Indy's Winter Rec Issue 

Are You X-perienced?

The trails to hit and the gear to get for cross-country skiing


Back in the days when I was less chronologically challenged, cross-country skiing held all the appeal for me of a day of sleigh riding in a corn field. I naively believed that the essence of skiing involved waist-deep powder, nose-bleed altitudes, shots of Jack Daniels on windy chair lifts and cute blonde girls in pink neon spandex. Mostly, it meant bombing snout first into gravity storms and praying out loud a lot. It took a while to understand the attraction of any sport that seemed to offer the same adrenaline rush as a game of gin rummy.

Thankfully, moving to Missoula opened my eyes to both the physical demands of cross-country skiing as well as the numerous opportunities for enjoying the beauty and serenity of Montana's back country in the winter months. It's also one of the few winter sports I can enjoy in the company of my dogs, provided I ski in an area that allows them on the trails.

The Trails

The Missoula area offers a diversity of places to cross-country ski, depending upon your ability level, physical conditioning, the kind of skiing you want to do and the distances you plan to travel. Suggesting places to cross-country ski is a little like suggesting places to ride a bicycle: When conditions are right, you can do it practically anywhere, but there are some areas more suited than others.

Closest to town are the north and south side trails at Pattee Canyon, which offer several miles of groomed trails at no cost. The trails are administered by the Missoula Ranger District, Lolo National Forest and maintained by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club. Maps are available for free at the ranger district headquarters at Fort Missoula. Sorry, but dogs are not allowed on groomed trails. Advantageously, Pattee Canyon is close to town, but snow conditions this year have been less than stellar, i.e. lots of rain. For more information, call the Lolo National Forest ranger station at (406) 329-3814.

A lone skier makes her way up a trail near Crazy Canyon in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area. Numerous groomed and ungroomed trails provide winter solitude less than 15 minutes from town.
Photo by Chad Harder

The Crazy Canyon Trail is located close to Pattee Canyon, but offers a bit more altitude gain and some terrific views of the Missoula valley. This area is dog-friendly and gives you good a work-out to boot. Plus, most of the return trip back to the car is downhill. To reach the trailhead, travel 3.1 miles up Pattee Canyon Road from the intersection of SW Higgins. The trailhead is on the left side of the road.

Also within easy striking distance of town is the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area, which offers plenty of multi-use trails suitable for cross-country skiing. Cathy at Missoula Parks and Recreation suggested the Curry trail system, which has easy to moderate elevation gains and a ten-mile loop. Shorter loops are also available. These trails aren't groomed but receive enough use during the season that you're rarely bushwhacking through virgin snow. The Sawmill-Curry Trailhead is located 1.2 miles past the main Rattlesnake trailhead parking area on Sawmill Gulch Road. For free maps and info, call Missoula City Parks and Recreation at (406) 721-7275. (Also, ask about their cross-country ski lessons.)

Within a 40-minute drive from downtown Missoula is the Lubrecht Experimental Forest. This area, administered by the University of Montana School of Forestry, provides about 20 miles of terrific cross-country trails at no cost. Though close to Missoula, Lubrecht receives more snow, and cross-country conditions are already quite good this year. Trails are marked for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers, and dogs are permitted, provided you keep them within swatting range at all times. To reach the Lubrecht Forest, take Highway 200 north about 31 miles. Look for the sign on the right side of the road. For more info, call (406) 244-5524.

Just across the Idaho border, you can take advantage of a diversity of trails up at Lolo Pass. This area requires an Idaho Park N' Ski sticker ($20 annually). Of the seven trails, about half are groomed and range from easiest to most difficult. Be advised that snowmobiles are allowed on Pack Creek, Moose Ridge Loop and Granite Pass trails. The Wagon Mountain provides 17 miles of "most difficult" terrain, which is designated for mountain touring and recommended for experienced skiers only. Trail conditions, maps and additional info are available at the Lolo National Forest ranger station.

