Winter has arrived, friends. Saw it down at the station unloading its bags. Looked like it intended to stay awhile. At the very least, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and how we choose to spend our time together has more than a little to do with how welcoming we’re prepared to be, and everything to do with how cold we’re willing to get. Hey, we’ve scouted the bars; we know you have options. And with that in mind, the Indy has compiled the following winter activity guide to accommodate every recreational taste, from sitting tight to frostbite. Try one, or try ’em all. The choices are almost limitless, dependent on only one criteria: How cold can you go?
Winter is the best time to soak in a hot spring. The steam rises into the cool mountain air and the snowbound forest muffles out the sounds of the world you’ve left behind. Then, there’s the added bonus that fewer people make the trek to hot springs in the chilly days of winter. And with fewer visitors, there’s a reduced chance of running into someone like Jake.
It was July, the middle of a hot Idaho summer, when a friend and I decided to go for a soak deep in the woods of Boise National Forest. Hot springs dot this forest, but most are found next to rivers and streams where they’re easily spotted by passers-by. Anderson Hot Spring is different. It’s tucked into the shady trees outside the hamlet of Garden Valley. When we arrived on that lazy summer afternoon, there was no one around. It looked like we’d have the place to ourselves.
But as soon as I slid into the water and released my first sigh of relief, I heard a rustling in the brush. Moments later, out popped a thirty-something man wearing combat fatigues and a sidearm. He gave us a wary look at first, but then broke into a chatty smile. His name was Jake and his “old lady” had tossed him out of the house four days before. He sure was happy to finally have some company. “Been sleeping in my truck,” said Jake, who wasted no time stripping down to his Army green, government-surplus briefs.
Before climbing into the spring, he placed his sidearm underneath his towel.
Jake wanted to talk—about his “old lady” and the “damn tree huggers” and OJ. Jake figured OJ was guilty.
My companion was terrified. This was her first soak in a hot spring, so she wasn’t accustomed to seeing so much of a man who moments before our arrival had been hiding in the bushes dressed in camo gear. On the way back to town, I tried to assure her that the soaking is better during the winter, that the best spots aren’t crowded and the joy of creek dipping is unbeatable.
Creek dipping, I’ve found, is best done in the push-up position. After heating up your body’s core with a long, hot soak, wade into a nearby creek and assume the position facing upstream. Take a deep breath, drop your body into the icy water and hold yourself there for as long as you can. Then scramble back into the spring and feel your nerve endings tickle and crack like ice cubes dropped into hot tea.
Down at the South Pole, staffers who winter-over at the research station there do something similar. It’s called the 300 Club, and the fun begins when temperatures drop to 100 below. The South Pole station maintains a sauna, which staffers in the 300 Club heat up to 200 degrees. They then run outside wearing only boots before returning to the broiling sauna, thus completing a 300-degree swing in temperature.
Sounds fun, but I think creek dipping is even better. Like that time near Yellowstone when I found a deep blue spring in the middle of an alpine meadow. After I scurried down the bank for a dip, I returned to find that all the commotion I was causing hadn’t bothered the bull moose, who continued to graze nearby. It was one of those moments that if you tried to paint it, the scene would forever hang in a motel room somewhere, overly sentimental and hopelessly tacky: the moose, the mountains and no one in sight.
My sweet mountain home
Swishfaah. The sound of a ski in glide. My memory holds the motion and the sound and the sweat of crossing a meadow on skis, curving around a stand of ponderosa, swishfaahswish. It’s athletic meditation. It’s soul scrubbing. By nightfall, I’m skied out (done “cleaning”), back home, in flannels, a mug of hot cocoa and Malibu thawing the fingers. There’s a destination other than home, though, to which one may ski and more deeply burrow into the winter: Forest Service cabins. The trips aren’t part of my own memory bank, but after talking with Colleen Hunter (skier, violist, feline-lover), and Gordon Reese (skier, activist, cabin-creator), the imagination jolts from a slumber and…
I’m on my way to May Creek cabin, one of several near Wisdom. It’s an old-fashioned vacation…You can take a step back in time. Ski boots snap into place, toe one, toe two, and a 40-pound pack with extra long johns, food, and some essentials like Rick Bass’s Winter and a bottle of cabernet, cinches tight. The path follows the stream, May Creek, alternately iced and exposed, running under the arms of lodge poles, alpine firs and spruce. I cut across tracks—moose, fox, coyote—stop for a breath, a drink, and repeat as the shadows shift. Only two miles to the cabin, but the trip can take anywhere between one and four hours depending on the snow.
