Upon arriving in Fernie, we opted to check right in to our hotel and get familiarized with our surroundings. Our accommodations were at the Snow Creek Lodge, one of the many conveniently located lodging options at Fernie Alpine Resort. After checking in, we walked across the ski slope to the village for a quick bite to eat at Kelsey's Restaurant, one of our dinner options. We picked up the local publication The Fernie Fix and learned that Fernie's junior hockey league team (the Ghostriders) was about to match up with Creston's team. As tempted as we were to witness one of the truest forms of Canadian culture, we chose to head back to our room and relax for the big day ahead of us.
Day 1: Hitting the Cat Tracks
The next morning we awoke to overcast skies, perfect for a day of winter activity. We loaded the car and headed to the parking lot for Island Lake Lodge guests and waited for the cat to transport us into the lodge for the day.
Everything at Island Lake Lodge is about luxury. This is the premier cat-ski operation in the world. The lodge has been rated with four and a half stars -- out of five -- and its customer service is terrific.
Island Lake Lodge staff members coordinate the day to accommodate two groups. First they send their cat-skiers out for a day of skiing. The cat then comes back with cross-country skiers, day spa visitors and those just looking for a unique dining experience.
Our itinerary for the day stated that we were to meet the cat in the parking lot at 9 am. You better believe we were there with bells on (and early too!). The cat arrived and before we knew it, we were on our way up to the lodge with a couple who had come down from Calgary to experience the cross-country trails. As we looked at our watches, it was 9:02 am.
The ride up on the cat was a unique experience -- the cat machines have all been updated this season, so they are plush, quiet and clean. After about a 20-minute ride, we were greeted by a cluster of lodges, finished with huge logs, large picturesque windows and a friendly staff with smiles from cheek to cheek. We filled out all of the necessary paperwork, were whisked down for our equipment fitting and before we knew it, we were starting our exploration of the trail system surrounding the lodge. Our group consisted of a couple from Calgary who own a place at Fernie and are avid cross-country skiers, a couple of locals and a guest staying at the lodge with her husband. While he was out powder skiing, she chose to experience the other offerings at the lodge.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he trail system is a mix of side loops spurring off the main loop, the Lake Trail, which circles the snow-covered lake. For the beginner cross-country skier, it allows a great introduction without too much climbing or descending but has opportunities for both. A groomer periodically makes the rounds, setting a track and smoothing the surface for skate skiers. Our group made a couple of laps around the lake with side loops through old-growth cedars and fir trees. The backdrop was quite dramatic and painted with the cat-skiing terrain.
Once we finished skiing, we made our way into the main lodge, finished with fresh-cut flowers, leather couches in front of the river-rock fireplace and scented with the delicacies cooking in the open kitchen. Our menu gave us a choice between soup and a sandwich or the Chef's Plate. It was a hard choice but the majority of us went for the Chef's Plate, bacon and fig wrapped pork medallions with wild mushroom jus, asparagus and sweet potato gratin. Complemented with hot green tea, it was enough to put me down for a nap.
Instead, it was time for a massage with one of the resort's talented massage therapists. Options included deep-tissue, relaxation or a ski leg-specific massage. After a refreshing one-hour treatment in their world-class spa, I was as good as new and ready for another cup of tea and a slice of cappuccino cheesecake in front of the fireplace while we awaited the cat to take us back to the parking lot, ending our day at the Island Lake Lodge. Knowing we had a couple of hours before our next adventure, we made our way into downtown Fernie for an adult libation.
The town of Fernie sits in a valley, nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, with the Elk River weaving its way through the downtown. The town itself is surrounded by legends and lore. The main street through downtown Fernie is lined with ski and bike shops, coffee shops and funky restaurants in restored historic buildings. Because of the close proximity to the ski hill and the free shuttle bus that is paid for by the downtown merchants and Fernie Alpine Resort, it is not uncommon to see apr & egrave;s skiers walking through town in ski boots and skis over their shoulder. There are many dining options to choose from but we were drawn into the Brick House Bar and Grill, which was originally home to the CIBC Bank but now hosts local brews on tap, wines from the British Columbia region and an assortment of tapas. The interior has been brought back to brick walls and big rounded windows, a perfect setting for a quick beverage and bite to eat.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince the day was not over yet, we headed back to our accommodations. Lee-Anne Walker with Fernie Nature Tours was planning to meet us in the lobby to take us out for the Stargazing Showshoe Fondue tour. At 7 pm we made our way to the lobby and, as the elevator doors opened, Lee-Anne appeared with the warmest welcoming Canadian smile ever. We made quick introductions and headed out to the boundary of the ski area, got fitted into our equipment and shoed out in deep powder under lightly falling snow.
