Ladycation: Alaska Heli-Skiing

Valdez heli-ski camp for women

The Valdez School for Wayward Girls

The first-ever all-women heli-skiing camp in Alaska’s central Chugach Range attracted a motley crew of diehard skiers. Valdez may never be the same.

With the Alaskan sun still burning at 8 p.m., soft-spoken Karen, an actuary who works on retirement plans, assessing financial risk and calculating pensions, climbs up POS (piece of sh–), a 30-foot-high vertical ice cube, with great care. She swings the ax-pink. It hangs precariously in the ice. Pink. “This is an angry woman’s sport,” Kristen Ulmer yells up. “Get mad with that thing.” She pinks a little harder, inching her way to the top. Clearly, ice climbing is a sport that mirrors an individual’s approach to life. Next up the ice, Kim, whose arms are as burly as the exhaust pipes on her Harley, swings the ax–Ah-yaaah!! The ax lodges solidly into the ice. Ah-yaaah!! She is up and down in minutes, spent but thrilled. “I was one whacking motherf–er up there!” she laughs. Welcome to H20 Heli-Guides’ Women Ski Alaska Big Mountain Camp. The brochure promised a week of heli-skiing, avalanche training, crevasse rescue, ice-ax self-arrest, rope work, ice climbing, and “bonding with like-minded women.” Female bonding, it seems, is the inevitable ingredient. It’s been the common denominator of the touchy-feely, wine-and-cheese affairs that have defined traditional women’s clinics in the past decade. But this is Alaska. This is the Chugach. Where the mountain faces are as big as 10 football fields stacked on end, tilted to 50 or 60 degrees and rippled with flutes. A 100-foot cliff to the right, a couple crevasses to the left, and a gaping bergschrund below you. Have a nice run, sister. The Chugach camp is one of a handful of programs cropping up across North America that represent a new paradigm in women’s clinics. Forget the seaweed wrap and the chocolate on your pillow: These camps are about strapping on a harness and tackling jaw-clenching steeps, jumping cornices and cliffs. The campers attending are the first generation of desk jockeys out to rip big mountains-and do it as hard as the guys do. Aside from the terrain, the camp’s big draw is the chance to get one-on-one coaching from a squad of elite female skiers: Alison Gannett, Wendy Fisher and Kristen Ulmer. Of course, these are sponsored athletes who we naturally associate with Valdez. The campers, on the other hand, are women with nine-to-five jobs and families. Kim, 39, is a chemical engineer from Vancouver, Washington, who plays ice hockey and skis at Mount Hood. She’s snowboarding on this trip because her knee is still tender from a moose attack. There’s also Karen, 38, the actuary from San Francisco, who talks in a sweet little squeak; Christine, a French lacrosse mom from Long Island, celebrating her 40th; Tricia, 30, a bartender from Big Sky; and me, a 36-year-old editor from Boulder, who, after editing a story by Kristen Ulmer on the dangers of the Chugach, once vowed never to ski Alaska. In sum, the campers are all adventure-seekers ready to take on the biggest terrain of the ski world. Hilaree Nelson, a mountaineer from Telluride and one of the guides for the week, kneels over a white plastic mat marked with a series of black flux lines, explaining how an avalanche transceiver works. Nelson is a woman of great contradiction. She’s the girl next door who mounts ski expeditions to Mongolia. She is runway-model gorgeous, yet she eschews makeup and chews tobacco. The campers are in awe. We practice finding beacons in the slush-covered parking lot, then move on to tying knots. Prusiks, münters, girth hitches. Ulmer shares her secret for the figure-8 follow through: “To get the right length, I hold the rope from my nipple out to here.” Next, Nelson runs through a crevasse rescue and shows how to set a T-anchor with a pair of skis. If there are more down days, the plan is to plunk a camper into a crevasse and rescue her. Karen whispers conspiratorially, “I can’t wait to get into one of those crevices.” What the rest of us can’t wait for is to ski powder, the plan that night at Fung Ku, the local sushi joint, is to “drink it blue,” as they say in AK. Meaning, drink enough sake and Sapporo, and the clouds will dissipate. A group of guys at the next table sends over a couple bottles of warm sake. Gannett isn’t surprised: “I’ll be here for a