Season of Darkness 

Dream globally, ski locally

Western Montana's small resorts mean thrills of a different sort


It's a conversation that the committed alpinists among us -- especially Team Snow Bowl -- engage in every year. As the snow piles on and the days of skiing get ticked off, they begin to wonder if they are getting their share.

Like married men and women faced with a potential dalliance, they begin to wonder about conditions elsewhere. As the old saw goes, they wonder if maybe the powder is fluffier on the other side.

In our extreme age of big boards, big air and big mountains, this conundrum leads folks far and wide in effort to eke out some other existence. In pursuit of the most exhilarating experience, we Montanans visit Utah, Colorado, even Switzerland. But the truth of the matter is that bigger isn't necessarily better, especially if you don't always self-identify as King or Queen of the Hill.

Living in the shadow of the biggest little ski area around, we get to have our cake and eat it too.

It's undeniable that despite the sport utility-driving hoards from New England, the powder freaks who never miss a day of freshies, and the college kids who are simply too young to know, the Bowl's steeps and deeps are as attractive as any around. With its 1,200 acres, 36 runs and 2,600 vertical feet -- second in the state only to Big Sky Resort -- Snow Bowl is rightfully viewed by many in the Garden City as the place to be.

Even closer to Missoula, and certainly as promising for learners, Marshall Mountain gets ignored far too often in favor of its brawnier hometown counterpart.

This year, the smaller of the Garden City areas has been claiming almost identical levels of accumulation, thanks largely to new and improved snow-making equipment -- and next year, provided owner Bruce Doering can find a lift, the mountain will extend from its current 1,500 vertical feet up to 2,000.

Doering is fond of pointing out that the ride to Marshall is less treacherous than the one up to the Bowl, and adds that his area is the only one which offers two- and four-hour lift tickets. And with its expanse of groomed runs and a solid ski school, Marshall deserves kudos for being a hill that targets the novice skier. As the area fulfills its manifest destiny, Doering says, the amount of expert terrain will expand as well.

Lost Trail Powder Mountain, about two hours south of Missoula on U.S. Highway 93, will also be expanding next year, nearly tripling its skiable acreage. In the meantime, owner Bill Grasser continues to consider his area a family place, and encourages folks to come down and check the old-style hospitality. One catch: the area is only open Thursday through Sunday, and on holidays.

Having studiously avoided the fancier gimmickry of fad skiing, Grasser prefers to think of Lost Trail as skiing as it used to be. His emphasis on family values, however, doesn't belie that Lost Trail also gets higher average snowfall than almost anyplace in the state.

The resort takes its name from the fact that Indians and early explorers regularly got turned around at the pass, and could not find their direction in the heady alpine nimbus. A tip: Powder hounds from Bitterroot and Missoula are encouraged to head out for a little Thursday blasting before things get too tracked up at Lost Trail. (Nearby cross-country trails at Chief Joseph Pass are another treat.)

Discovery Basin, known to some simply as Disco, enjoys dumps from the same jet stream which clouds Lost Trail. Though a little out of the way for entrenched Missoulians (a good 50 mile drive, off Montana Highway 1), it rounds out a classic triumvirate for many from other parts of the state who also enjoy the Bowl and the Trail.

The 1,300-foot Disco benefits from a family reputation as well, though any expert will attest to the gnarly backside steeps which provide some of the tastiest hucking opportunities this side of Alaska. Owner Peter Pitcher points out that the mountain layout lets everybody do their own thing at Discovery, and the main triple chair allows for parents and children to ride to the top together.

Pitcher adds that many older snowboarders -- some of whom fear "looking like a fool," in his words -- are drawn to the resort because of the laid-back atmosphere. An emphasis on dining at Discovery also means that the tired and hungry can stay stocked up on yummy vittles throughout the course of a day-long expedition. (And, again, cross-country opportunities abound nearby.)

The appeal of all these small areas reflects the attractiveness of living in Montana itself -- skiing neighborly places run by our fellow Rocky Mountain denizens. Giving them a try will boost the economy of scale we would all like to maintain -- one which means that it's not just the rich who can hit the slopes. So if you're finding yourself a little guilty at the impulse to explore other mountains, don't worry. By staying local, you can make it a morally defensible act.

January snow has ended resort owners' worrie sof a slow El Nino season. Photo by Jeff Powers.

Today's snowshoes let everyone find solitude


Snowshoeing, the most plodding, unglamorous variant of winter recreation, is enjoying a surge of popularity which local retailers find simple to explain. "It appeals to people who do not necessarily think of themselves as adventure seekers, who maybe just like to be outside," says Todd Frank at the Trailhead outdoors shop.