As we crossed snow-covered creeks and passed through open meadows, Lee-Anne told stories of local Fernie lore and winter ecology with historical interludes about the surrounding community. Reminding us that we are all children at heart, Lee-Anne showed us how to make snow angels in an area with few snowshoe tracks and get up without disturbing the finished product. We each took our turn falling into the snow. Lee-Anne has passion about being outside and introducing people to the magical experience of walking through forests over snow at night. It was a truly amazing and memorable experience.
But the evening wasn't over. We topped it off by lounging on one of the many leather couches that surround the wood-burning fireplace as we shared a delicious cheese fondue at the Lizard Creek Lodge in the Fernie Alpine Resort Village. With tired legs and heavy eyelids, we headed back to the Snow Creek Lodge to rest up for our big day on the slopes.
Day 2: To the Slopes
As the time got closer to first chair, the crowd at the Slopeside Coffee Bar left the caf & eacute; for the lines at the chair lift. We met our guide, introduced to us simply as Robin, the resort's outside manager, meaning he oversees and manages everything and everyone having to do with operations outside. Over the course of our chairlift rides we found out that Robin has been with Fernie since 1974, was a patroller for more than 20 years and has had a plethora of other responsibilities on the mountain. He was a great candidate for showing us around the mountain.
There are 10 chairlifts accessing five distinct bowls, 112 trails over 2,500 acres, but it skis and feels bigger than that. Among locals, there is an ongoing rivalry between the new side and the old side, with some jokingly calling them "the old and the older side."
We started off by checking out what's considered the "old side": Lizard and Cedar Bowls. The ski runs off these bowls are mainly long and uninterrupted with groomed and ungroomed trails, open bowls and steep glades. As Robin suggested, this would be great for a powder day for the intermediate skier.
As we made our way to the "new side", also known as Currie, Timber and Siberia Bowls, the terrain got a little more advanced with steep glades and groomers. After a good number of runs, we stopped at the top of the Timber Bowl Express Quad for a restroom break and hot cocoa. As many women know, outhouses at the top of chairlifts can be cold and uninviting. I will not go into complete details but this facility is by far the nicest restroom (outhouse) I have ever been in.
Across the way is the newly constructed Lost Boys Caf & eacute;. The special was the intriguing Chocolate Shot. Described as a boilermaker in cocoa, it is a shot glass made out of chocolate, filled with the liqueur of your choice and a cup of cocoa on the side. There are several ways to enjoy this but the preferred method was to drop the entire shot glass into the cocoa and enjoy.
As the morning continued we skied around and got the locals' perspectives on where to ski for different conditions and where the powder stashes could be found a couple of days after a storm. After completing the tour, we decided to go in for a bite to eat. We made our way down to the Griz Bar, located in the heart of the village. While enjoying a prime rib hamburger and a locally crafted beverage, the apr & egrave;s ski had begun. Folks filed into the bar to enjoy stories of a great day on the hill while toasting to a great winter, with live music filling the background.
Our trip was filled with many experiences, but we hardly hit the surface of what Fernie has to offer. Fernie is definitely one of those places where, when you say you'll be back again, you actually mean it.
-- JEN FORSYTH
Jen Forsyth was hosted by Kootenay Rockies Tourism, Island Lake Lodge, Fernie Nature Tours and Fernie Alpine Resort.
For more information on Fernie and the offerings mentioned in this article:
Big Birds in the Boonies
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & nland Northwest residents with an appetite for big ski adventures don't have to travel far from the city to find places that will satisfy their cravings. We recommend these two heli skiing venues -- one in north central Washington, one in interior British Columbia -- for great winter adventures.
