Prepared to Play
From the Winter 2021 Issue
Summer's activities transition to winter
Neither snow nor cold stop locals from enjoying the outdoors
by Sandy Compton
The ceremonial celebration of changing seasons is ancient tradition, but we don’t make burnt offerings these days; we put one set of toys away and get out another. In my life, every spring brings “Transition Day,” from snow to not-snow. Ski in the morning; play golf in the afternoon. Yes, it’s possible to schuss and putt on the same day. We missed last year because ski areas closed before golf courses opened. Thanks a bunch, pandemic. Just one more thing―albeit pretty minor―you screwed up.
In the season of this magazine, we move from not-snow to snow. Winter activity―besides hunkering down and praying for spring―has become as varied as summer recreation.
Golf to golf―or pickleball; bikes to bikes
Some people just keep playing golf. They (wisely?) abandon the north for the Southwest, where some golf courses go in winter. Golf courses that don’t migrate sometimes turn into cross-country ski courses, with a caveat that skiers stay on trails marked by groundskeepers.
Steve Johnson, who marshals at the Idaho Club, heads for Arizona about the time his course closes. Don Helander follows that model as well, but makes time for skiing before and after his southern hiatus (See his recipe for fun on the slopes on page 66). Marty Presnell plays golf as well, sometimes as much as 36 holes a day, but he moves inside come winter. “I’m not much on being cold,” he said. Pickleball is his winter sport―a cross between tennis and ping-pong played on a badminton-sized court and scored like ping-pong.
Sandpoint’s Mr. Metabolism, Jim Mellen, plays pickleball as well, plus ping-pong and squash. But he doesn’t mind the cold. While many bicyclists hang up their wheels come snow and ice, Mellen, Jacob Styer, Steve Myers, and a good number of other bike aficionados keep riding. They move to “fat bikes,” named for balloon tires that allow them to ride on snow.
Groomed snow works best. Schweitzer has a designated snow bike trail, but Mellen’s favorite is close-to-town Pine Street Woods, where trails are groomed for fat bikes and cross-country skiers. Mellen does both.
Fat bikers also ride in Sherwood Forest at the end of Pine Street―as long as trails are well packed. Steve and Julie Meyers, who bike year-around and add alpine touring skiing in winter, just purchased a piece next to Sherwood Forest, and have opened a majority to public bike use. “You can come out of Little John in Sherwood Forest,” Mellen says, “make a U-turn and zoom right into the Momentum Trail on their place.”
Other cyclists take at least a few rides in the winter, fat bikes or no. Marla Groot Nibbelink rides to the office on days she deems it possible without risking injury or frostbite. Dozens participate every 29-plus-or-minus days in The Full Moon Bike Ride, touring the streets and bike paths of Sandpoint, Dover, Ponderay, and Sagle. The Full Moon is sponsored and encouraged by Greasy Fingers bike shop owners Brian Anderson and his partner Jane. The ride always starts at Eichardt’s on Cedar Street, but only Anderson knows the destination until arrival.
Schweitzer marketing manager Dig Chismer keeps it simple. Winter comes and she hangs up the mountain bike. “I don’t really have time to ride a bike in the winter because I am too busy skiing.” Well, her office is only 200 yards from the bottom of the Great Escape Quad.
Taking it to the limits of “stuff” to do
Mellen admits that seasonal transition has its challenges. “October catches me,” he said. “It will be a warm sunny morning; by late day I’m thinking words like ‘hypothermia.’ Sometimes, though, you can ride your bike and ski the same day.”
He might be the ultimate season switcher. Summer: bike, hike, backpack, run. Winter: fat bike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, downhill ski, and snowboard―his favorite winter toy. He gave up an alpine touring setup for his split board, a two-piece contraption that allows crazy… uh, I mean, enthusiastic persons to climb mountains with the aid of skins (we will get to those later) and then put the two pieces together and slide back down. “Split boards are stupid,” he admits, ”but if I’m going to do that much work, I want the ultimate enjoyment coming down.”
Mellen weighs negative fifty pounds, but his toys keep him bound to the planet.
Styer rides his bike all winter with special equipment like a pair of mittens integrated into the handlebars. As an accountant, he makes an Excel list every January entitled Stupid “Stuff” To Do. He, Mellen, and Jake Ostman co-conspire on filling out and fulfilling the objectives of the SSTD. While Mellen was still an AT skier, they once skied into Savage Basin, an all-day-plus jaunt―twice―to set up and retrieve a remote camera station as part of a Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness mustelid study.
“The Jakes,” Mellen said, “like to ‘camp’ at the trailhead, which means throwing out their mummy bags in the snow next to the road.” The list is called “Stupid ‘Stuff’ To Do.”
About skins. Skins were first made of―surprise―skins; strips of hide mounted on skis with the hair side down. A skier pushed against the grain going uphill and glided with the grain down. Now, they are high-tech synthetic strips with a sticky backing that adheres to skis or split boards, part of setups that allow Mellen, “the Jakes,” and others to achieve their winter “stuff.”
