to the lobby.  I took off, shook and packed away my layers; globs of snow lay on the thick carpet in an incriminating ring around my chair.  The rest of the crew showed up, and we had supper in the lounge (a bison burger and a beet salad for me), watching the quickening snowstorm thru tall arched windows.  Monica and I had “Glacier Warmers,” which were basically hot chocolate with booze in it.  So good!

We drove back to Banff in heavy snow.  We were passed by a snowplow and a semi that threw out a great wake of snow.  I saw a car upside-down on the shoulder of the highway.  At our much more modest hotel, Lance made a run at the ramp to the upper parking lot near our rooms but couldn’t make it.  He concluded that the steering wheel must have been installed in the wrong end of the car, because it handled snow better driving backward.  We had to walk from the front door thru the labyrinth to our rooms in our ski gear.  Later I tried the Jacuzzi; it was piping hot.  It could hold a dozen or so people, and it was.

Spray River

Thursday 2/8: The forecast high today was 7 F. / -14 C.  I couldn’t find my balaclava; I must have lost it when I took off my layers in front of the fireplace at Canmore.  (A balaclava is a knitted tube that you pull over your head and neck, with a hole in the front to see thru.  Not to be confused with a baclava, a pastry.)  As we walked around downtown Banff, my face ached.  Lance made a detour to a ski shop so I could buy another balaclava.

Due to yesterday’s snowstorm, the mountain highways were not in good shape.  So a ranger at the park center recommended the Spray River trail at the south end of town; it’s in a valley and so is protected from the wind.

Lance drove us to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (as luxurious as its Lake Louise sibling) and the group broke up. Monica and I got a late start, plus bad directions from the doorman.  We slithered down a steep, icy road to a picnic area at the foot of Spray Falls.  Here was copious fluffy snow; and it snowed all day.  Some people advised us to ski to a bridge, cross it, ski along the riverside fairway and take a footbridge across the river again.  I didn’t know what a fairway was; Monica didn’t know either.  It was achingly cold, my nose was running, and the balaclava was making my glasses fog up.  I had to keep stopping to fiddle with my clothing and equipment.  Monica paced me patiently.  As we crossed the footbridge, we met Lance crossing from the other direction.  He told us to ski up to the groomed Spray River trail the way he’d come down, and turn left to ski upstream or right to return to the hotel.  And then, like Gandalf having dispensed advice to hobbits, he disappeared.

We followed his tracks to a hillside trail and started up it.  But, beyond a curve in the trail, the tracks became faint.  We worried that they might be somebody else’s old tracks covered in snow.  So we went back to the bridge to look for other, fresher tracks Lance might have made.  We found none, so we started up the hill again.  But, a bit further on, the tracks were even fainter.  (Of course it was snowing all the while.). Back we went to the bridge, examining the snow-covered picnic area at its foot like Holmes and Watson.  There were some other tracks, but they had been made by snowshoes or boots.  So we skied to the top of the hill and found the groomed trail, just as Lance had described it.  Later Lance explained that he’d bombed down the hill so fast that his skis probably hadn’t made much of a mark.  Truly, nobody out-skis that man.

Skiing up Spray River was quite nice; we were protected from the wind as the ranger had expected, and the sun came out.  The recently-groomed trail had just a little fresh snow on it, fast but with enough structure to give good control.  The forest and glimpses of the river and the opposite wall of the valley were pretty, and ups and downs in the trail kept us entertained.  This trail goes all the way to Canmore’s Nordic Center, for those who have the time.  We saw a few other skiers; and we soon met Terry and Linda, who were skiing to the hotel for lunch.

At one point one of Monica’s poles lost its snow-basket; she found it in her last pole-hole, and screwed it back on.  Carrying an extra basket would probably be a good idea.  We came to a wide opening in the trees close to the river.  I could hear rapids out of sight behind a screen of trees.  I decided to sidestep down the embankment and take a picture of them.  This worked for about three steps; then the snow gave way and I rolled down the hill to the riverbank.

“Are you all right?” Monica called down.  I told her I was fine.  Then she took a picture of me wallowing in the snow.

I disentangled my skis from some bushes and checked out the rapids; as it turned out, they weren’t that great.  I sidestepped back up the embankment, but got stuck in more bushes; so I took off my skis, tossed them up onto the road and scrambled after them.  Happily, my ski bindings were in a good mood and let me clip them back on with no trouble.

We came to a clearing that might have been a campsite.  It looked like I could get a good view of the river, so I went off the road again, skiing laboriously thru feathery snow up to my knees.  I got some nice panoramas of the semi-frozen river, pale blue with “rock flour” — rock finely-ground by glaciers. Then it was time to head back.

Lance’s directions to the hotel worked much better than the doorman’s.  The group gathered for supper in front of a fireplace in the upstairs lounge.