The blue diamonds in the trees point the way and the cabin, a structure only 14’ x 16’, is in sight. After a brief fumble with the combination lock on the door, I’m…home…for the night. The cabin amenities are typical—a wood stove, bunks, propane lanterns, cooking gear, a deck of cards, utensils, even salt and pepper. This cabin has extra touches: a pencil sketch mailed by a European guest, deer antlers serving as doorknobs, and a foam toilet seat from Norway. A center post supports the roof, and a dinner table is built around it. Food on a trip is a big item—the menu. I imagine the meal Gordon described, once cooked at May Creek and served on this table: fruit, cheese and wine as a starter; a fresh loaf of bread; Cornish hens, wild rice and vegetables; peach cobbler for dessert. A chef skied all the food and three Dutch ovens into the cabin on a pulka, a type of sled.
Now, I imagine, is the moment that I salivate, eye the wine bottle, and dig through the pack for the goat cheddar.
But first things first: The poorly chinked cabin must be warmed. The temperature can drop to 40 below in Wisdom. May Creek is notorious—you have to keep putting wood on the stove. There’s a fire to build, water to boil, wood to chop. But there’s no phone to chase, or voicemail to listen to, or e-mails to delete. No technology. I don’t take a watch into those places.
Quiet reigns. Then coyotes howl. What do you hear when you’re out there? You don’t hear very much.
May Creek is one of nearly 100 cabins available for a ski-in, mini-vacation. The trips, though, can also be dangerous. Start early, and don’t underestimate the weather. The Forest Service prints a booklet called “Recreational Cabin and Lookout Directory” with a list of cabins, locations, fees, seasonal availability, contact numbers and maps. The booklets are available at the Forest Service office in downtown Missoula. Prices per cabin average $20-$35 per night.
Cabins (officially) sleep between three and eight people.
A whole new ball game
When the temperature drops below freezing, there’s always one group cheering Father Winter on: the broom ballers. You haven’t seen them on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but this group of winter ice roamers has, arguably, every bit as much dedication as Mario Lemieux.
To understand broom ball, think of hockey with a spherical puck and no skates and you’re halfway there. The “broom” part of the equation is that rather than using sticks, broom ball requires a kitchen broom which is wrapped and molded and padded with duct tape. Good ol’ duct tape. Is there anything it can’t do?
Though they’ve remained mainly undetected, broom ballers have sprung up all over the Missoula area. Sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation, the sport has drawn somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve teams to the ice in recent seasons. Part of the draw to the sport, broom baller Josh Vanek explains, is that just about anyone can play.
“Some modicum of athleticism is not to be frowned upon,” Vanek says, “because you can get pretty winded running around, and being flexible is helpful, but it’s definitely pretty proletarian as far as who can play.”
Fellow broom ball enthusiast Cindy Laundrie agrees.
“I played soccer my whole life and I was always mediocre at it. Because broom ball is such a sloppy sport and there’s so much sliding around, I can kind of hide the fact that I’m mediocre at it. I can blame it on the ice.”
Before games, Laundrie enjoys getting herself pumped up to some Judas Priest or, on occasion, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” “You know that song? ‘Kick ’em when they’re up, kick ’em when they’re down.’ That’s me. I’m Dirty Laundrie. And I’ll wring ’em out and hang ’em out to dry if I have to.”
Vanek explains the draw to broom ball with three words: “Camaraderie, fraternite, egalite.”
Broom ball teams play night games at Play Fair Park, behind Sentinel High School. Each team must meet a certain male/female ratio, and league dues of approximately $10 are collected to pay for the referees, who, Laundrie says, “take it pretty seriously, which is good.”
Other than these minimal requirements, a broom and a helmet (which can be an official helmet or a bike helmet), broom ball is a sport with few restrictions. Even the type of stick used is up for grabs. Vanek says that his team, Snuggle Force, is traditionalist in that it takes pride in using actual brooms.
“Some teams cop-out with the officially mass-marketed broom ball stick, which makes it easy to do things like lift up the ball.”
