When it's not kayak season, then what?

posted Mar 1, 2014, 9:52 AM by Richard Sevenich   [ updated Mar 5, 2014, 2:11 PM ]
Here in North Idaho, there is a finite kayak season, just a bit over 6 months in duration. Although it is possible to find open water in the depth of winter, you may need to traverse a good stretch of ice to get there - and the closer you get to the open water the more dangerous (i.e. fragile) the ice becomes. So, typically in October, the kayaks get tucked away until March, at which time they are refurbished as needed and launched when feasible. The water level in our big lake is drawn down by as much as 10 feet in winter, exposing the infamous boot-sucking mud. Once the level is brought back up to within ~5 feet of full pool, my favorite launch sites once again become usable.

The North Idaho kayak season runs more or less concurrently with bicycle season. The combination of kayaking and biking is a good one, exercising upper body, lower body, and core. Last season I did more kayaking (72 days) than biking and hope to achieve a better balance this coming season.

So what do we do in winter to replace the biking and kayaking? Fortunately, we like to ski and have Schweitzer Mountain Resort lurking above our town. There are essentially 3 options:

  • chairlift-accessible downhill skiing on Schweitzer's 2900 acres of terrain

  • skate skiing on Schweitzer's 32 km. nordic trail system

  • back country skiing, using Schweitzer's higher elevation boundary as the entry point

Eli and I have downhill skied for so many years that we now find groomed runs somewhat boring (obviously we are not racers). So unless there is sufficient untracked and ungroomed snow, we tend not to downhill. But if we have visitors, that renews our enthusiasm - it's great fun to explore the area with them, groomed or not. This season it took awhile for the downhill runs to get decent coverage, so we got off to a slow start and have accrued only 11 downhill ski days to date with 6 weeks of the season left.

However, the nordic trails don't need as much snow coverage to become superb, especially since Schweitzer really does an exceptionally fine job of nordic trail grooming. Consequently, we have many more skate skiing days piled up this year (I have been skate skiing 47 days so far this year). It's really a much different activity than downhill skiing, certainly much more exercise than downhill especially on Schweitzer's rather hilly trail system. Skate skiing uses arms, legs, core, heart, lungs at an intense level - particularly for a septuagenarian like me. Eli is much more efficient and skilled. Our typical course is about 8.5 miles round trip and requires a total of ~850 feet of climbing. We start about 15 minutes before the chairlifts open, but there are usually already one or two skaters on the trails. The nordic trails have become increasingly popular, but 'crowded' is not a word that can yet be applied. The activity provides dramatic scenery and a feeling of peaceful solitude that pairs oddly with the intense exercise.

Our third option is back country skiing, which is downhill skiing without the crowds - and without the chairlifts. After each run, we put climbing skins on our skis and walk back up the hill. We wear avalanche transceivers and carry packs with shovels, first aid items, lunch, spare clothing, cell phones, radios, etc. It's great exercise, but doesn't work the arms and core as sincerely as skate skiing. We make conservative terrain and snow condition choices and stay safe. We typically ski powder, but once it gets severely tracked up, we abstain and wait for more snow. Because the number of people who choose this activity is small, the terrain doesn't get skied out as quickly. I've only got in 4 days of back country skiing this year, having become somewhat overenthusiastic about the more time-efficient skate skiing. Like the latter, back country offers dramatic scenery and the company of a few good friends. Occasionally, snowmobilers invade our terrain and destroy the surface wherever they roam. They are as welcome as jetskiers are to kayakers, bringing noise and carrying the potential to ruin our experience.

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