About two hours south on Highway 93 you can access the cross-country areas of Lost Trail and Chief Joseph Pass. For anyone looking to make a whole day or weekend of it, this area probably offers the greatest diversity of trails as far as difficulty, terrain, and mileage. An excellent map and trail guide is available at the Lolo National Forest ranger station at Fort Missoula. Downhill skiing is also available.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the Forest Service maintains a number of cabins for rental year round, some of which are accessible in the winter only by cross-country skis or snowmobiles. These cabins vary greatly in size and the number of people they can accommodate, but are very reasonably priced. Most provide bunks, stoves, firewood and cooking utensils. You bring the food, sleeping bags and someone to keep warm with. For reservations, prices and a list of cabins, contact the Lolo National Forest Ranger Station.

The Gear

As for equipment, unless you plan to ski competitively (in which case, you're light years beyond this article), cross-country skis are designed for either touring or backcountry use. Touring skis, which are preferable on groomed and well-used trails, are generally longer, narrower and more flexible.

Backcountry skis are designed to allow the skier some "flotation," to ride over the deeper, unpacked snow. They are generally wider and shorter skis, torsionally stiffer and usually come with beefier boots to allow for better control in rough terrain. They may also come in a tapered or "side cut" design, much the way some downhill skis are now designed. Plus they have edges to allow for greater turning control on steeper grades.

Both backcountry and touring skis come with either three-pin or step-in bindings. Personally, I find the three-pin design to be a pain in the ass, especially in the back country, and step-in bindings seem to offer a bit more control. As always, personal taste prevails.

As for cross-country ski rentals in Missoula, prices range from $5 to $15 per day, depending upon the type of ski you wish to use. They're available at The Trailhead, Gart Sports, Shamrock, Play It Again Sports, and Rent-A-Sport. Cross-country ski packages-including skis, poles, boots and bindings-new or used, are available practically everywhere and start at about $100.

As with all winter sports in Montana, be aware of changing weather conditions. It's advisable to travel with at least one other person, carry plenty of water to keep hydrated, and let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return.

For avalanche advisories, call the Missoula Regional Avalanche Advisory at 1-800-281-1030.

Let the Games Begin

Amateurs are always welcome at Frost Fever


The TV spots for the annual Frost Fever Winter Festival are arguably the most brilliant local commercials ever made (with the possible exception of "Free beef!"), and the first time I saw it I laughed so hard beer shot out of my nose.

There she was, Vi Thompson, Missoula's prim and polite queen of charitable chat, enjoying her sunset years barreling around a hockey rink with a menacing sneer and a thugged-out stocking cap. I know, it was simply a camera trick, but the thought of the hostess of By the Way participating in roughneck Frost Fever winter sports like broomball and snowboarding was too rich to ignore.

The point of Frost Fever, though, running from January 28 through February 7, is that you don't have to be a professional, or even particularly fit, to enjoy the 30 different events spanning ten days. The theme of this year's Frost Fever is "Active Living, Healthy Lifestyles," and Missoula Parks and Recreation manager Donna Gaukler says, "Parks and Rec is all about people feeling better about themselves."

Frost Fever hosts races, games and classes for pro and amateur alike.

The theme, she says, is part of a national promotion to persuade people to give up their inactive lifestyles. "I always tell people they can be more active, but do the things they want to do, like walking or gardening. It's not total sweat-machine stuff."

Gaukler expects the 15th annual Blizzard Ball Softball Tournament, an all-day co-rec blowout at Fort Missoula, to be a highlight, along with the Rhino Broomball Tournament and the Snowbowl Snowboard Jam. She's also looking forward to the first-ever Women's All-Nighter Hockey Tourney, which will run all night February 6, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. at Glacier Ice Rink.

But if participating in such physical sports scares you back to your couch, Gaukler points out many of the activities, such as the wellness check health fair, a class on herbs for stress and fatigue, and the ever-popular dog Olympics.

Gaukler is perhaps most looking forward to the grand opening of the brand new McCormick Recreation Building, where local musicians and poets will be providing entertainment to go with the espresso drinks and snacks.

"We're trying to show how many different ways the building can be used. It will be available for rent to the community," Gaukler explains.

Similarly, Gaukler notes that events like Frost Fever, which combine exercise, prevention and fun, provide the perfect way to spark community health and well-being. "Recreation," she says, "includes arts and cultural activities."

