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Winter Dance

From the Winter 2015 Issue

The SSTD (stupid stuff to do) in winter besides the obvious stuff, from snow biking to skijoring

Each year, in late winter, Jim and Sandii Mellen and an assemblage of friends strap on snowshoes and climb Scotchman Peak, Bonner County’s highest. Some might consider this the first hike of the season, but for the Mellens, it is the last.

This Scotchman jaunt is the final of a series of annual winter incursions into the West Cabinets led by Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness volunteers. These winter hikes range from a few moderate miles for a seventh-grade science project, to Eric and Celeste Grace’s Gourmet Hike ’n’ Ski, a costumed affair with hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages, to daylong trudges to gnarly spots in search of wolverines.

“It’s always fun,” said Jim Mellen, “just sometimes more fun than others.”
It takes a special hardiness to haul 30 pounds of bait, camera and gear necessary to survive and set up a wolverine watch station 12 miles across snow and ice and call it fun, but Mellen and “the Jakes” – fellow adventurers Jacob Styer and Jake Ostman – consider it so. Of course, these guys also keep an Excel spreadsheet entitled “SSTD list,” which stands for “Stupid, uh, Stuff To Do.”

Not all things to do in winter around Sandpoint are stupid. “Many of our hikes allow snowshoers and cross-country skiers to enjoy winter without going to extremes,” said FSPW Executive Director Phil Hough, “and enjoy the special quiet scenes the season has to offer.”

Our neighborhood, which has an abundance of winter, also has an abundance of things to keep an outdoor person outdoors, entertained and exercised, and not all are about adrenaline, endorphins and endurance.

You don’t have to climb to 7,000 feet to have fun
Low-elevation cross-country skiing and snowshoeing offer recreation to a huge, intergenerational demographic. These sports can be done by nearly anyone and only take a few hours to learn. Both have overlapping and numerous venues. Along the shore north of Sandpoint is Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail, which is often too boot- and paw-packed to ski on, but the winter level of Lake Pend Oreille provides a swath of skiing along the gently sloping shore.

Similar opportunities await at Third Avenue Pier in south Sandpoint and other places along the lake. Access is sometimes tricky – be careful not to trespass – but below summer high water line is public property.

Round Lake and Farragut state parks have well-developed snowshoe and ski trails. Round Lake manager Chuck Gross said: “Round Lake’s Trapper’s Trail, closest to the lake, is more suitable for boots than skis or snowshoes, but the Stewardship Trail, which runs outside Trapper’s, is a great ski and snowshoe trail. You can either make a 5-kilometer loop or go 10 to 15k on the back side of the lake.”

Farragut uses a groomer to create a 10-kilometer loop with several alternative returns. “This creates 20k of groomed trail,” Gross said, “with lots of little hills and downhill runs.”

Tauber Angus Farms on Gold Creek, as well as Western Pleasure Ranch just up the hill, also offer groomed ski trails. Between the two areas, there are more than 20k of groomed trails on varying terrain from flat to rolling hills, some with track set, and much of it available for skate skiing. Tauber offers equipment rentals for use on their farm and at Western Pleasure, as well as day passes and season passes. Kids 6 and under ski free at Tauber Angus Farms.
If you’re feeling a bit sedentary after a hard morning of skiing, Western Pleasure offers the nostalgic pleasure of sleigh rides throughout the winter.

Higher may be better
Donna Parrish is a cross-country skier who confesses that she doesn’t ski as much as she would like, but when she does, she heads for the groomed trails at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. Of the 32 kilometers of groomed trails at Schweitzer – all above 4,000 feet – 22 generally have track set for classic cross-country and still offer plenty of room for skate skiers to get their endorphin levels up.

Parrish is not a skate skier. “My favorite is Cloud Walker,” she said, “which is sometimes a challenge to get to, but once I’m there, I love it.” What Parrish most loves about skiing is “being out there alone,” a grand benefit of any winter recreation.

Making (big) tracks
Jon Hagadone’s favorite winter activity is a walk out of his back yard on snowshoes. “It’s quiet, it’s good for you and it’s easy to find somewhere to go,” Hagadone said. Around Sandpoint, every level of snowshoe exercise and expertise is available, from a flat, riverside walk at Ginter Wildlife Management Area along Pack River to a heart-pounding pump up the fall line to Star Peak lookout just across the state line in Montana. All of Schweitzer’s Nordic trails are also open to snowshoes, and a snowshoe-only trail runs through Hermit’s Hollow before hooking into Overland for a walk out to Picnic Point. If you wonder where to go beside the ones mentioned, a National Forest map will give you plenty of ideas.

For the chance to experience the hushed and beautiful difference of winter, snowshoeing offers that more than any other single activity.

Roads less traveled
The mountains around Sandpoint have hundreds of miles of Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands roads to ski and snowshoe on, some of which are groomed regularly for snowmobiles – notably the Trestle/Lightning Creek road complex in the West Cabinets and miles of trails on the east side of Priest Lake in the Selkirks. These routes work wonderfully for skiing with a couple of fresh inches of snow on top of the grooming. To reduce the chance of being disturbed by motors, remember that midweek motorized recreation is minimal in many places. It’s a live-and-let-live experience. Also, snowmobile-compacted routes can be a great place to ride your bike.

