And They’re Off

We picked our way across the slush covered parking lot trying our best to avoid ankle deep puddles amongst the line of entering cars. The senses were familiar – the drawl of the announcer over the PA, the smell of horses and hay, the site of new and old western wears. Yet the snow that blanketed the landscape and cold temperatures seemed to contradict my minds assumptions. Suddenly the announcer cried out “Anaaaaaad here we go!” my eyes lifted just in time to see a horse dig deep for traction, the rider hunched low by its neck encouraging the horse on as it catapulted across the snow-covered field. About twenty feet behind the horse a man on skis jolted into motion, holding onto a rope for dear life. My brain finally put two-and-two together, this was no under-the-lights summer night rodeo, we were here to see… skijorning?

Skijorning for the unindoctrinated is a race competition in which a skier is towed by a horse (though in Alaska they have a variation involving snowmachines) through a slalom course that often includes jumps and banked turns. Like downhill skiing competitors race against the clock while trying to ensure they make it through each gate. While the word suggests the sports roots lie in Scandinavia, Leadville Colorado lays claim to the first race back in 1949. At first glance skijorning appears to be a novelty attraction, but its serious business with a national association and even a quarterly magazine. 

Standing next to the starting corral, the event had the feel of a rodeo as riders kept their horses calm amongst the commotion of the event. Skiers stood nearby adjusting buckles, stretching sore muscles, and generally trying to keep themselves busy while they nervously waited their turn. Kids played amongst the snow mounds and haybales that lined the course. The two announcers provided color commentary interspersed with cowboy humor between racers. 

As another competitor streaked by the crowd whistled and cheered and it occurred to me that skijorning is quintessential New West. The town of Driggs where the event was being held is at the base of Teton mountain range. Historically a farming community, Driggs has seen a significant increase in its population over the past twenty years due in large part to the outdoor recreational amenities the area has to offer.  The local ski resort Grand Targhee boasts some of the best skiing in Idaho and about 40 minutes over the pass is the iconic Jackson Hole Resort. For fisherman opportunities abound from the Teton river just outside downtown to the world-renowned Henry’s Fork due north. But amongst accessory covered SUVs and drift boats still lies the flatbed Fords with a cattle dog perched on the toolbox. At least for now there are still open fields flanked by wheel-lines and cattle trucks passing through seasonally.

The Old West evokes images of the cowboy, the rugged individual working the vast open landscape and whose connection to place runs back generations. The New West is often characterized by the recreation minded transplant. The van-lifer whose roots are so shallow they barely break the topsoil and whose work landscape is a laptop at the local coffee shop. There is an inherent conflict between the old and the new, as farm fields give way to subdivisions, the cost of living increases, and the corner café switches the menu from bacon and eggs to oat milk lattes and gluten free scones. Yet here at the county fairgrounds it seems to work. The crowd was a mix with just as many Carhart jackets and stormy kromers as there were ski pants and pom-pom beanies. PBRs tipped towards IPAs and smiles exchanged as another competitor streaks just under the finish line. I have no dissolutions that skijorning will solve any cultural or political divides there might be in the West. But I do believe all of us huddled along the orange snow fence would agree, it’s a good ol’ time.

Lucky Duck

I crane my neck at an odd angle, trying to read book spines of all different sizes. Kneeling down in the narrow aisles of the shelves, I look closer scanning the titles determining I am somewhere between history, transportation, and hunting and fishing. I am in a bookstore in Castle Rock Washington. As I often do when we travel I’ve sought out the local purveyor of used books, seeking hidden gems amongst the crowed and eclectic shelves.

On the bottom shelf were oversized coffee table books, one of my favorites. My eyes scan the rows looking not only at the titles, but the shape, and texture of the covers. Between a book on trains and a guide to fishing in Washington a larger volume catches my eye. It is a maroon leather-bound book with simple bronze engraved lettering. I slide the book from the shelf and turn it in my hands to read the cover. Sports Afield – Collection of Know Your Ducks and Geese by Shorts and Cartwright. I am not a hunter myself, but the simple leather cover has piqued my interest.

I open to the middle of the book and take in the large pages. The book is a collection of articles on North American duck and geese species. Each section consisted of two pages, one a full page reprint of a painting depicting a type of bird, both male and female. The other, semi-transparent vellum with facts printing on it including a migration map and distinguishing characteristics of the species. I slowly flip through a few more sections my curiosity continuing to grow. The book appears to be in excellent condition with none of the vellum pages torn or tattered.