Friday 2/9: I didn’t feel quite right today, so I took the day off and hung out at our hotel.  The rest of the group went snowshoeing up Johnson Canyon and then skiing on a trail they saw from the highway.  I never used the snowshoes that I’d gone to so much trouble to bring along.  I thought about exploring the town; but after some online research I decided not to.  The park museum was closed, the movie house had nothing interesting, and there was nothing else to do but shop.  It was too cold to just roam around.  I had the jacuzzi to myself and read and napped.  We had dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel; hot sake, salmon teriyaki and California rolls for me.

Saturday 2/10: There had been some talk of skiing on the way back to the airport at Calgary.  But we had an early afternoon flight and it had been snowing for days, so Lance wanted to allow extra time for the drive.  Besides, once again it was very cold.  As it turned out, much of the highway was bare pavement.  And at the airport we discovered that our flight to Vancouver had been delayed.

I took my rolling suitcase to the carry-on security wicket as before.  It failed its scan; an agent summoned me to witness as he went thru it.  He started out by opening it upside-down; stuff fell out onto the table.  He said he was looking for a “handle,” and he wouldn’t let me help.  Was it the suitcase’s built-in telescoping handle?  No.  Was it my camera?  No.  He rummaged for a while and came up with my bathroom kit.  Inside was the culprit, my folding brush-comb.  Apparently it looked like a folding knife on the scanner.  I won’t travel with that any more!

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How I became a fiddler crab

fiddler_crab01_lIt was late in the snow season, but a forecast for mountain sun meant that our “cascade concrete” might be soft enough to ski on. My cross country ski club’s bus pulled into the Hayak ski area parking lot on Snoqualmie Pass at about 10:30 in the morning. The plan was to drop off the skiers here that wanted to do a one-way trip along the John Wayne Trail on the south side of Lake Keechelus; then move the bus to the Crystal Springs SnoPark at the east end of the lake. The one-way skiers would come to the bus there. Those who stayed on the bus could explore other trails near Crystal Springs.

I decided to stay on the bus. The lake trail was pretty level, and I like hilly skiing. Also, my diagonal stride isn’t that great. So I was still finishing up putting on my ski boots and gators when we arrived at Hayak. The boots have a partial plastic shell to better transmit my kicks to my skis, via the steel bar hidden in a recess under the toe that clips into the ski binding. Their soles are mostly smooth plastic, since they’re not intended for walking. Gators are waterproof tubes that fit around my shins, with a strap that passes under the sole of the boot. They’re to keep snow from going up my pant legs, though that didn’t seem likely to be a problem today.

Soon there were just a couple of us holdouts left on the bus. The driver closed up the luggage bay, came inside and started the engine. He tried moving forward, and he tried moving backward; but the bus seemed to quite like this parking spot and slid back into it. The driver and the trip guide got off, and I could hear shovels scraping outside.

After a few minutes, they came back in and the driver started the engine. We were still trapped. The engine was stopped, the door opened, and the two went back to shoveling. One of the remaining skiers decided not to wait any longer. He put on his backpack, got off the bus and got his skis out of the bay. I had been thinking of doing the same thing; this project could take all morning. So I got off and got my skis. The driver and the guide were shoveling sand under the rear wheels. The temperature was in the upper 30s Fahrenheit. The low sun was making the ice’s surface wet and even more slippery.  I retrieved my ski bag, pulled out the skis and tossed the bag back inside. I told them “See you down there,” and walked to the trailhead at the east end of the lot.

It was a Thursday, so there were not a lot of people around, which meant that the trail should be in good shape. And it was. The snow had been smoothed out by machine and fresh grooves cut into it for those who like to put their skis in them and just scoot along with no need to steer. The snow looked pretty chunky; it was basically roto-tilled ice. This might not be a great day to ski in the backcountry, so it was just as well that I hadn’t ridden the bus down to Crystal Springs. But on a groomed trail like this I thought I might do all right.

I laid my skis down in the snow and stepped into the bindings. But something didn’t feel right. I felt too light and had too much freedom of motion. I realized that I wasn’t wearing my backpack. It was still in the overhead rack above my seat.  So I undid my bindings and left my skis at the side of the trail. I walked back up the lot; but I didn’t see the bus. They had finally gotten it going and were on their way to Crystal Springs with my backpack!

Now I had a choice. I could ski the eight mile trail along the lake with no food, water, extra clothing or any other supplies. Or I could stay here, have a cold and boring day (and a hungry one too) and get picked up by the bus when it headed back to the city in the afternoon. I decided to ski, and to be more thoughtful next time I got off the bus. I walked back down the slight incline to the trailhead, perhaps a bit impatiently.  If I applied myself, I could probably reach the bus and get my backpack in time for a late lunch and still do some exploring.  My feet shot out from under me and I fell hard on my left side.IMG_3499

I was lying on my left hand. It had shot out instinctively to break my fall. Maybe I’d sprained something? It hurt, and the pain was not easing. Two men who’d come up behind me asked “Are you all right?”

They wanted to hear, and I wanted to tell them, “Yeah, sure.”  I told him I didn’t know. They helped me up and walked me, holding my arms, to a little building.  Here they turned me over to a ski patrolman.