North Cascade Heli Skiing
Not more than four hours west of Spokane lies the Methow Valley on the east side of the Cascade Mountain range. This zone gets hammered with blower powder, making it the ideal location for North Cascade Heli Skiing to set up its base of operations. NCHS is just north of Mazama, on State Route 20 virtually at the end of the road.
What makes this zone ideal is the quality and quantity of snowfall. Storm systems from the Pacific drop the heavier snow on the west side of the Cascades, leaving the drier snow to fall on the east side.
With access to more than 300,000 acres of rugged terrain, North Cascade can give you what dreams are made of. Our guide, Ken Brooks, one of the owners of NCHS, has been skiing in these mountains for most of his life and guiding in this zone for the past 16 years. His knowledge of this range and his skiing skills are unmatched.
Throughout our three-day trip Ken led our crew, including some of the world's most accomplished professional skiers like Dan Treadway, Bryce Phillips, Andy Mahre and Coeur d'Alene's Josh Loubek, on exciting terrain. With tons of vertical to be had, this group of hard chargers was left satisfied time after time. Most runs are around 2,500 vertical feet of blower snow, leaving our group of riders thirsty for more at the end of the day.
We were fortunate enough to get in one-and-a-half days of sunny weather, allowing us to explore NCHS's highest landing zone of 9,000 feet. The run was called Silver Star and we were treated to the some of the deepest powder any of our experienced riders have ever had. I personally think NCHS needs to change the name of that run to Gold Star -- It's that good.
Each day riders typically get six heli lifts to various peaks giving them access to 12,000 vertical feet or more of skiing. We fly back up to our drop-off points in an A-Star helicopter, which holds four skiers and one guide. Our pilot, Seamus O'Daimhin, has been flying helis for almost 40 years. He is truly one of the best pilots I have ever flown with.
NCHS has a variety of different packages available; the most common is the three-day program, which comes complete with gourmet meals and lodging at the luxurious Freestone Inn. The Freestone Inn is located just a short walk to the NCHS heli barn making it easy to leave your car keys stashed in your suitcase the entire time. There are also one-day packages for riders with time constraints.
For more info on North Cascade Heli Skiing, visit www.heli-ski.com or call 509-996-3272.
Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing
Mid-December in the interior of British Columbia can provide some of the best powder skiing conditions of the season. Revelstoke -- about 300 miles north of Spokane -- is world renowned among powder skiers and slednecks. Winter storm cycles consistently dump bucket loads of the lightest, driest snow you'll find in a lifetime. With an annual snowfall of 40 to 60 feet per year it's no wonder Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing made Revelstoke its base of operations.
STHS has been offering up the goods for powder enthusiasts for more than 30 years, taking its customers into both the Selkirk and Monashee mountain ranges, some of the most scenic and rugged country in North America. With 500,000 acres of terrain and more than 200 established runs on glaciers, bowls and treed areas, heli skiing with STHS can be an incredible adventure.
Selkirk Tangiers Operations Manager Eriks Suchovs has been guiding riders at STHS for more than 24 years. That experience and his guides' expertise make this operation a must do, at least once in your lifetime.
Our crew of 11 skiers arrived at STHS in mid-December for a three-day early-season heli ski package, which consists of more than 42,000 vertical feet of skiing, three nights of accommodations at the Hillcrest Resort and meals that would make Emeril Lagasse beg for more. Early season rates -- through December -- start at $2,300. The high season rate runs up to $3,400. If you hit it right, early season can be a great deal.
STHS has a few different helicopters that ferry skiers. For more intimate groups of up to four skiers you can fly in the A-Star or, if you have a big posse of friends, you can ride in the bigger bird, a Bell 205 which holds 10 skiers and two guides.
When we arrived at STHS they were already skiing on more than eight feet of packed snow. In the short time that we were there we received another four feet. For three days straight our crew hammered run after run of continual face shots. It was so deep on the last day we felt like we were a submarine, and our goggles, the periscope. According to Coeur d'Alene's Tommy Frey, he had never skied anything that deep in his 40 years of skiing.