I return to the front pages of the book to check the publication date. According to the forward the book was printed in 1948 as a compilation of magazine features from Sports Afield. Angus H. Short was commissioned to complete a series of full color paintings, while B.W. Cartwright the chief naturalist for Ducks Unlimited Canada provided the text. The series, which bared the same title as the book Know your Ducks and Geese ran in the monthly magazine for three years. 

With my excitement running high I search the covers for the price. Surely something this unique would command a price that I would have to consider. Hemming and hawing for an hour as we continued walking around town. I turn to the inside cover - $20. Twenty bucks! I almost run to the register to ask if it is a mistake. Did they not realize how cool this book is? I quickly remind myself that not everyone, well probably not even a few people would be as excited about a book on ducks and geese as I am in that moment. I calmly stand and walk to the register my new treasure find in hand. I thank the clerk and turn towards the door proud of my find. As we leave the store Dana looks with a smile that says you are an odd duck, but I love you.

The large book now sits on an antique sewing machine table in my office. In need of a break, I’ll pick the volume up and turn to a random section. Sometimes I’ll read the facts, others admiring the detail of the paintings. Sometimes I just admire the book itself, the uniqueness of the textured vellum, the fact that sometime painted each and every page. I hate to use the old cliché to summarize the book. Instead, a line from the book’s forward seems to capture it “Special care has been taken to ensure the reproduction of the natural colors with the utmost fidelity” Okay, okay they sure don’t make them like they used to.

Small Time

There are those who say skiing is for the rich, and to a degree they’re right. When you look at the iconic resorts across the west – Vail, Jackson Hole, Telluride, Park City, Sun Valley – you can expect $200 or more just for a one-day lift ticket. That’s right, no hotel, food, or equipment rental included. What’s worse is that over the past 10-20 years the ski industry has been cannibalizing itself and as you would expect when the big get bigger, it’s all about the Benjamins (do people still say that?). Vail Corporation, perhaps the largest of the large has been scooping up resorts across the country and looking for ways to squeeze more dollars out of an already pricey experience. Aside from inflated lift tickets, the strategy typically involves more development in the form of half-occupied condos and high-end faux western shopping. So yeh, I get it when people think skiing is a rich man’s (and woman’s) game.

My first experiences of skiing were not week-long family vacations to destination resorts, but day trips in high school to the “mountains” of eastern Pennsylvania. Fixed gripped doubles and tow ropes carried denim and camo clad patrons to the top of stadium lit slopes. The snow was terrible, but cruising around with friends and warming up with hot chocolate and hot dogs in stove warmed lodges is a fond memory. Thankfully, despite the trend towards the 1% there remains a network of independent home-town hills that provide communities across the country the same joy-filled experience of skiing that I remember. Even better is that you can still find these experiences thanks to the Indypass, a collective style season pass that provides access to 120+ independent ski resorts across North America from North Carolina to Alaska. For the last three seasons this has been our preferred ski pass, and one that Dana and I used to not only enjoy familiar regional resorts, but to explore new places across the northwest. 

A ski area that embodies that local roots experience that I remember is Pomerelle Mountain Resort in the Albion mountains of southern Idaho. Located 30 miles northeast from the state border with Nevada and Utah, Pomerelle for all intensive purpose is out there. The nearest town to the resort is Albion, home for some 250 residents. 50 minutes away is Burley, Idaho with a modest population of 11,000 residents. Yet this 500-acre family-owned resort has been turning chairs for over 60 years. The original operations started in 1940, with a cabin and tow rope built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. After World War Two, a group of ski enthusiast relocated the resort “up the canyon” to its present-day location. In 1973 the resort was purchased by Woody and Sandy Anderson and has remained family owned ever since.

Standing at the base area, directly behind the log-cabin lodge you can take in most of the resort. Two chairlifts take skiers to a summit of a surprising 8,762 feet, making it the second highest ski hill in Idaho (Sun Valley’s Mt Baldy is the highest at an elevation of 9,150 feet). Most of the runs are modest, at a vertical drop of about 1,000 feet and many, if not all of the actual runs could be classified as intermediate. The statistics may not make you jump out of your chair and grab your ski boots, but don’t be fooled Pomerelle receives an annual average of 500 inches of snow and as their motto affectionately states “What the hell, ski Pomerelle”.