"Snowshoes are stable, they're comfortable and they're not hard to learn." To prove it, Frank sent this reporter off to Lolo Pass with a trunkload of snowshoes and a couple words of instruction:

Buckles go on the outside. Have fun.

Frank wasn't the only one who promised an easy time of it. In the old days, says Jeremy Nelson of Bob Wards Sporting Goods, snowshoes were cumbersome. They forced the wearer to struggle along in an awkward waddle. Nowadays, Frank points out, lightweight plastic and aluminum materials and bindings have made snowshoeing more like regular walking.

Way back when, snowshoes -- with frames made of wood and leather -- opened up the backcountry at the price of a great deal of sweat and exertion. They were not for casual use so much as for professional trappers and others who needed to get into the snowy woods. The wearer would strap his or her foot onto a woven leather platform and trudge on down the trail.

Today, for less than $100, snowshoes can open up the Big Wild to anyone, not just super-athletes.

Nelson describes shorter snowshoes as being ideal for "aerobic" use. Being certifiably below average in the height department, I figured these are the shoes for me and pull them out first thing.

With about four feet of powdery snow at the pass, this was the wrong choice. I floundered around a bit back in the trees, sinking a good foot with each step.

It's only when I follow an old, hard-packed snowmobile trail that the short shoes make sense. As both Nelson and Frank tell me, shoe selection depends greatly on intended use. Small shoes, Frank says, are ideal for people who want to extend their hiking season on either end of winter.

"If you're hiking early in the spring and up the trail four or five miles you've gotta cross a pass, you can put a pair on and make that part of the trip significantly faster," he says. "It's a compromise. The bigger the shoe, the more surface area, the better the flotation."

The downside, he says, is that the big shoes slide more on hard snow and are less maneuverable. Nelson, however, stresses that even the big shoes are more maneuverable than skis.

"On skis that are rail-thin, you'll be punching through the snow," he says. "And hiking, even if there's only a foot of snow and a little bit of crust, you could be busting through until you're worn out."

Also important, both salesmen say, are bindings. Nelson recommends bindings that are easy to use for backcountry hikers who won't want to struggle with innumerable straps while hip deep in snow. It's the bindings, agrees Frank, which make all the difference in snowshoe brands.

Most shoes pivot on a pin -- or set of pins -- up near the toes. The Trailhead's main brand, Atlas (the kind Nelson says he prefers as well), uses a set of straps so that the resting position is at a natural 30 degree angle, making it easier to back up. They are also more expensive.

"People who try them almost invariably go for the nicer binding system," he says. "You're probably only going to buy one set in your life, so you want to make sure it's the right one for you."

Back at the pass, it is time to try the big ones. The largest pair Frank has lent me are about three feet long. They're wider, as well, and harder to walk in -- the sides knock against each other when I forget to keep my feet wide apart, and more than once I get tangled up stepping on my heels while trying to back up.

I get off the trail and head for a stand of trees at the first opportunity. The prime advantage of any size snowshoe becomes obvious at once: solitude. I hear birds, and the thump of sun-warmed snow falling off trees. The flexible bindings give me room to lie down and rest under a Douglas fir without removing the shoes.

Eventually, sleet and sweat meet halfway through my layers and it's time to go. It's then I discover another big advantage to snowshoes: You can climb hills that would be a struggle on skis like Superman.

It is, as I've been promised, great fun.

Snowshoes get you way out when you wanna be alone. Photo by Kelly Castleberry.

Not into skiing?

Skating makes the cold more bearable


Let's get right down to the stone cold truth: Winter in Montana is a perfectly good waste of seven months. One day it snows, the next it rains, and the third it drops below zero. You have to listen to story after story from knuckle-scrapers and two-plankers about discovering the meaning of life up on the hill.

As the winter doldrums set in, and sleep, depression and a creeping obsession with cable TV and beer snacks takes over, about all a person can do -- short of packing up the trusty SUV and heading south -- is suck it up and deal. But how much better to take it a step further and, to quote Joseph Campbell, "embrace your fate."

To that end, ice skating can help.

Thanks to the efforts of a platoon of volunteers coordinated by the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association, Missoulians can now search for happiness at the city's first reliable, unaffected-by-the-elements ice surface in nearly 30 years. Of course, there always McCormick Park as well.

But since the Glacier Ice Rink opened at the Western Montana Fairgrounds, crowds have been flocking to the new rink. According to Dave "the Slave" Amundson, a volunteer and member of Missoula's youth hockey association, upwards of 200 people can crowd the rink during an average Sunday afternoon.