He asked me if I’d broken my arm. I told him I didn’t know, but that it was hurting a lot. He told me he would call the park ranger. There was no shelter for me to wait in. It turned out that the building was just a cluster of little toilet rooms, and he and his partner were working out of the janitor’s closet. I could see the mop sink behind him. Downhill skiers have no idea what we cross country skiers have to put up with in exchange for a day of cheap or free skiing.  He started the engine of his pickup truck and let me sit in the cab to wait for the ranger.  I asked him to get my skis from the trailhead. He did, and put them in the back of the truck.

It was good to sit and get warm.  But I was going to need some help with the pain.  After a couple of minutes I went out to ask the patrolman if he could give me some pain killers. He said he didn’t have any, but the ranger would give me some.

The ranger was a capable looking young woman in the traditional uniform and cavalry style hat. She said she would call the medics. She didn’t have any painkiller; but they would.  She took down my details on a clipboard and left.

I called my wife and told her what had happened.  I didn’t know where on the mountain I might end up. But she decided to leave the class she was attending and head up from the city anyway, and work out the details later.  Meanwhile, the ranger called my guide; and he called me.  Now we were all in touch and ready for something to happen.

A red fire department van pulled up.  Two men came out of it, walked me over to the van and had me get in the back.  They explained that injured people are in particular danger of falling.  They took my information down on another clipboard.  They had no way to determine whether my arm was broken, beyond asking me where it hurt.  And they had no painkillers.  They helped me out of my jacket and strapped a cardboard splint on my arm to immobilize it.  Back I went to the “Mobile ski lodge” pickup truck.

When left my own devices, I tended to rock back and forth and moan. I guess I was full of adrenaline. But I was anxious to maintain a calm demeanor when anyone was around; and when I was with someone it hurt less.  Everybody I met on this day was concerned, calm and reassuring.  Loving, in fact.  And that helped a lot.

Soon the ranger drove me (and my skis) down to Crystal Springs in her truck. She briefed another ranger who was stationed at the entrance, so he could direct my wife to the bus when she arrived.

The bus driver gave me some ibuprofen; he helped me get into my street shoes and tied them. The guide came to the bus and gave me some codeine with Tylenol. I wondered if all these pills were going to play well together; but I felt grateful and ready to try the experiment. My wife arrived, and we gathered up my gear. Thanks to quite a few people, i didn’t lose my skis or anything else.

By half past noon we were on the highway to Group Health Hospital in Seattle. I was feeling more comfortable, but thought sadly that it was the end of the season for me. We munched on food from my backpack and her lunch, not knowing when we’d have a chance to get a meal.

XC skiing on the Teanaway River, WA; February 2017

Lance led The Outing Club’s third Thursday trip to the eastern foothills of the Cascades to get as far away as possible from forecast rain.  Our road took us past sweet little farms on open, gently rolling land that looked perfect for skiing.  The area is noted for wild turkeys, but we didn’t see any this time.  One farm had some goats.

I was looking forward to trying my new ski poles, a sturdy set by Rossignol with length adjustment clamps like a tripod has, buckles on the straps and removable back-country snow baskets.  Quickly I felt my right pole going way too far into the snow.  I looked at it; the basket was gone!  I turned around and skied toward the trailhead, peering into ski-pole holes.  A voice said “Did you lose something?”  I looked up.  A woman who’d skied up to me offered me my basket.  I screwed it on as hard as I could while still respecting the plastic; stripped threads would be the end of that pole.  I checked my baskets occasionally during the day; they stayed tight.  I must have done a lousy job of setting up the poles at home.

I went looking for Stafford Creek (route 4).  There were lots of meadows to explore.  I made a right turn that I thought was Stafford Creek that led me up the side of a lovely meadow.  The way was steeper than Lance had described it, and I saw only two pairs of tracks, indicating only one person had gone up and then left.  But these were plusses as far as I was concerned.  Not far up the road, I saw that my predecessor had gone off-trail to mess around in the meadow before leaving.  Someone else after my own tastes; I wonder who?  I climbed on in immaculate snow.

The snow was heavy, with a shave-ice consistency.  Under trees it was icy, from melting snow dripping onto it, and covered with pine-needles and cones.  My tracks were pure white, proving the snow to be a slightly darker shade of white, if there is such a thing.  Maybe I was squeezing water out of it.  The sky cleared beautifully, contrary to the weather report, and I was soon roasting from climbing the snowy road in the sun.  I like to work up a sweat; it just needs to go somewhere.  I stripped down to my polypropylene long johns, and unzipped the side-zippers of my ski pants so they were just held up by the velcro at the top.  I saw little danger of getting pantsed by middle-schoolers up here.  Now my backpack was bulging with layers I didn’t need.  My zipper-pull thermometer read 44 F. (7 C.).  Spring skiing!

