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Cool Trips 

by Joel Smith


Heli-Fun


If you're looking for the ultimate winter adventure, how about this? You round up nine of your closest, most affluent pals, load up your L.L Bean-edition Subaru Forester and make tracks for Nelson, British Columbia. You check in at Snowwater's rustic, timber-frame lodge sometime in the mid-afternoon (about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Spokane), stash your Rossignols in a closet and drive into town to see the sights. Nelson's been called Canada's best "small art town." You poke into a few shops, tuck into some pub grub at Rickaby's Restaurant on Vernon Street (you might remember it from such films as Roxanne) and head back to the lodge, where you sleep like a drunken bloodhound under your soft, down-filled duvet.


Early to rise, you and your chums (some of them still hung over) find yourselves in the back of what looks like a cross between a John Deere and a Sherman tank. It's a snowcat, and you're plunging through 35,000 feet of the Kootenay Rockies' virgin powder. No chair lifts here, my friend. For $310 per person per day, you get practically the whole of British Columbia to yourselves -- at least six descents a day through pristine wilderness. Then back to the lodge for a gourmet meal, maybe hop over to a nearby hot spring later on, and then sleep it off under the aforementioned duvet.


What, that sounds a little bourgeois to you? How about taking it to the next level? Think heli-skiing. And not just boarding a chopper to find the highest, wildest powder available. You've got to board a chopper just to get up to your lodgings, 6,069 feet above sea level in a remote ski yurt. Problem is, only six people can stay there. Who's it going to be? It's Survivor: BC style.





For more information, visit www.snowwater.com, or call (866) 722-7669. For Rickaby's Restaurant, call (250) 354-1919.





Season's Speedings


Just surviving winter in the Inland Northwest can be difficult enough. Strapping on a pair of skis, snowshoes or ice skates? Sounds like more work than it's worth. But that's why God invented snowmobiles, unlocking winter wonderlands for the born commuter.


And few places offer a prettier winter commute than the North Cascades. So here's an idea: check out the Chewack River Guest Ranch in Winthrop, where, for a $190 a day, you can speed through more than 300 miles of groomed and off-trail riding in the Upper Methow Valley.


From the ranch, you can zoom off to the Boulder Creek sno-park, follow the river on a 20-mile loop or shoot over Baldy Pass for lunch at the Sit'n Bull Saloon & amp; Cafe in nearby Conconully (pop. 190).


Or head to the Eight Mile Creek snow-park and whip around spectacular Sweetgrass Butte, along the Cub Creek drainage, over Banker Pass and around Goat Peak.


At the end of the day, hang your helmet up in one of Chewack's rustic lodge houses ($85-$185/night), or head into Winthrop for soup and calzones at the Boulder Creek Deli and a restful night at the quirky Duck Brand Hotel, "a sort of B & amp;B without the attitude or price." And then up and at 'em for another day of gas-fueled snow racing.


Winter behind the wheel: It's an American dream.





For more info on the Chewack River Guest Ranch, visit chewackranch.com. For the Duck Brand, go to www.methow.com/duck. For the Boulder Creek Deli, call (509) 996-3990.





A Modest Revolution


The nice thing about winter in the Inland Northwest is that it's democratic. You don't need to buy the latest four-stroke snowmobile to have a good time in January. And you don't need an expensive heli-skiing package. Snow is everywhere, and it's free.


If you feel ripped off by the big resorts charging you bank to enjoy the snow, if it reminds you of those crazed entrepreneurs back in 1980, selling commemorative jars of Mount St. Helens ash when the state was still blanketed in gray, here's a suggestion: Dust off your old cross country skis and head to Sandpoint.


In the winter, as Lake Pend Oreille shrinks, its beach line expands, leaving a broad, perfectly ski-able swath around the entire perimeter of the lake. Start in downtown Sandpoint, and head clockwise. Go as far as you'd like. Turn back when you're tired or get somebody to pick you up. No hurries, no trying to make the most of the $50 you dropped to ski for the day. Nothing but delightful Northwestern vistas as far as the eye can see.


When you get hungry, stop by Eichardt's Pub on Cedar Street. It's good, inexpensive and it'll warm you up. If you live close by, head home knowing that you had yourself an honest-to-God winter in the Northwest kind of day -- all without paying an arm and a leg. If you don't feel like driving home, stop in at the Best Western Edgewater (skiers swear by it), and watch Ms. Congeniality on HBO until you fall into a deep and restful slumber.





For more info on Sandpoint, visit www.downtownsandpoint.com. For the Edgewater, call (208) 263-3194. For Eichardt's, call (208) 263-4005.


For "Ms. Congeniality" visit www.sandra-bullock.org.





Something Different


Come wintertime, surrounded as we are with an abundance of fine mountain resorts, it's easy to get stuck in the groomed tracks of the downhill skiing mentality. Something about the fall of those first few snowy flakes triggers a genetic impulse in outdoor enthusiasts across the region: Must dig K2s out of closet, must wax to consistency of artificial fruit.


Luckily, there are a few people around here who know how to shake up our little snow globe. Observe:





Whitefish, Mont.


Who needs the newest, latest telemarks when you've got grandma's rocking chair? Big Mountain Resort in Whitefish has made a reputation for itself over the last 40 years with its annual Furniture Races on the last Saturday of the ski season.


"It all began when a few bored mountain employees were sitting around in the springtime and nailed some skis to an old couch," says Big Mountain's John Gray. "The rest is history."


Couch-conductors and desk-jockeys are towed to the hilltop by snowcats before setting off down the precipitous slopes. They must be able to steer and brake their crafts, and they're judged on how close they can get to the finish fence. Divan daredevils also receive points for style and costumes; one lucky team takes home the "Best of Show" prize.


Whitefish has a history of wackiness. In the early 1960s, it hosted a weeklong event called "Crazy Days," highlighted by aluminum boat races (documented by ski film mogul Warren Miller), and the Frabert E. Strobey Barrelstave races, in which downhillers swapped skis for barrel staves and, well, barrelled down the race course. The spirit of "Crazy Days" lives on not only in the furniture race, but also in the annual Bill Johnson Ski-Golf Tournament, in which teams of four compete for best downhill time, then trudge to a neighboring golf course, hooking and slicing a little white ball through a vast world of snow. Winners are determined by combining the scores from the two events.





This season's Furniture Race will be held April 9. The Ski-Golf Tournament takes place April 2. For more info, visit www.bigmtn.com.





Pierce, Idaho


The Gem State's first town loves its snowmobiles. In fact, it's built a festival around them. The Winter Carnival, slated for Feb. 5-6 this season, features a snowmobile hill climb, snowmobile rodeo and, most intriguingly, a snowmobile poker run -- in which riders get a hand of cards, speed to the next stop, draw two cards, next stop, bet, speed on, see ya and raise ya, next stop: show 'em. For those not snowmobile-inclined, there are also snow sculpture and chili contests.





Visit www.pierceidaho.com.





Deer Park, Wash.


Though Deer Park's annual Winter Festival has been cancelled for 2005, one of its most prized events -- the Frostbite Fun Run -- runs on. The race will be held Jan. 15.





Visit www.deerparkchamber.com.





Publication date: 11/11/04

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