The rink's sparse amenities (it's not fully enclosed; there are only portable restrooms and obviously the carpeting for skaters to walk around on is obviously used) reveal its humble origins. But it's a work-in-progress that will proceed as funds and donations become available. And lack of niceties aside, you can still buy a hot, frothy beverage or rent skates as needed.

Besides, Admundson says, the rink's purpose isn't to coddle skaters, but to provide ice, especially for youth hockey. "We focused on primarily the ice and any amenities were secondary. We felt the important thing is to get the kids skating," he says.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, skating's appeal across a swath of age groups and skill levels becomes readily apparent. A bevy of youth swarm the cutting board-like surface as Top 40 plays over the sound system.

A pair of hand-holding lovers make the rounds in no hurry, correcting for the other's occasional hiccup of a stumble. A family of five moves slowly in a tightly connected assemblage; the parents hanging on for dear life to the rink's edge while the kids hold on tight. A young mother pushes a plastic chair in front of her for balance with one hand and holds the hand of her toddling daughter in the other.

A helmet-clad little girl catches the attention of her father watching from the makeshift wooden bleachers so he can watch her do an awkward backwards spin. It's almost enough to make you think winter in Montana isn't such a bad idea after all.

The rink is opened for public skating every day of the week at varying times with a couple of slots reserved for adults only. Cost is $3 per adult; $2 per kid. There are pick-up hockey games on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and stick and puck games on Tuesdays. There are also figure skating classes and broomball games. For more info call 728-0316.

Swimming for a long life


For people who prefer wet and warm winter recreation, there's swimming.

For these lane-crawlers, some seriously competitive, others not, an indoor splash offers low-impact, high-yield exercise. According to aquatic trainers at a host of local pools, the water fills up with thousands of Missoulians this time of year, proving that skin tones frequently spotted poolside aren't the only things reminiscent of fish around here.

When winter snows turn running into a cold, slippery slog and biking into a life-altering expedition, many use swimming as a substitute.

Lev Bates, aquatic instructor at the Missoula Athletic Club (the building with the big bubble just east of town), says they may be better off sticking with a pool routine even after the great thaw. "I've been swimming my whole life," Bates says. "And now, I like to joke with friends my age, 'Hey, I've still got my knees, my hips, all my joints. You wanna go play some ball?'

"Swimming is much less stressful on the body than, say, running. For elderly people who want to stay toned and fit, there's nothing better. For young or middle-aged people, it's a good activity on its own or as an addition to other workouts."

Bates, like most of the trainers at area pools, says his club offers an array of classes and open swims for all ages and ability levels.

One of swimming's selling points, cited by all the trainers, is the nearly weightless workout it offers. "It's less stress on the body, for sure," says Bill Samsoe of the Montana Athletic Club (that space-ship looking place at the south end of Reserve Street).

"This is something you can do for life. Some people can keep running or playing team sports for their whole lives, but for most, as they age, this is one of the best activities out there."

Both Missoula and Montana athletic clubs offer bunches of specialized pool sessions, broken out by age group and interest. At the Montana Athletic Club, for example, a single Tuesday sees an early-morning "cardio power lap" for true-health monsters, a "sea, stride and crunch lap," mid-day daycare lessons for tots, general lessons, an hour of water basketball and finally, more of that crunch stuff.

Being as close as we've got to public plunges, the YMCA and UM Grizzly pools are perhaps the busiest waterways around. Despite a stereotypical image of rambunctious kids splashing like mad, the Y -- like its club counterparts -- offers everything from independent lap swimming to masters' classes.

And at Griz, according to manager Bryan Fruit, there's a dizzying variety of activities. The UM pool, he says, has programs designed to introduce human beings as young as 6-months-old to the world of water. Since the Griz also offers a masters program, for those 30 and up, you could essentially spend your entire life splashing at the U.

Besides swimming opportunities, Fruit points out that Griz offers popular open kayaking session. Up to 12 boats can cruise the pool at once.

"As spring approaches, that'll be packed," Fruit says. "The weather gets nicer, and people start eyeing that boat in the attic, and they get that itch."

Various vernal itches aside, Fruit notes that Grizzly is open and accessible pretty much year round. "One thing that maybe separates us a little bit is that there are no membership fees," he says. "We try to be available to all facets of the community. If you want to swim once, you're not strapped into a month-long membership or anything like that."

For more information on swimming programs and schedules, call: Missoula Athletic Club (728-0714), Missoula Family YMCA (721-9622), Montana Athletic Club (251-3344) and UM's Grizzly Pool (243-2763).

Jodi Starke gets her winter workout indoors at the Montana Athletic Club. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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