Lead guide Dave Pehowich brought us to some incredible terrain. One of our group's favorite runs was Idaho, which starts in a nice open bowl and then funnels you down into a nice treed area with some fun, steep rollovers. Dave P, as we called him, knew what we wanted and he continually showed us the goods.
Revelstoke is a five- to six-hour drive north of Spokane. This trip goes by quickly with the incredible scenery. You can break up the drive with a stop at one of the many hot springs around the Nakusp area. After Nakusp take a 20-minute ferry ride across Lake Arrow and then it's just a short 40 minutes into Revelstoke.
This town rocks as far as cuisine and funk. Originally a railroad town, Revelstoke is transforming into a winter paradise for skiers, boarders and snowmobilers. With the development of the Revelstoke Mountain Resort -- featuring more than 4,700 vertical feet of skiing on Mt. Mackenzie and a village centre with boutique shops, condos and luxury homesites -- Revelstoke has transformed into a first-class winter destination.
-- BOB LEGASA
For more info on Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, visit www.selkirk-tangiers.com. To learn more about skiing in Revelstoke, go to revelstokemountainresort.com.
Traveling in Tubes
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & hewing our burgers in Kellogg, Idaho, we told the boys that our adventure lay somewhere up in the mysterious, fog-enshrouded mountains on the other side of the highway. From the window by our table, they could see the dangling pods of the gondola ascending into the mist and down again. It's more fun to leave the kids wondering what's coming, so all I had told them was that we were going to "travel in tubes." They were keyed up: bubbling with questions and excitement.
One of the nicest things about Silver Mountain is that you don't have to actually drive up an icy mountain to where the skiing is. The resort and ticketing office, with ample parking, is located right off I-90. Get your bibs on, slap on your pass, and courteous employees usher you into a gondola cabin that takes you to the top.
Touted as "the longest single-stage people carrier in the world," the gondola itself is a major attraction and is worth riding even if you have no other plans. Suspended across 45 steel towers, it is three miles long and ascends 3,400 feet to the Mountain Haus at the top. The ride lasts about 20 minutes. What looked like thick fog from below was not nearly as dense as it appeared on this particular Sunday, and once our pod ascended through it, partial sunshine lit up the frosted landscapes below. It's the next best thing to a helicopter ride and is quite relaxing -- provided you aren't afraid of heights.
Whether it's the view, the mountain air, or the fact that "we're all here" instead of at work, everybody seems to be in a good mood on the slopes. We make our way to the tubing hill and the boys, ruddy-cheeked and wide-eyed, suddenly realize why we came. Yeah! Mom and Dad aren't any less anxious to give it a whirl.
The tubing park consists of four wide lanes sculpted into the hillside by heavy machinery and separated by berms of snow to eliminate collisions and mishaps. The chutes are about 600 feet long and undulate to the bottom so the rider picks up speed in increments. Tubes are provided -- large and small inflatable rubber units with slick vinyl jackets. There are plenty to go 'round. Traffic on the hill is monitored and controlled by staff who wait for everyone to clear out of the landing area before sending more people down.
The ride is silky smooth and wind-in-the-hair fast -- getting faster as the sun begins to decline and the temperature drops. By 4 pm - the end of our session -- the hill is glazing over and we are screaming down with enough speed to carry us all the way up the back-slope and into a stretchy nylon net thoughtfully installed to keep the tubers in play. Hay bales are broken up at the bottom to arrest your speed. They are jarringly effective, but it's the only bump you'll feel on ride.
If you've been tubing before, you know how it is to climb to your feet at the bottom and then realize that what goes down must come up -- it's like a death-march back to the top, tube in hand. Not so at Silver Mountain. They've installed a rubber conveyer belt that brings you all the way back up, sweat-free. It's only a foot and a half wide, but it's easy to use and does the job. Skiers on the adjacent bunny hill can use it, too: Step on, ride up, do it again.
Tubing sessions are two hours long -- which is plenty -- and you get to spend it actually tubing, instead of slogging up a snowy hill. It makes the overall experience much more enjoyable.