I reached the end of the road in about a mile.  It was much shorter than shown on my map.  Lance said he’d found a hiking trail at the end of the road and followed it for a ways.  So I crossed a furrow in the snow that marked a buried stream and followed a meadow alongside it further uphill.  A mound stood at the top of the meadow, probably a buried stump.  I put my foam pad on it for a rest and a snack.  I had no trouble with sinking into this heavy snow.  When it was time to leave, my skis clicked back on easily; I must have intimidated them yelling at them last time.

This was really too steep a meadow for me to ski down comfortably, and too narrow for me to traverse.  I side-stepped down it for a ways and thought it was getting gentler.  So I tried a run toward a more level-looking patch at the edge of the forest that didn’t look too difficult.  I picked up speed way too fast, and I couldn’t push my ski tails out against the heavy snow to slow down.  So I used my “emergency brake” and sat down.  I had to cross my poles to push myself up, so still pretty loose snow.  I shortened my poles and immediately fell in love with them.  All these years I’ve endured long poles optimized for resort skiing no matter what the conditions were.  Everybody should get adjustable poles!

Now the meadow was wide enough for me to ski back and forth with kick-turns at each extreme.  (I don’t know how to telemark; I just blunder along.) I crossed the buried creek and followed my tracks back to the main road to look for the real Stafford Creek.  It was easy to find; I just hadn’t gone far enough.  I looped down from the road to look at the creek.  It was full, undermining its snowy banks and best not approached too closely.

img_2661On the way back, I fell in with Krista, a very mature lady who was still scooting gamely along.  She gave me hope.  She told me that she had three pair of skis; two were touring skis, and she was using her track skis.  Why?  Because they were lighter.  They were probably a good choice for one staying on the main route.  The snow had been compressed by snowmobiles, but they’d been well-behaved; it wasn’t torn up or rutted, and in this heat not frozen either.  I could kick and glide on this stiff yet malleable surface with long strides at a wonderful rate.  It made me want to ski forever.

I hadn’t imagined I would be skiing so fast.  Despite more detours into the meadows, I got back to the bus long before it would leave.  So I headed back out on Rye Creek (route 5).  This route had also been “groomed” by snowmobiles.  It was hillier and had more annoying trees with their skirts of messy ice.  But still worth doing!  Coming back, I decided to avoid a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill and just ski straight ahead into the fresh snow to slow down.  Wham!  Did I slow down.  I lurched forward and almost did a face-plant.  But I saved that maneuver for when I was within sight of the bus for maximum humiliation.

The driver had set up our hot drinks and cookies on a banquet table on the road in front of the bus. A friendly bunch soon gathered around it.  I did some stretches against the side of the bus with one lady.  She told me that Norwegians call sitting down in the snow to stop a “Danish Stop,” implying that Danes don’t know how to ski in hills (maybe Denmark doesn’t have many?).

“What do the Danes call it?” I wondered.


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XC skiing at Hurley Creek, east Cascades, WA; February 2017

Lance Young took us east for the second Thursday group day-trip of the One World Outing Club‘s season.  He wanted to avoid the unusual cold and high winds in Snoqualmie pass.  The bus drove north from I-5 up SR-97 and parked at the entrance to the Old Blewett Pass road.  The shoulder was icy.  The driver spread a long rubber mat next to the bus to keep us from slipping while we got our skis out of the baggage holds.  Lance shoveled fresh snow over the rest of the ice.

We had our choice of three routes from here, all snow-covered logging roads; Old Blewett Pass, Iron Creek and Hurley Creek.  I picked Hurley Creek because it had the most hills.  A sucker for punishment!

I crossed the two-line highway to its start and got started, noting that it was downhill and would slow down my return.  Under-ski was a couple of inches of feathery fresh snow on an annoying thin crust with more loose snow underneath.  The new snow kept things moving smoothly, but the old crust kept crackling and breaking unpredictably.  Days ago a lone snowmobile had driven up this road, compressing the snow; then fresh snow had fallen on its track.  This turned out to be the best snow for skiing.  Thanks for the grooming job, snowmobiler!

I’m easily distracted from a trail, particularly if it’s uphill.  Creekside meadows and wooded hollows opened up on each side of the road, so I didn’t get far.  The first meadow I explored was a fascinating little world of its own, billed with billows of immaculate snow and silent other than the gurgling of the buried stream.  Animal tracks criss-crossed like a model train layout from the surrounding forest to holes in the snow covering the stream.  While I was skiing from one mound to another, one of my tips dove into the snow and got caught in the buried crust.  My upper body continued moving ahead as long as it could, then hinged forward from the ankles to bury its face in snow.

img_2630One lens of my glasses was covered with snow.  I ignored it; it melted.  I returned to the road and moved up to another clearing.  Here I picked a sunny hillside for a lunch camp, unrolling a square of sealed-cell foam on top of my skis to make a snow-raft to sit on.

When I was done I found out that it’s harder to get out of this kind of situation that it is to get into it.  I couldn’t figure out how to stand up, put away the foam and get my boots back into the bindings without briefly stepping off my skis.  The moment I did, I sank in snow up to my hips.  I guess the snow had drifted up against the hill.  My right boot went into its binding okay.  But my left ski wanted nothing to do with me.  I scraped out the binding with a ski pole point, and cleaned out the toe of my boot as well as I could without taking it off.  I tried patience.  Finally, trusting that nobody would hear me, I threatened my skis in the most dire terms.  This worked.