month, and I’ll be the only girl except for the waitresses at the Totem.” Somewhere between spicy tuna rolls and moo goo gai pan, the conversation turns to vibrators. As if explaining the correct technique for tying a münter hitch, Gannett expounds the virtues of The Bunny, a must-have electrical accouterment in any girl’s nightstand. “You see, it’s got these little ears…” The sake worked. The next morning, the soup clears out, and the group is packed into a minivan-sized snow pit with Mark Kozak, a six-foot, two-inch avy god with an Ultra Bright smile and a voice that is one part butter, two parts Barry White. With eight feet of snow in the last week, we are up in the mountains spending the day learning about avalanches instead of getting caught in them. He fills our heads with snow-safety info: the good karma of two stellar snowflakes sintering and the bad ju-ju of temperature gradient. Of stress and strain, failure and fracture. To determine the stability of the snowpack, Kozak lightly punches the snow with his fist, moves it down an inch, and punches again. “It’s the hand hardness test,” he says. A wave of giggles ripples through the pit. He starts to discuss how the “level of penetration…” More giggles. “It’s better if it goes from soft to hard…” At this point, campers are falling down laughing. Kozak turns red. After some degree of decorum returns to the pit, we measure the slope angle, study snow crystals in a magnifying loop, and do a Rutschblock test: Kozak steps onto the six-by-five-foot block of snow we’ve cut out, and it spits out like a banana from a peel on the first jump, shearing cleanly 90 centimeters down. Yikes. Picking our way carefully down the high point on the ridge, we ski through snow that billows up around our armpits, snow we now understand is out to bury us alive. The next day, with gravity and a little solar heating, the snowflakes have sintered enough that we can ski. But it’s still dicey, so we stick to mellow terrain, which, by AK standards, means 30- to 35-degree pitches, gullies, and ridges. The slopes could still slide, but at least there are no cliffs or crevasses or super steeps to worry about. The campers watch slack-jawed as athletes they’ve only seen on the big screen ski down in front of them. Gannett slices wide turns through the deep snow, every arc strong and smooth. Her approach is scientific: A ski route is a problem that she analyzes and solves. With a ski-racing pedigree, Fisher machs down every pitch as if it were the Hahnenkamm. Ulmer’s style is more mugger-meets-millionaire-in-dark-alley: She attacks everything. Huddled on the glacier, waiting for a pick up, we can feel the thump, thump of the A-Star’s rotors all the way down to our footbeds. The heli rockets us at 150 miles per hour toward 2,000 feet of sheer rock, then, with a subtle shift of the stick, the pilot lifts the bird over a knife-edge ridge, and the world drops away again. Our stomachs drop with it. The pilot banks hard, heading back toward the thin crown of granite to a seemingly impossible landing. He sets us down on a little postage stamp of snow, and we crawl out and crouch in the 11 o’clock spot in front of the heli, a cliff just feet behind us. The pilot dive-bombs, and the heli plummets out of view. It’s amazing every time. In the afternoon, our guide, a quiet redhead named Bill McCabe, takes us to The Island. Wortmanns Glacier wraps around this massive hunk of mountain in a great frozen squeeze before oozing down the valley like the tongue of some enormous albino snow giant. The heli drops us in the landing zone, or LZ as we learn to call it, and he leads us to a dogleg chute with a 50-degree entrance. “It’s cliffs to the right, and the slough will collect in the runnel on the left,” McCabe says. This time the loud thump, thump is the sound of my heart. Ulmer skis it first, then me, and between us, we knock off an eight-inch slab of slough. Christine, the lacrosse mom, is next. She decides to sidestep into the couloir, but the farther she goes, the more difficult it becomes even to move. Ten agonizing minutes into it, and only a third of the way down, she is officially gripped. Gannett skis in to talk her down. “Try counting steps,” she encourages. “Just get to 10.” Gannett promises, “it’s not high consequence,” meaning if she did fall, she’d likely just tumble a thousand feet, maybe tear a knee. Nobody’s dying today. But