Umm. Bike?
Fatbikes are coming on strong in both private and resort use. “Brian Anderson of Greasy Fingers bike shop brought the first ones to Sandpoint, and we began a snow bike program two seasons ago,” said Kirk Johnson, manager of The Source at Schweitzer. “It’s getting more popular all the time.” In addition to traditional snow gear, Schweitzer rents snow bikes for rides on their groomed Nordic trails. Tires on these specially designed machines are 3 to 5 inches wide, and tire pressures are super low, 6 to 9 pounds per square inch. “These perform great with 2 or 3 inches of fresh on firm groomers,” Johnson said.
Depending on conditions, fatbikes may be confined to certain trails at Schweitzer to avoid rutting, which is hard on cross-country skiers and skate skiers, alike. “But there is always a trail open for bike use,” Johnson said.

Skating depends on weather
Good ice-skating is rare around Sandpoint, but when it is good, it is very, very good. A stretch of calm, cold weather can put a glaze on the Pend Oreille River and other local water bodies to die for. But not literally. Always be careful on the ice. It takes from several days to a week of temps in the teens or lower to build a layer that will safely hold skaters. But, when it’s ready, the river accessible from Third Avenue Pier, the boat launch at Lakeview Park and Condo Del Sol can be an ice dancer’s delight. Sand Creek freezes, also, as does Chuck’s Slough on the north side of Pine Street where it is backed up by the railroad fill. When, if and as long as weather cooperates, skaters glide on these natural rinks and plenty of pickup hockey is played, maybe even a bit of curling. Local skaters have their favorite spots, particularly along the river as it proceeds toward Priest River.

Spectator sports
Jill and Bob Wilson own Dashing Kennel in Rathdrum, Idaho. Each year, they participate in the U.S. Pacific Coast Championship Sled Dog Races, part of the Inland Empire Sled Dog Association race series and one of the oldest dog sled races in the country. Held since 1966, it’s scheduled on the first full weekend of February (Feb. 7-8 this winter) and is a unique opportunity for spectators. “Some races, all you see is the first 100 yards,” Jill says, “but our first mile is visible from Priest Lake Airport, where the race is held. We have multiple classes, including one for juniors. There’s even a smart phone app that allows you to track teams with a GPS device aboard the sled.”

Also in February (Feb. 14-15 this winter) is a newish Sandpoint Winter Carnival event held at Bonner County Fairgrounds, a combination of horse and rider with skier and rope that’s been around Scandinavia for centuries: skijoring. This version adds a course of gates and jumps that teams attempt to run as quickly as possible.
Matt Smart of Mountain Horse Adventures, event director since it began in 2010, says the contest has steadily grown. “Last year we had 28 teams in amateur and pro classes,” Smart said. “Each team takes one run per day for two days. The fastest accumulative time wins the class.”

The course is 750 feet long and U-shaped, laid out in the fairgrounds’ outdoor arena, and times can be quick. “We have speeds of up to 30 miles per hour at the finish,” said Smart. “Pro times are in the mid-teens.”

If you want to get out there
Human-powered backcountry skiing and snowboarding are not for the weak of heart, but they are mighty good for the heart, physically and mentally. There is nothing quite like “earning your turns.” There are any number of permutations of this sort of endeavor, from “sidecountry” routes available from Schweitzer (one of the few areas in the nation providing gates that allow skiers access to areas outside the lift-served boundaries) to days-long travails along the Selkirk Crest or through the Scotchmans with a full pack and above-average abilities. A middle ground is a trip to the Caribou Mountain Lodge, where comforts of home are surrounded by the rewards and commensurate risks of skiing where there is no avalanche control, grooming, lifts or ski patrol. This is as different from resort skiing as a ferris wheel is from a mechanical bull.

Get a little farther out there
Other winter sports of the know-before-you-go sort, the kind that Jim Mellen and the Jakes have on their SSTD lists, are backcountry trips into the West Fork Cabin or the Caribou Hut (not to be confused with the lodge) in the Selkirks, or snow-cave camping in the West Cabinets. Ice climbing can be done on frozen waterfalls – if and only when the weather is perfect. Winter ascents of the vertical west face of Scotchman Peak are much safer, climber Christian Thompson finds, when everything is frozen up. You can always push winter further. But remember, it can push back. The first “S” in SSTD does not stand for “safe.”

If you just want to sit around
There’s ice fishing. “We have two to five folks every weekday at Round Lake and up to 15 on weekends,” said Gross. “They’re after a mix of bass, stocked trout, crappy, bluegill, sunfish, bullhead and channel cats.” The ice on Cocolalla Lake, just upstream from Round Lake, is often dotted with fishing shacks, as is the bay in front of Condo Del Sol on Sandpoint’s southwest side. Mirror, Gamlin and Shepherd lakes all offer ice fishing possibilities. Check fishing regulations before you sit down on your bucket and begin to turn to ice yourself.

Last but not least is sledding
It’s the go-to winter sport that anyone can have fun either doing or watching. Pick a hill that’s slick and within your comfort level for steepness. Pull your sled to the top. Get on the sled. Slide to the bottom. Pretty simple, and there are lots of things to use for a sled, from a Flexible Flyer to a saucer to a garbage bag. If you prefer not to walk up the hill, check out Hermits Hollow Tubing at Schweitzer, which even lets you ride your tube back up the hill.

Winter outdoor activities don’t have to be as, um, adventurous as those on the SSTD list. “Fun” and “winter” combined can be interpreted in many ways. Options abound, and many – maybe even most – offer a reduced chance of being accused of being mentally imbalanced. Be careful, dress warmly, tell someone where you are going and enjoy winter on your own terms.

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