I continued up the quiet, pretty valley.  My half-way timer went off.  I treated myself to one last explore and turned around.  Immediately I got cold; I’d been skiing downwind all this time, and now I was going upwind.  I put on my heavy fleece, and switched from gloves to mittens with chemical warming pads.  Still, a long downhill glide made my face ache.  I pulled a balaclava over my head (a baklava wouldn’t do at all in this situation) and a fleece-lined knitted cap over that.  Problem solved, except that my breath steamed up my glasses.

I’d been climbing most of the way; so my return was swift.  And the bit of uphill near the road didn’t amount to much after all.  I got back to the bus an hour early, but I’d had enough fun for the day.  Friends, hot water, drink mixes and cookies were waiting inside the warm bus.


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Northern Arizona XC skiing and hiking; January 2017

Monday, January 23: 18 members of Seattle-based One World Outing Club flew to Arizona for six days of winter adventuring in the high desert of the American southwest.  Lance Young, director of the club, was our guide.  IT freelancer David Stuart drove and assisted with herding cats.

Our first hop, to Phoenix on American Airlines, was happily uneventful.  When we approached the gate for the second leg of our flight, the adventure began.  The Skywest/American Eagle hop up to Flagstaff was delayed; then it was cancelled! The problem; too much snow in Flagstaff — the very reason we were going there.

All we could do was get rooms and come back in the morning.  SkyWest didn’t offer to pay for our rooms, reasoning that the snow wasn’t their fault.  Lance advised that, if we could scrape by with what was in our carry-ons, it would save time.  Nobody retrieved their luggage.  A pair of shuttle vans delivered us to an Econolodge outside the airport.

I checked Google Maps for places to go for dinner.  A scouting party hurried to the Phoenix Ale Brewery, only to confirm what I told them, that “Light Bites” meant no dinner.  We regrouped across North 32nd Street at the Knock-Kneed Lobster, queueing up at the counter.  A sign on the register warned, “We will not serve anyone who acts or looks obviously intoxicated.”  Good thing we bypassed the brewery!  Nearly all the fish was breaded and deep-fried; so I had a grilled chicken sandwich.

Rain set in as we walked around featureless vacant lots to our motel.  This was the edge of the Flagstaff storm.  Visions of snowflakes danced in our heads.

img_2558I was rooming with Lance.  He spent a long time on his phone and laptop, repairing our trip arrangements. The Monday me was very grateful to the Sunday me for the few overnight things I’d put in my backpack; clean underwear, toothbrush, and a set of long underwear for a quick change in case we had the chance to ski on arriving in Flagstaff.  My long underwear served as pajamas; the motel supplied Crest Toothpaste in little sample envelopes.

Tuesday, January 24: We had an early breakfast in the motel and shuttled back to the airport and our departure gate.  The scheduled departure time came and went.

  • Skywest explained that they were waiting for an absent flight attendant to report for duty; the plane must be fully crewed.
  • I explored the concourse’s slim retail offerings, and returned to hear that the Captain of the plane needed to determine his weight restriction for the upcoming flight.  Depending on this decision, there might not be enough capacity for all of us.
  • I bought a book; Dead Wake; The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (excellent).  Now Skywest announced that the Flagstaff runway was icy, so our flight was delayed.
  • Just as I was starting to enjoy my book, I heard that the flight was cancelled; there would be no flights to Flagstaff today.

Our choices now; stay in Phoenix for a second night, or drive to Flagstaff.  The airline didn’t offer to pay for shuttles to Flagstaff, reasoning that the ice wasn’t their fault.  Even imperturbable Lance was annoyed; they’d known all along that it was icy, and they’d wasted our morning.

We reclaimed our luggage.  Lance booked us on the next two shuttles.  I let the first shuttle go, since it didn’t have many open seats and others might feel more urgent about getting to Flagstaff.  Those of us who were left took turns watching our mound of luggage and  sausage-like ski bags.  I had a sandwich in the Baggage Claim Starbucks.

At noon we left for Flagstaff.  the shuttle was a long van with a baggage trailer.  We made a pit stop at a gas station mimi-mart, and I bought a bag of large, woody roasted pumpkin seeds. (Pat’s are infinitely better.)  We got back on I-17, but soon came to a mass of stuck traffic.  The driver called his dispatcher, who said there’d been an accident.  Perhaps two accidents?  It seemed that the snow we were trying to reach had gotten in our way again.  Then she said that the Interstate had been closed due to “police activity.”  “That probably involves guns,” I joked.  We decided to try detouring thru Prescott, adding an hour to our trip.  Later I read that the police had blocked I-17 while pursuing a stolen construction truck (the truck crashed).img_2555

We saw a heavy snow shower drift past to the north, and wondered if the lucky passengers in the first van were skiing in it.  (They were.)  As we went on, I saw a spackling of snow along the side of the road; then large scraps of the white stuff; then continuous snow except for bare circles under each tree; and at last, lovely uninterrupted expanses of snow between one and two feet deep.  Happily, there was hardly any snow on the highway.