Despite a small amount of contention over old-school vs. new-school brooms, Vanek emphasizes that broom ball attracts players well-versed in good sportsmanship.
“People legitimately shake hands at the end of the game and actually mean it,” Vanek says.
But some recall one specific incident in which sportsmanship took a backseat to competition. Sources wishing to remain anonymous recount the day that Big Sky High School came to town, armed with a phys. ed. teacher who verbally lambasted the opposing team throughout the course of the game. The woman allegedly berated her high school’s opposing team as “dirty hippies” and “pot-smokers.”
Despite this dark moment in the latter chapters of broom ball’s past, the future looks bright. Many are returning to the ice season after season for new broom ball adventures. Laundrie’s husband, Robert Marshall, has even included broom ball footage in his film, Return of the Ice Snake, Part II, which he hopes to screen at the Crystal or Roxy theatre before Christmas.
Vanek hopes the temperature cooperates with the broom ball season. The rink is actually made up of sand which is watered and then, hopefully, frozen. Last season, thawing occurred, which led to a pestering predominance of sand within the ice. Which may or may not explain the presence of that elusive “ice snake.”
Mettle detector: ice fishing on the fly
There’s a progression in fly fishing, his friend says. You want to catch one fish, and then you want to catch a bunch of fish. You want to catch a big fish, and then you want to catch a bunch of big fish. And finally, you want to catch The Fish.
For Matt Simms, The Fish is a steelhead. Steelhead are big trout that spawn in mountain rivers such as the Salmon and the Clearwater, both in Idaho just over the state line. After spending a couple years at large in the North Pacific, they return as crimson-flanked beauties as big as your leg.
Steelhead are not the biggest fish to be caught in these waters—king salmon patrol the Lochsa in growing numbers now—but they may be the grandest. Salmon are dying when they reach their spawning grounds, stomachs long since disconnected from throats, their lives essentially discarded in favor of the next generation. Steelhead, how- ever, remain whole for the option of another stint at sea and a second run upstream to spawn.
Simms is a fishing guide and his friend, Pete Vandergrift, is too.
On a mild November day in Missoula, they tie flies in front of a large bay window in the Kesel’s Four Rivers shop overlooking the Clark Fork River. The two guides lift their heads and look out the window when their eyes tire of staring at thread and fur wrapped around little hooks in vises.
The only problem with steelhead fishing, Simms and Vandergrift agree, is the cold. Steelhead keep returning to their spawning grounds through the winter and it’s possible to land a 36-incher in the middle of January. In fact, the only time the fishing must stop is when the river ices up. The steelhead are still there but no one can get at them.
And this is where Simms and Vandergrift part ways. After a season of guiding, Vandergrift needs to spend some time away from fishing, he says, and he’s glad to divert his energies to hunting.
Alternatively, he claims he’d rather not harass a fish that has traveled some 1,800 miles in its life. But the reality, he admits later, is that he can’t bring himself to stand in cold water for hours as the pursuit of steelhead requires.
For all the same reasons, Simms is a steelhead addict. After a summer in which he may guide continuously for several weeks at a time, he relishes the solitude found on rivers during the cold season. And he’s intrigued by the fortitude of a species that can swim 750 miles upstream past eight dams after surviving several years in the open ocean. Simms has seen a steelhead with the cross-hatch of a net etched on its side, another carrying the crescent scar of a seal bite.
“These fish have gone through a lot,” Simms says. “After you catch one, you just hold it and check it out.”
This November, Simms fished for steelhead twice, once on the Salmon River over Lost Trail Pass, another time on the Grand Ronde, a tributary of the Snake River, which flows out of the northeastern corner of Oregon. On his lower body, he wore long underwear and fleece pants under neoprene waders five millimeters thick with integrated boots. On his upper body, he wore a jacket, hat and finger-less gloves.
One of his finest fishing moments, Simms says, arrived at the onset of a snowstorm in Idaho last year. Against his premonition that steelhead were present and biting, he weighed the knowledge that the highway through the mountains would soon become impassable. Fishing prevailed for an hour and Simms caught three steelhead. His own comfort in the river was never part of the decision. “If you’re going to be miserable because it’s crappy out, don’t go,” Simms says.
