We've been driving for three hours, the Subaru's studs digging into patches of slush with a familiar wintertime rumble. My boyfriend, Zach, and I are heading east on U.S. Highway 2 between West and East Glacier, a route we've nearly memorized after countless ski and work trips, he for glacier research, me for volunteer work with the Glacier Park Wolverine Project, collecting data about the elusive carnivore. On typical drives I hardly pay attention to the occasional restaurant, lonely gas station or landmark along the way. I'm always too focused on the mountains and the possibility of spotting wildlife.
But I've also never come here just to ski, and neither of us has ever actually stayed in a resort near the park. So today, I notice the lone train car that marks the turnoff for our destination: the historic Izaak Walton Inn.
Zach turns down the narrow road flanked by tall pine. Two people cross the street in front of us, thin skis in hand and pom-pommed hats bobbing as they squint and smile in a sudden glare of sun. I stretch my legs and feel a surge of anticipation. We'll be skiing shortly.
We park at the main lodge—a deliberately quaint Tudor revival in tan and timber three stories high. It's like we've entered a time warp someplace between the Swiss Alps and the Adirondacks.
Inside, it's really quiet. I feel guilty ringing the courtesy bell.
A wiry 50-something man greets us and checks us in. We haul our stuff to our room upstairs and immediately head to the window.
"Let's go ski that!" Zach says, pointing to a rounded peak nearby.
We throw on our ski gear and clunk down the stairs, out the door and over the bridge across the train tracks, where 33K (20-plus miles) of groomed cross-country trails loop into the Great Bear Wilderness.
Seeing how well manicured the trails are, I feel a minor pang of regret for not bringing my cross-country skis. But my mission on this trip is to hone my telemark skills—my newest form of self-torture. So I dismiss the thought.
"This way," Zach says.
We skin up and along Dickey Creek Road on the eastern perimeter of the trails. The afternoon light reflects off the ski tracks that unfurl in front of us like ribbons.
I love the idea of skiing this way: no board on my back, no chilly chair ride to freeze my buns.
Within 20 minutes we leave the groomed road and pass a sign, almost completely submerged in snow, that warns "Avalanche danger beyond this point!" The area is open to skiers, but it's ski at your own risk. We double-check our beacons and continue on.
Before long, we reach belly-deep moose tracks and follow them up a small drainage to a slope that recently slid. The rawness of the exposed snow and stone makes me think of a mango slice—the skin peeled back and the flesh of the fruit slightly ravaged. My mouth starts to water.
"Let's go up here," Zach says.
"Really?" I ask. Zach is competent with his avalanche skills; I'm in the process of refreshing mine, so we often discuss our choices in detail. After judging the temperature, aspect and stability, Zach helps me get comfortable with the idea of heading up this way.
We zigzag through trees and debris. The sun begins to fade. After about 30 minutes of moderate climbing we stop and prepare to ski down before it gets dark. I wobble on one leg while I pull the skin from my opposite ski. A brief flutter erupts in my chest as I look at the spacing of the trees below me. Zach talks me through the checklist:
"Skins off and put away?"
"Heel risers down?" (This is a fair question, in my case).
"Layers tucked in?"
He drops in. I watch him deftly bounce in and out of the trees—pouncing and gliding down the slope.
I drop in, make one turn, then crumble and roll through my next. I extract my right ski out from under my arse.
Zach waits patiently for me at the bottom as I repeat the sequence in roughly the same fashion, all the way down—as quickly as possible. Both of us want to put in a full day of skiing tomorrow. And there is rumor of a sauna at the Izaak Walton.
Skate skiing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing— anything on planks—is the pièce de résistance during a winter stay at the Izaak Walton resort by a railroad yard in tiny Essex, Montana.
The inn was built in 1939 along the Great Northern Railway tracks that stretched from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. With 29 rooms,10 bathrooms and an accommodating lobby and kitchen, the original place was a luxury destination for travelers coming to see Glacier Park.
Today, the rail lines are still in use, although no longer for the defunct Great Northern. Of the 30 to 40 trains that roll through daily, most of them freight trains, the most notable is the Amtrak Empire Builder, which stops at the inn while shuttling passengers from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. Time has brought a few other changes: six small Western-style cabins and additional lodging in a remodeled luxury train engine and three cabooses, blue, orange and green.
Zach and I have a great view of them from our chosen après-ski spot: the Izaak Walton's dining room.
Like the rest of the inn, the restaurant is adorned with train memorabilia. The tables are set with Syracuse China—reproductions of the dinnerware originally used on the Great Northern Railway—including plates decorated with an image of a mountain goat against a backdrop of Glacier's mountains, or wildflowers by an alpine lake. The doors, hand-painted with columbine and fawn lilies, advance the wildflower theme. A chalkboard announces offerings of local food—including trout, elk and huckleberry pie. I prepare myself for a Montana-style meal—rich, ample portions served by cordial, honest folks.
There are only two other guests here at the moment: women in long skirts and big sweaters who are chatting with the chef/server about their visit. Their train has been delayed due to snowdrifts on the tracks. It's not unusual for the Empire Builder to get held up by flooding, derailment, snow and the occasional avalanche.
I begin to realize that Zach and I are a minority, simply because we drove here. Many of the guests (70 percent, as the inn's ski pro, Mark Ambre, later tells us) travel to the inn via train. In fact, a big draw to the Izaak Walton is its reputation as a "railfan destination." A whole culture of people relish train travel as much as we relish ski travel, and arriving at the Izaak Walton by locomotion culminates the journey of a lifetime.
When a passenger train arrives or passes through, guests are encouraged to walk to the covered porch and wave, much like the ladies and gents clutching handkerchiefs and hats in the photos hanging on the walls.