Mission accomplished: the boys are worn out. It's closing time and there's a long line of people waiting to ride the gondola back down, but each cabin can accommodate eight people and the line moves fast. (Current capacity is supposedly 1,600 people per hour.) The lights are already on in town as we slide down out of the sky and back to the resort where hot chocolate awaits and plans are made for our next trip. Next time it's night-tubing -- when the hills are likely to be at their fastest.
-- MICK LLOYD-OWEN
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be the next Peggy Fleming. Her grace and artistry were unmatched on the ice. I wanted to move effortlessly across the ice, too, with speed, skill and sureness.
But grace? Me? Not so much.
Oh, I tried. I took group figure skating lessons, because that's where girls who wanted to learn to skate were directed, but I didn't fit with the culture of figure skating. Looking back now, with the wisdom and clarity of hindsight, I can see that I never really wanted to be Peggy Fleming.
I wanted to be Bobby Orr.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & urns out I wasn't the only girl who dreamed of playing hockey. Spokane Women's Hockey is a nonprofit organization of about 100 members, from age 19 up to women in their 60s, dedicated to promoting recreational ice hockey among women in the Inland Northwest. The group runs the Women's Recreational Hockey League (WRHL), with games and occasional practices on Friday evenings at the Eagles Ice Arena.
My friend Jen Edgren introduced me to Spokane Women's Hockey -- she's been playing with the WRHL for about five years now. As a native of Long Island, she got hooked on hockey during the New York Islanders' domination of the National Hockey League back in the 1980s, but she had not played the game until 2002. When the Olympic torch passed through Spokane that year on the way to Salt Lake City, the U.S. women's hockey team played an exhibition game against the team from China at the Spokane Arena.
"I heard an announcement there about Spokane Women's Hockey, and I was so excited," Jen says. "I thought, I'd love to get into that. And I love the game. There's such skill involved, with the skating, the strategy of working with your teammates, the puck handling. And it's just plain fun, no matter what your level -- I'm not that good, but it's just fun."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & couple of weeks ago I visited a "Skills and Drills" practice session at Eagles for both women and men looking to improve their hockey skills. I was too chicken to get on the ice at that point -- I'd never skated in hockey skates, I don't have any hockey gear and I've been on the ice a grand total of three times in the last 12 years -- but I watched enough to feel my toes twitching. I can do this, I kept thinking. I know I can do this.
One of the beginners that night was Jolie Hagan-Monasterio, another friend who arrived independently at the same place. Like me, she knows one of the players. Like me, she was encouraged to come and give it a try. Unlike me, she had access to borrowed skates and equipment, so she was in full gear on the ice. And half the adventure, she says, was getting into the gear.
"It's like assembling a 3-D jigsaw puzzle with yourself in the middle," she laughs. "I put the socks on first and then the pants, but I hadn't put the shin guards on. So I took everything off and started over. I put on one of the skates, but then I couldn't get the shin guard on over the skate. So I decided to do the skates last."
She finally got her ensemble together -- shin guards, socks (held up with hockey tape), padded hockey pants, shoulder pads, elbow pads, jersey -- and then tried to pull on her skates.
"When you've got all this gear on, and you lean over to put the skates on, you can't breathe," she says. "So I'm there with my foot up in the air, trying to pull on these skates."
She needed some help with the helmet -- "That's the other thing about hockey; there's a lot of straps, a lot of Velcro" -- and then toddled out onto the ice, joining the other skaters doing laps. "Man, those gals can skate fast," she says.
She found herself apologizing constantly during the drills -- apologizing for getting in the way, for bumping into people, for doing things like a first-timer. She even apologized to the goalie for shooting the puck wide of the net. "He just laughed at me," she says. "I thought, oh God, I sound like some ultra-feminine princess."
One of the coaches pulled Jolie and another beginner aside for some one-on-one skating instruction, which she says was a tremendous help. But the best part, she says, was the encouragement she felt -- and heard -- from the other players.
"They would all shout, 'Skate, skate, skate!'" she says. "They were all so encouraging, like it's really great that you want to get out here and try this."
And that positive attitude has paid off. "I'm definitely going back, I'm going to play again," Jolie says. "This is the first time I've done something physical where it didn't matter how old I was, what my body size or weight was, or my skill level -- they were just excited that I wanted to come and play."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hat's the kind of bond that all of the women of the WRHL talk about. Sure, people get competitive when they're on the ice in a game, but ultimately everyone wants everybody else to do well and improve their skills. The bottom line is that it's supposed to be fun.