So Dana and I decided to take the resort up on its claims and made a weekend trip of it. We even managed to sell a few friends on the idea of a destination ski trip…wait where is this place? Our friends Kris and Paula decided to join us for some back-lot camping, others opted for the one and only hotel in Albion, which as with the rest of the trip was a pleasant surprise. 

What wasn’t so pleasant was discovering that we had forgotten to turn the camper on, a necessary pre-trip step should you want to have enough battery life to power the heater at night when temperatures dip below 20. Thankfully we were able to phone John who was coming the next day and brought our power cord and his portable battery bank saving our soon to be frozen bacon.

Despite the frigid night, we woke with high spirits to see what Pomelle had in store. Several storm systems had passed through the Albion mountains throughout the week and the forecast called for more over the course of the weekend. While we waited for our friends to arrive we headed to the lodge for coffee and to warm our feet by the wood stove fire. Normally I’m pealing layers off in the lodge, but I kept my jacket zipped and winter hat on while my core temperature clawed its way back from frozen. 

Our friends finally arrived and after a short exchange of good mornings we headed out to catch the “summit” chair. With the all-to-familiar fixed-grip knee slap we settled in for the first chair ride of the day. We scanned the runs below getting a lay of the land and scouting out stashes of untracked snow. At the top as folks strapped into boards and adjusted boot buckles, we debated where to begin. With little visibility and no experienced Pomerellians, I shrugged my shoulders and pointed to a blue run ahead of us. Goggled heads bobbed in seeming agreement and away we went. The snow felt good on the wide cruising run. I stopped midway to look back and found we literally had the whole run to ourselves, a common theme we’d experience most of the morning.

As we became more familiar with the mountain, we began to spend the chair rides scanning the tree lines. The snow looked pretty good and the tree spacing manageable. Off the chair we headed back to an outer perimeter run where the snow seemed to pile up on the shoulder. As I made my first turn I felt that joyful, playful feeling that you only get from your skis floating in powder. I heard “woops” and “weees” as friends cut similar lines around me ducking in and out of trees. Soon we were chasing each other through the woods like a winter version of Marco-Polo. As we popped out at the bottom of the run, all smiles we looked around and took a head count- all present. We pushed off back to the chair to see what other hidden gems we could find.

At mid-day we stopped for a parking lot tailgate and impromptu dance party. Another advantage of smaller resorts is that your car is never that far away, so you can bring a chair, share some food and should the mood and music strike, do a little mid-day dance to keep the legs loose. And since you didn’t drop two paychecks (at least for me) to ski, there is a lot less pressure to see it all and ski it all, so you don’t feel guilty spending time relaxing mid-day. 

After a few more hours and heavy legs, we decided best to call it a day. All too happy to wrench off ski boots, we cheered a beer before John, Duane, and Michael started the trek back to Boise. About the same time the snow started to fly and the wind kicked up sending us retreating to our mobile accommodations. In the evening Kris and Paula came over to Roadhouse for some evening cocktails and hilarious card games. By the time we were ready for bed, our cheeks were just as sore from laughing as our legs were from skiing.

In the morning I poked my head out of the camper to find it had snowed several inches overnight, though it was hard to tell how much given the wind. After gathering our gear we said our goodbyes to our parking lot companions who were off to ski another Indy resort Soldier Mountain. In their place we would meet up with Emily and Luke, but not before checking out the lodge’s breakfast burritos and a second cup of coffee.

Riding our first chair of the day we scanned the mountain and found that much of the snow from the previous night blew into the trees and bowls we’d explored the day before. Excited with the refreshed conditions we headed off to a few choice tree runs we’d found the day prior. The powdery runs brought smiles to our faces, but our tired legs seemed to grimace. At lunch we met up with Emily and Luke who had unexpectedly brought Jello-shots. Why not? Boozy sugar consumed we were happy to show our new ski companions our favorite runs. 

With each turn of the chair my reaction time seemed to get a little slower, making skiing in the trees a bit harder and a bit more hazardous. Thankfully the rest of the group was experiencing the same thing and we collectively decided it best to call it a wrap. In the parking lot, we packed up vehicles, reminisced on the weekend’s highlights, and said our goodbyes. I gave one last look at the log cabin lodge and smiled. Pomerelle might not make the destination list for most people, but with its hidden tree runs, hometown feel, and parking lot camping, it is definitely on mine.

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