In Flagstaff, we unloaded our skis and luggage in the portico of a comfortable-looking Days Inn on the east end of town.  I helped transfer our gear to an orderly mound on the plush carpet opposite the check-in desk.  One of the ladies tipped the driver and we said goodbye to him. Then there was a commotion at the check-in desk; “Stop the driver!  This is the wrong hotel!”

Luckily, he hadn’t left yet. We took all the skis and other things back outside and loaded them into the trailer, and drove to a spartan-looking Days Inn at the west end of town.  This time, we made sure it was the right hotel before unloading.  By now the sun was setting; there would be no skiing today.  But there was always tomorrow!

We crossed the highway and made our way up an icy driveway to a little shopping mall, where we had dinner at a long table in the Delhi Palace, with wine courtesy of Lance.  I had saag paneer, rice and garlic nan bread, and shared my neighbors’ chicken and lamb dishes.    We all ate ourselves silly.

Wednesday, January 25: Breakfast in the small lobby was odd; no protein, soupy oatmeal, pastries, bread, sugary dry cereal and a waffle maker. One of the ladies in our group showed me how to drain the water out of the oatmeal by squeezing two paper bowls together.

Lance and David had rented a couple of vans.  We loaded up, and in two hours drove to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  I skied with some of the group, while others walked, proceeding down the west side road and trail from Bright Angel Lodge toward Hermit’s Rest.img_2567

The park wasn’t set up for skiing, perhaps because this much snow at the Grand Canyon is a rarity.  We had to break our own trail between the road and the canyon’s edge.  Where the space was narrow, we skied in the lumpy debris field cast by snowplows.  At least it was clean; Arizona doesn’t use road salt.  Where the space was wider, we veered into the trees.  If the canyon rim didn’t look too treacherous, we skied along it.  We had great views from the canyon rim into the deep heartland of the Colorado River. And, away from the road, the snow was immaculate deep powder.

img_2559I’d set an alarm to remind me to turn around half-way to our rendezvous time.  On the return leg, I tried to ski an arc thru a wide section of woods to the road.  After a lot of awkward climbing amidst fallen logs and steep slopes, I began to worry, altho thanks to my own tracks I couldn’t get lost.   I studied the National Park map, and found the notice “Warning; not drawn to scale.”  I remembered a property manager whom I’d once done some work for, saying “That’s not a map — that’s a cartoon!”  I checked my compass.  I was heading east and uphill.  But to reach the road, I should go west.  But that was downhill and, I was certain, toward the canyon rim.  I decided to just follow my tracks back to the parking lot and ski the distance over again along the edge of the road.

While side-stepping down a hill that I’d climbed up with great effort twenty minutes before, the collar of my parka got caught in a tree branch; it retaliated by dumping snow down my neck.  I fell in a heap and wallowed around.  The snow was so powdery that I couldn’t lift myself up; my arms just sank into it.  I took off my ski poles and crossed them on the snow to make something I could push against.  When I put some weight on my skis they shifted downhill; I’d forgotten to put them across the slope.  I flailed around, trying to get them back under me.  I was at 7,000 feet (2133m) altitude and… out … of … breath …

I stopped struggling to pant and think.  I brought my skis next to me, downhill from me and across the slope, and pushed myself up against my crossed poles.  I checked myself for telltale globs of snow.  But it turned out that everybody else had fallen too, and I could wear my snow with pride.

I got back to the van in plenty of time.  Back in Flagstaff I had dinner with some of the ladies at a Mexican hole in the wall whose hot sauce was utterly alien and quite effective.

Thursday, January 26: I had breakfast at the IHOP restaurant next-door; a fine garden omelet with fruit and hot herbal tea.  We drove to the Arizona Nordic Village, 8000 feet (2438m) altitude.  This resort has a small log-cabin lodge and a scattering of rental cabins, and 40km of groomed ski trails.  Lance had warned us to dress for cold, and it was cold; 19 F. (-7 C.) with a life-sucking crosswind.  The snow on the groomed trails was dry powder that creaked under my skis and gave off a shuddering groan at each pole-thrust. The virgin snow off-trail felt like a cloud to ski on, and it glittered with small crystals.  My ski gloves were not enough protection to keep my hands from stinging; so I went to heavy mittens with chemical hand warmer pads in their tips.img_7920

I had a long climb up Goshawk, the layout’s most challenging trail.  At the top, I had lunch with some other skiers.  There was a yurt overlooking a wide meadow with a mountain looming beyond.  We couldn’t go into the yurt because it had been rented.

They took off, and a few minutes later I was ready to go.  But I couldn’t get my left ski back on.  I scraped out the little vampire-jaw of the ski binding with the point of a ski pole, but it didn’t help.  Luckily, an employee drove up on a little tractor and came over to help.  He got on his knees, scraped ice off the toe-bar of my ski boot with his car key, and guided it in.