Because steelhead have traveled so far, and because the water is so cold, they seek an easy life in pockets of water two to five feet deep. So he can stay near shore, Simms performs long-distance casting with a 14-foot double-handed rod. And because steelhead do not feed aggressively, he works the pockets in a search-and-rescue-style grid in hopes of putting a fly directly in front of one.
On this day at Kesel’s, Simms stands up from the pile of two dozen yellow sallies he’s tied for next summer’s guiding season. He takes a two-handed rod from the rack and demonstrates long-distance casting. He borrows a piece of paper and draws the grid of downstream arcs. And he looks out the bay window and points toward the tail end of the pool on the far shore. That’s the
pocket where steelhead would be if steelhead swam in the Clark Fork.
The wind and the whimpers
Where I come from, down near the bottom of the map, paddlers of a wishful ilk read Bill Mason and Cliff Jacobson and the rest of the Canadian canoe gurus with equal measures awe and incomprehension, and never more so than at their descriptions of winter and its paddling discontents. It’s a thing we don’t much have down there at the bottom, this thing y’all call winter, and while Mason expressed envy of his southern brethren at the year-round opportunities afforded by the fatter latitudes, his boundless practicality resigned him to the fact of his seasons.
Winter in the northern climes, as far as paddling goes, is for stripping and varnishing paddles and thwarts, patching leaky gear, ogling new boats, and planning spring adventures. That’s what Mason says, anyhow.
But where I come from, where the infrequent blue norther may or may not go so far as to freeze a skin of ice on a dog dish in the tepid depths of January, sometimes we just don’t listen very well, and I’ve been wanting to paddle a cold stream between snowy banks ever since the stupid idea entered my stupid southern head.
If you’re going to ignore Mason’s wisdom—and the collective head-shakings of anyone in whom you’re foolish enough to confide your ambitions—you’ll want to plan your winter paddling trip with a bit more attention to detail than the level to which most sloppy floaters are accustomed. Two details are critical.
First, pick an extraordinarily easy stretch of river, and keep your per-day paddling itinerary brief. You do not, unless you’re dumber than a Texan on ice, want to deal with whitewater in the cold. You don’t want to deal with anything even resembling whitewater. What you want, first and foremost, is to stay dry, and moving water will either dump you or splash you or force you to walk around. All increase wetness, and wetness in winter increases whining. Boats, Mason might agree, should not be whined in.
My party chose a short stretch of the mainstem Flathead, about 16 miles worth, for what we hoped would be a leisurely overnight trip with plenty of time left over for side-hikes and pit-stops and beauty-glazed idling on a lazy current. There was nothing but shallow flatwater, hardly a riffle to speak of, and a mileage goal that, in temperate conditions, would be laughably underachieving.
Note to self: Unrelentingly flat water is often, by the nature of these things, wide water, and wide water in turn is exquisitely sensitive to the turbulence thrown up by whatever gale happens to be blowing upstream at the moment. And it is blowing upstream. No matter the river’s bend, it always blows upstream. If the wind is at your back in a canoe, you may rest assured that you are paddling the wrong way.
(A strong, cold headwind, by the way, will turn 16 miles into the Bataan Upper Body Death March faster than you can yell for help, and the wave-churned middle of such a river, dozens of yards from shore, is an exceedingly crappy place to learn the lessons of hypothermia.)
Once you’ve picked your spot, wear everything you’ve got. The heaviest wool pants you can find will not be unwelcome. You will spend most of your time sitting, with nothing for your legs to do but bleed heat. High rubber boots are handy too, for getting in and out, and as many pairs of socks as you can squeeze into them. The socks will not keep your toes warm, but it’s a nice thought. Note to self: If you tump your boat wearing all of this, you will briefly bob at the surface as your flailing thrashes the layered air pockets out of your clothes, to be replace by glacially cold water. Do not panic.
The cold will last for only a moment, while your wool absorbs, and then your boots will fill and you will sink, to face a distractingly different problem, like a stone.
(Keep in mind, furthermore, that even if you don’t tump, die of hypothermia, or drown trying, you’re going to spend three-quarters of your time scared to death that you might.)
There are compensatory advantages to winter canoeing, of course, and they are many, but winter doesn’t give that stuff away cheap, and I’m not going to either. You’re going to have to freeze for it. That, or spend the winter polishing your paddle, basking, with the memory of wise Bill Mason, in the warmth of your shared good sense. Brad Tyer