Jani Mahoney has played for several years, after making the transition from playing soccer. She's had to sit out a few sessions due to injury, but she can't stay away -- she does duty as timekeeper while she's recuperating.
"For me, it's a lifelong skill," she says. "It's really a very gentle activity, despite what people think." (The WRHL is a non-checking league, so there is no intentional body contact during games.)
Watching the games unfold from the timekeeper's booth, she says, "I love this game. I love these people."
Jen Edgren agrees with the value of the friendships formed. "I found the camaraderie is fabulous, and that has helped me through some tough times," she says. "That has really been life giving for me."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o now it's my turn. Jen loans me an old pair of hockey skates to try. They're a tad too big, and when I step on the ice, it feels... weird. Obviously, hockey blades have no toe picks, but the flat part of the blade is shorter than a figure skate's blade, and the hockey blades curve up in the front. I have the unsettling feeling that I'm about to pitch forward onto my face.
But after a couple of laps, I start to settle in. Keep the knees bent, stay off my toes, push off more to the side than I usually do -- I can do this. Jen points out that holding a hockey stick will actually help with my balance. I can do this. I want to do this.
OK, so maybe I won't be Bobby Orr. I won't be Cammi Granato (member of the women's Olympic hockey team in 1998 and 2002). But maybe someday soon I can be me, playing hockey. And that will be good enough.
-- ANN M. COLFORD
For information about Spokane Women's Hockey, visit spokanewomenshockey.com. For news about recreational leagues for men or women, call Eagles Ice Arena at 489-9303.
Shake the Winter Blues
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's January, which means our outdoor life will be cold, cloudy and gray. The average day will consist of waking up when it's dark, working inside while it's light and going home when it's dark. But the resorts of Ski the Northwest Rockies have some events to pull you out of your depression-inducing humdrum, and you don't have to be a skier to enjoy them. In fact, you might have more fun if you're a ski bunny.
The Sandpoint Winter Carnival takes place Jan. 19-20 on Schweitzer Mountain. The first day will feature an introduction to snowshoeing (10 am) and the Ididornot family sled race (2 pm; families make their own cardboard sleds, then race other families down the hill). At 6 pm the annual torchlight parade and fireworks display will light up the mountain. On Sunday, Jan. 20, families can work together to make giant ice sculptures. On both days you can watch and enter some NASTAR challenge races. All these events are free. Schweitzer Mountain Resort, 10000 Schweitzer Mountain Rd, Sandpoint, Idaho (208-263-9555)
Kids and Everybody Rail Jam
At this fun event kids can hit the rails and try as many times as they want. Three age categories -- 12 and younger, 13-16 and 17 and older -- will pick a winner for the most difficult, most consistent and most creative rail jams.Jan. 18. Cost: $20 to participate. Free to watch. 49 Degrees North, 3311 Flowery Trail Rd., Chewelah, Wash. (866-376-4949)
Kan Fest 2008
Come watch or enter this three-day United States Ski Association-sanctioned event at Mt. Spokane. On Jan. 25 skiers and boarders will participate in the first Rail Jam (5:30 pm). On Jan. 26 they'll be judged on slopes style (1 pm), and on Jan. 27 at noon the freeriding event will wrap up with Big Air. Cost: $30 to participate. Free to watch. Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, 29500 N. Mt. Spokane Park Dr., Mead, Wash. (238-2220)
On Feb. 16-17 the Lookout Pass ski area will host a big party. Beads will be passed out but the only people going topless in this cold weather will be some male volleyball players scampering in the snow and trying to keep warm while they get the ball over the net. Family and kids' activities will go on all day. Free. Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area, Wallace, Idaho (208-744-1301)
Winter Parrot Fest
Here's your chance to wear a Hawaiian shirt and go to Margaritaville on top of a mountain in the dead of winter. Nobody Famous will give a Jimmy Buffett tribute concert on Saturday, Jan. 26, from 4-8 pm. Free. Silver Mountain Resort, 610 Bunker Ave., Kellogg, Idaho (800-204-6428)
-- TAMMY MARSHALL
Miles to Go
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & alfway through the pre-trip training session at REI last week, I became a little suspicious of snowshoeing. Unless I was mistaken, this celebrated pastime -- this rugged and outdoorsy sport, the fastest growing of all winter activities -- really only amounted to walking around in the snow. Great. I've been doing that all winter. Mostly carless, I walk to work. I walk to the grocery store. I've been walking through the powder and slush, slipping on ice, up to my ankles in frozen damp, for two months. Walking around in the snow isn't exactly my idea of "winter adventure."