After a long glide down, I followed the Thunder trail to the west edge of the resort.  I’d had quite a workout, and decided I was done for the day.  But the trail map was deceptively small, and I was still three miles from the lodge.

Karin made us reservations for dinner at Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff’s Old Town, a boisterous bistro with great food but slow service.  I had a nice salmon tostada.

Friday, January 27: When I woke up, I could hear powerful gusts of wind outside.  From the lobby I could see the entrance awning flapping and dumping snow.  The wind blew snow under the fire exit door.  The Grand Canyon weather forecast predicted a wind-chill of -12 F. (-24 C.).  Two pair of long underwear bottoms seemed prudent today.

We drove to the Grand Canyon again, and looked at the village galleries and historic buildings. The paths and roads were icy. Knowing that we’d be hiking in Sedona the next day, I went hunting for a set of points that I could attach to my shoes. I found some really good ones in the gift shop at Bright Angel Lodge for $50; “Ice Trekkers.” Each consists of chains of pointy links bolted to a flexible oval ring that slips over the sole of the shoe.  Now, instead of slithering across gray ice from one patch of white snow or bare pavement to another, I could just walk, crunching over hazards like a little tank.

In the afternoon, most of the group set out from Hermit’s Rest to ski the rim; but I didn’t want to ski here again.  It was too cramped, and the rim was too scary, and it was cold.  I had lunch and hot tea in front of the fireplace in Hermit’s Rest.  I talked with a man from Scottsdale AZ who was traveling with his 86-year-old mother.  He’d been hiking in two-foot-deep snow (not with her).  He didn’t want to hear advice about snowshoes.  I roamed around the facility and took tourists’ pictures for them. Here my Ice Trekkers were not a lot of help, due to deep snow. I found one promising icy trail behind Hermit’s Rest, and chained up my boots. It took me about 200 feet along the rim, separated from the view by a screen of trees, to garbage cans at the end of a dirt alley. The skiers returned to report a beautiful trip.

img_7942We did the tourist thing, stopping at lookouts and attractions on the canyon rim. At sunset we reached the Desert Lookout Tower. It was at the end of a maze of trails and buildings. It was a circular stone tower, picturesque and slightly ruinous. Between the loss of solar heat due to the setting sun and the wind out of the canyon, the cold was intense. I had to swing my arms every few minutes to relieve my aching fingers. I had to take off my gloves to use my camera with numb, painful fingers. On my way back to the van I pulled my fingers into the palms of my gloves to get them warm.

I emerged onto a highway instead of the parking lot. I checked the map, but it was too vague to be any help. I backtracked and found Lance, who was looking for me.

Five of us had dinner together at the IHOP; chicken Cobb salad for me. Pretty good. We adjourned to our rooms to pack for hiking and the flight home.

Saturday, January 28:  We drove down a swerving highway with wonderful mountain views to expensive-looking Sedona. From Airport Overlook, we enjoyed views of the forested valley and the scenic mountain range beyond it for a suggested donation of $1.img_7957

Then we hiked the Bell Rock Path; I went 3.5 miles (5.6km).  We’d descended to 4,300 feet (1,310m).  Here it was a warm spring day; no need for Ice Trekkers.  I soon shed my gloves, ear band, jacket, fleece and (discretely and awkwardly) my long underwear bottoms. This was beautiful country, not desert but arid scrubland, loosely populated by cacti, bushes and stunted trees.  Much of the way was on solid sandstone, with stretches of orange soil and viscous orange mud.  I saw scraps of snow on the paddle-shaped cacti. The trail started out well-defined, but soon widened and branched out until one could walk nearly anywhere.  Trail signs were frequent; they were set in wire-wrapped cylinders of loose rock, perhaps because signposts couldn’t be driven into the solid rock underfoot.  I explored icy dry washes and easily climbed partway up Bell Rock.  Quite a few people had come to enjoy the sunny, brightly-colored expanse, including dog-walkers and joggers, tourists speaking many languages, and families with children.

img_7975After this wonderful day in the sun, we returned to snowbound Flagstaff somewhat reluctantly.  At the airport, Skywest had one more trick up their sleeve.  Because they hadn’t flown us to Flagstaff, they’d cancelled our seats for the return flight to Phoenix.  Reasoning, perhaps, that we must still be in Phoenix and didn’t need them.  Lance straightened the snafu out somehow, and we had a 27-minute flight down.

David organized a farewell dinner at the Four Peaks Brewery pub in the Sky Harbor concourse.  I had enchiladas and peach beer; best meal of the trip!

We arrived at SeaTac Airport near midnight during a protest against President Trump’s executive order limiting travel from Muslim countries. The protest seemed orderly and well-led. However, airport management seemed unprepared to deal with it.

Our American Airlines flight disembarked at the north end of the terminal. All entrances to baggage claim were blocked off. I walked the length of the airport looking for a way out. There were no announcements or signs explaining what was going on and how to get my baggage, and no staff stationed on my route to tell me.