Born to Shred

A thrill-seeking snowboarder's guide to the slopes of Western Montana


Western Montana has gained fame from what? We have the whole "Big Sky" thing going for us, a fancy national park, something that a river ran through and the lack of a daytime speed limit. Skiing and snowboarding are nowhere near the top of the list. That isn't to say that we don't have great snow and at least one big resort to brag about, but snow sports aren't a huge deal here. During high school, I went to a lot of snowboarding contests and had to convince the principal that I was training for the Olympics in order to miss the same amount of school as the football team. Meanwhile, kids that I met on various trips were being excused for whole semesters to pursue their snowboarding "careers." They were from places like Lake Tahoe, Utah, even Oregon. Now with my collection of tickets from nearly every major resort in the Western U.S. and Canada, I've realized how lucky I was to grow up snowboarding in the mellow scene around here. Here are my suggestions for where to go and what to do the next time you feel like goin' shreddin'.

Let's say that it's Saturday morning when you plan on hitting the slopes. Snowbowl is the obvious choice, right? Well, because it's Saturday you are probably going to end up parking three corners down from the lot and contemplating actually riding the T-bar instead of standing in the Grizzly chairlift line any longer. To make matters worse, you are so sick of doing the same runs over and over that you are considering leaving just to end the pain. There are things you can do to remedy this situation. Go to the ski patrol and tell them you want to hike out to Point Six. They will make you "sign out," relieving them of responsibility for your safety. But this is a really safe common hike and the view is pretty incredible. Once you reach the top, check out the weird weather machines up there and then ride back down the face you came up, but traverse to the right. This will put you into some thin trees with good snow. The area doesn't see much traffic so you'll get some fresh turns. Just remember to sign back in on your next run, and talk with the ski patrol about other short, safe hikes that will get you off the runs on a crowded weekend.

Western Montana offers snowboarders a smorgasbord of on-area and backcountry opportunities. Near Snowbowl, Zeke Trigonis enjoys a bit of fresh air coming off a jump known as “The Diving Board.
Photo by Chad Harder

Now, what if it is still Saturday morning and you are out of cash? There is just no way that you can afford another lift ticket. Drive your car, full of gas-paying pals, up to Lolo Pass on Highway 12. It takes just under an hour to get there from Missoula through the little town of Lolo. This is the sort of place where people "earn their turns." Hiking obviously takes more energy than riding a chairlift, but then the turns here are quality, not quantity. The terrain near the parking lot isn't very steep, but a mile down the Idaho side of the pass offers some good pitches that start right off the road. Maps and advice can be obtained in the visitor's center on weekends, as well as a cup of cocoa or tea. There's a lot to explore around here, and the only cost is an inexpensive parking pass for the day. Lolo is attractive, too, because with all the activity around it is a pretty safe place to take your first steps into the backcountry.

So far I've mentioned some new places to go for a pretty advanced snowboarder. But let's say that now that you are a beginner/intermediate and you hated your first couple days up at Snowbowl. Try Discovery Basin near Anaconda. It takes well under two hours to drive there and most of it is freeway. Because this place has one of the highest elevations around, the snow is generally in less risk of being rained on or getting warm. And it's harder for the snow to get icy here, making a better cushion for the inevitable edge-catch-body-whack-twisted-back. The two frontside chairs are littered with gentle fall-line slopes that are well groomed. Another bonus to this place is the steep, rocky backside that can keep the attention of a significant other who, although well-meaning, is actually pretty damn bored with the gentle frontside.

If you've lived in Missoula for at least one winter you have probably heard of Lost Trail. This place is has always been right at the top of my "best places ever" list. Since my first day here at seven years old, the only change in the property has been an addition to the lodge to make more seating. But that statement is about to be shattered, as the owners work to add two new chairlifts and a new lodge to the 60 year old family-owned operation. The new terrain will more than double the acreage of present day Lost Trail. When this all opens up, we should start acting like mean surfers. We could make "locals only" signs and start slashing the tires of anyone with out-of-state plates. I want to save as much as I can about this place to show my kids.

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