Open water and thick ice
Fisher folks might be the all-time best example of B.F. Skinner’s principle of random reinforcement. Winter or summer, they actively wait patiently for a leviathan to take whatever is tied to the end of the leader that is tied to the line that is coiled on the reel that is clamped to the rod that they hold in their hands while actively waiting patiently.
Ed Robinson and Brian Baxter are different types of fishermen, but they both fish all winter. Robinson prefers open water. Baxter loves the ice.
“I continue fly fishing as weather allows all winter,” Robinson said. “My friend Dan and I sometimes fish out of a kayak, even in January. We pick the best, sunny days for this kind of silliness, and quiet stretches of water, since dumping the boat would be potentially fatal. (It should be stated that kayaking in winter is stupid and not to be recommended).”
Add that to the SSTD list.
“A person needs to redefine their idea of success in the winter.” Robinson said. “A couple of tugs and a fish or two is a good day in January. It also has to be above freezing. Otherwise the fly line freezes in the guides.” Fishing guides also freeze, is my guess.
Baxter leads outdoor education classes winter and summer through his company, Silver Cloud Associates. He also fishes summer and winter. And spring and fall. Baxter likes to fish.
“In winter,” he said, “I move to different gear. I carry mini-spinning outfits averaging 28 inches long with tapered poles and mini reels in my sled. Add to those a good ice auger, a perforated ladle for clearing holes, a couple of rod stands, and a comfortable foam lid bucket and you’re all set.
“I like to fish early, but Mother Nature can surprise you any time of day with a nice fish. I leave for the lake while it’s still dark. I pull my sled through the woods just before first light, and there is a certain magic about it. Once on the ice, I have just enough time to drill holes and drop bait as the sun rises. I get to celebrate that morning event as the fish start hitting.
“I sometimes fish lakes that I fish in the other seasons. But generally, I stick to smaller, remote or hidden lakes where I can find solitude.”
Speaking of ice, niece Emily Compton and her husband James, as well as nephew-in-law Christian Thompson, have been known to change their vertical world from rock to ice come winter, trading in their climbing shoes and talc bag for crampons and an ice axe. Possibly another addition to the SSTD, but that’s just my point of view. They all love to climb.
Outdoor in. Indoor out
High adrenaline or maximum cardio is not the only thing people seek in the winter, and indoor recreation is not always at the “Y” or the gym. Groot Nibbelink notes that the population of Eichardt’s, Idaho Pour Authority, and similar businesses increases as winter comes on. There is also binge watching Game of Thrones or the like.
Sometimes, what might be traditionally viewed as indoor recreation sometimes moves out. Fly fisherman Robinson is also a plein air painter, meaning that he sets his easel up outside. “I do a lot more studio work in the winter,” he said, “but I love getting outside to paint in the winter; it feels like I’m getting away with something.”
Like his fishing, it has to be above freezing. “Oil paints work fine below freezing, but it’s a sedentary activity, so staying warm is a major issue. I’m slow, so filling a 6″ x 8″ canvas is plenty for a winter painting expedition. I sometimes bring a pad to stand on to insulate my feet a little from the snow. I have a nice pair of insulated boots (same ones I use for snowshoeing).”
Oh, yeah, he does that, too, his winter substitute for hiking and backpacking.
His wildest winter painting adventure was while painting near where Deep Creek enters the Kootenai River in Boundary County. “The county plow operators had left a flat bench of rock-hard snow a foot high next to the county road,” he recalled. “ ‘Perfect,’ I thought, and I set my easel on top of that. Later, I heard a commotion behind me, turned and saw a county plow truck bearing down on me, winging the bench I was standing on over the bank. He got to within about 100 feet, gave me a big wave and lifted the blade.”
Whew. He confessed that the painting he made that day wasn’t nearly as memorable as the day itself.
Speaking of motorized equipment, there is also a seasonal change from power boats, jet skis, motorcycles, and off-road-vehicles to snowmobiles and snow bikes. Northern Idaho offers miles of groomed and ungroomed snowmobile riding, particularly around Priest Lake and the Trestle Creek/Lightning Creek road complex. A large majority of National Forest and state lands in the Selkirks and West Cabinets―including some that are closed to summer motorized use―are open to snowmobiling and snow motorbiking.
Snow motorbikes are a relatively recent phenomenon, basically a motorcycle refitted with a ski in the front and a chain-driven track in the back similar to a snowmobile track, only narrower. Since 2010, local company Timbersled has offered―through dealers―a variety of kits with which a motocross or off-road motorcycle can be converted to snow use.
Stay warm out there
In any case, if you don’t follow Johnson south to the arid zone or just queue up a winter’s worth of high drama, remember to stay prepared to play in winter land. Layers are good. High-energy snacks and a thermos of hot chocolate are well worth the weight. Warm feet are key to a good day in the cold. Get up and walk around once in a while if you are ice fishing. And keep checking stuff off the SSTD list.