When I reached the south end of the terminal, a large group of police and security officers at Gate A6 let me into Baggage Claim.  I had to walk the length of the terminal again in Baggage Claim to get to carousel 16 at the north end. I passed amid the protestors near carousel 13. They were not intimidating, blocking or interfering with operations. If it hadn’t been so late with my wife trying to pick me up, I’d have been happy to join them. I’m impressed that so many people would come so far to protest Trump’s anti-Muslim restrictions, and and that they would still be protesting at midnight.

Pat left the car parked in the “No waiting” pickup zone outside Baggage Claim to come and look for me.  She was parked next to a police car, but they didn’t bother her.


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XC skiing at Deer Creek, WA; January 2017

January, 2017: The first day trip of the season for the 1 World Outing Club‘s Thursday group was Deer Creek on Forest Service land east of Verlot, WA. We had a 45-minute delay south of Snohomish due to a radiator leak. Our bus limped to a Starbucks coffee shop to wait for a rescue bus.

I found a table in the QFC grocery next door that had thoughtfully been provisioned with a Seattle Times. The new bus appeared as promised. We moved our things over to it; Lance and the drivers moved our skis. Lance extended our schedule to make up the lost time.

Soon we were driving up the winding two-lane Mountain Loop Highway past little farms, snowy woods and glimpses of the sprawling, partly frozen channels of the South Fork Stillaguamish River. East of Silverton, the plowed road ended beyond the Deer Creek turnoff at a mound of snow. I chose to ski further up the road, along with about eight other skiers. I was hoping to explore some back roads I’d noted on my map about three miles further along.

My zipper-pull thermometer read 24 F. The sun peered into the valley from its craggy southern rim, so l knew it wasn’t going to get any warmer. But I soon took off my jacket and changed from my heavy to my light fleece. The snow was well chewed by snowmobiles; it had a stiff, creaky consistency like crumbled styrofoam. My ski poles made a shuddering, squeaking noise with each stride. Crystals on the surface sparkled when they caught the sun.

A clutch of snowmobiles came howling up behind us, veering back and forth and belching a gassy stench. Get stuck, I mentally commanded them. They whined past me. Then four of them stopped ahead of me, and the one that went on came back to join them. When I reached them, the riders had gathered around one of the machines and were looking at it. I have godlike powers!

Past the Big Four Campground turnoff, I found my side road (NF 4062). Two ladies stood at its foot, looking at their maps. (Most cross country skiers are women.). We proceeded up the road, on much better snow; only one or two snowmobiles had marred it. Our way was a narrow aisle lined with fir trees robed in snow. We circumvented a few fallen branches and came to a turnoff. This seemed to be Route 4 (NF 4060) on our maps. It climbed steeply, and bore only the tracks of a lone snowshoer. The ladies thought it looked too forbidding; but I told them I’d give it a try.img_2491

The fresh snow was an inch or two deep on top of hard older snow. I had to clamber up with my ski tips spread out and inner edges down–the “herring-bone,” so called for the pattern this mode of travel makes in the snow. Around the corner, the way leveled out. I had a pleasant ski for half a mile, accompanied only by the ghostly snowshoer. The road ended in a little clearing with rabbit-prints all around.

I snacked on a nut bar and slices of raw peeled broccoli stem, and had a nice glide back down to the highway; the two ladies were out of sight.

Skiing back on the highway went a lot better than the trip up. The snowmobiles had softened up the snow, and the grade was slightly downhill. Skiing downhill is a light, sylphlike dance; uphill can be a slog. I took off my fleece; now I was down to my shirt and long underwear.

I passed a party of wallkers. I hate to ski over footprints in snow, but this time I figured they might as well enjoy themselves; the snow was all beaten up anyway. One of their dogs stalked me from behind, as dogs will do. I showed it the points of my poles, and it quit the game.

I explored more turnoffs on my way back. On one, I met a lady who was walking and carrying her skis; her friend was slowly skiing beside her. I asked if she was okay. “I’m tired, and I don’t want to get hurt,” she told me. “I have osteoporosis.”

“You’re a spirited lady. I’m happy to see you out here,” I told her.

Back on the bus, we ate our lunches; Lance provided chocolate cookies and hot drinks. I heard that it was 20 F. I don’t remember much about the return trip! When I woke up we were out of the mountains.

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XC Skiing near Whitefish, Montana; February 2016

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).

Gathering in the King Street Station; Ruth, Giana, Ken, Jeanie, Patty, Lance.

Gathering in the King Street Station; Ruth, Giana, Ken, Jeanie, Patty, Lance.

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.  train

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.

Round Meadow

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.mound meadow

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.  isaak walton

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.

Blacktail Mountain

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.  hat hill

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.)

great northern

Two Canadians, Karen and Guiana

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.


Lance at MacDonald Falls

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.

Ice on MacDonald River

Ice on MacDonald River

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.


Whitefish, Montana