But frankly, the more Wade Sumner talks, the more excited I get about the idea of tromping around Mt. Spokane with some metal teeth on my feet. Sumner, an ad guy at the Spokesman (and formerly, I found out, at The Inlander), teaches classes on snowshoeing (and other sports) for the city parks department. "It keeps me out of the house in the winter," he says. "It keeps me in bike parts." An affable guy with a quick wit, he builds a good rapport with his students, trading barbs with the sassy, middle-aged women from Wisconsin who razz him about the upcoming Seahawks game as he explains the virtues of wicking underwear and a good outer shell.
He spends too much time talking about the minutia of Gore-Tex. The dozen of us assembled for instruction before the Saturday and Sunday trips (Sumner takes two groups up each weekend) are eager for him to get to the shoes. Not the tennis rackets you used to see in movies and cartoons, these are tough-looking aluminum numbers, painted in an aggressive burnt orange. How do you put them on? How do they work? What size are they?
Sumner has to answer all the questions again on the mountain Sunday. Putting the shoes on isn't easy. You have to balance on one foot as you wedge your boot into the hole at the front, then reef on the straps that tighten the bindings. Walking in them is even harder. There are 11 of us in the group, and none of us has ever shoed before. Clattering across the road from the parking lot in our metal spikes, we sound like a bunch of caribou. Walking along the shoulder to the trailhead is difficult. The path is narrow and it's easy to step on your own toes, or your own tails. Or the tails of the guy in front of you.
Luckily, we have plenty of snow. A gate at the head of the Kit Carson trail, waist-high in summer, sticks out a foot above the snowline now. So we set off along a narrow path, ungroomed except by fellow shoers. All 11 of us -- a young couple, the now-exultant Packers fans, two couples who were well-versed in summertime sports but were looking for a way to enjoy the snow. It's quiet. Just our breathing, the swish of waterproof pants, a few squeaky shoes and clanking poles.
We stop frequently, then move on at an ambling pace. The shoes glide just slightly over the snow, but it's still laborious. "All the benefits of cross-country skiing without all the fun," Sumner explains, cheerfully. Still, it's fun. Not spectacular. At least, the shoeing itself isn't spectacular. The scenery is. The snow, immaculate, smoothes out nature's harsh lines. It billows in thick, seamless drifts against tree trunks. Everything sparkles. Very mellow. Someone in the group whispers, "I wish I had a brownie right now." I know what she means. I wish I was swishing through the winter with my warm tobacco pipe. I'd feel like Robert Frost, stopping by woods on a snowy evening.
In the middle of these reveries is when I realize I'd accomplished what those other two couples had set out to accomplish -- and that I'd been looking to accomplish the same thing in the first place. This winter, the snow has been nothing but a nuisance. It makes it hard to ride my bike. The ice is slippery. The news is nothing but reports of car crashes. Snow is an inconvenience. Up here, though, it's an asset, elemental to the joy I'm feeling out in these quiet woods. The more the better. Let it dump!
And that's when Sumner halts the troops and points down a steep slope to the trail below. "Okay, this is the spot. We're gonna head down there." Fellow shoers look at each other with some disbelief. There are no trails between here and there. Just virgin snow, powder. This, Sumner explains, is where you're going to realize how much your shoes are doing for you.
And we do. We sink to about our knees as we plunge into the powder, but we stay afloat. I fall on my ass half a dozen times. Others do, too. But by the time we all come tumbling out of the woods, sliding down a steep chute to the open trail below, we all feel like snowshoers, having made peace with the winter at last.
-- JOEL SMITH