the concept of consequence is relative. Christine is thinking about her eight-year-old daughter’s birthday party on Friday. She doesn’t want to tear anything. Gannett starts singing, “You put one foot in front of the other.” It works. Half an hour later, Christine reaches the apron below the couloir and skis to the bottom, legs quivering. Though her attitude is good–”Hey, nobody walks down a thousand feet like I do”–the run proves to be mental baggage she’ll drag around for the rest of the camp. A few days later, Christine, who had planned to leave early from the get-go, would turn to me and say, “I don’t think I’m coming back here.” She was relieved when the time came to leave. But months afterward, she told me the experience gave her a new confidence. While we wait for the heli in the pickup zone (a.k.a. PZ), Ulmer entertains with cartwheels and headstands. “What other things would you consider impossible in a snowpit?” Somebody suggests something lewd, and Ulmer jumps McCabe. He turns red. “I have maybe four female clients all year,” he says. “I haven’t seen this many women in a long time.” At the bottom of another run, McCabe buries his pack with a transmitting beacon inside. It’s time to practice what Nelson taught us in the parking lot. While we wait, Karen gives Fisher and Ulmer retirement advice-”compound interest, Roth IRAs, stocks, life insurance….” They are as rapt as Karen was during their avalanche stories. Then this bookish, demure thing shows us the belly button ring she got during a library break with her actuary buddies. “It makes me feel sexy.” And she’s going to get an armband tattoo, she tells us, once she finds the right design. When McCabe’s ready, Fisher sets up a hypothetical scenario. “Okay, the slide is 30 meters wide, skier last seen here.” The clock starts ticking. Karen, who has been practicing her avalanche swimming in bed at night, goes first. Beep, beep, beep. The beacon homes in on the pack, but Karen has lost valuable time fumbling with her shovel. She casts the deconstructed probe like a fishing rod, cinches up the metal pieces, and starts probing the snow in an outward spiral. Thunk, the probe hits home on the third jab, and she starts digging. But it’s taking too long, she thinks, starting to panic slightly. The pack can’t breathe! Finally it pulls loose. She saves the pack in less than five minutes. A long-blond-haired snowboarder from Big Sky, Montana, with a Ride it Sister patch on her pack, a Luscious sticker on her helmet, and duct tape on her mittens, Tricia is staring wide-eyed out the heli window. Peaks crush into the horizon like crumpled origami, and seracs sparkle like heaps of broken glass. The pilot works the bird back and forth to lodge the skids into a razor edge of snow. The landing puts us at the top of a narrow 45-degree ramp with a big mother of a cliff to our left and a rock wall to our right. It’s never been skied. A bartender who once lived in a van, Tricia had been boarding the world from Slovakia to Switzerland before arriving in Alaska. “I make lots of money in a short time,” she says. She figures half her $8,000 yearly salary went to this trip. Though the finances seem a little fuzzy, she is, in Christine’s words, “living the dream.” She’d seen an ad for the trip but hesitated. Then in an airport bar, a 60-year-old man convinced her to go for it. “He told me, ‘You don’t want to get my age and have regrets.’ So, I put down my beer, headed for a pay phone, and made the reservation.” Tricia goes first, carving big turns, shooting rooster tails in the air, and outrunning her slough. She boards it like a pro. No one in the group does as well; I get taken out by my own slough, and Kim catches an edge and cartwheels down, scaring the guides. “That was awesome, you ripped it,” Ulmer tells Tricia at the bottom. “Did I? Man, if Kristen Ulmer says I ripped it…wow,” Tricia bubbles. Her trip is made. She will have no regrets. Because it’s a first descent, we get to name it. We decide on “Girl Spot”-G-spot for short. McCabe turns red. In the PZ, Gannett puts a finger to the side of her nose and gives an authoritative blow. Fisher lets out a huge belch. Kim pulls a Fem Funnel from her pack, and walks off, talking about writing her name in the snow. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” McCabe says. “Where do you get those?” “Peelikeaguy.com,” I say. He turns red. Suddenly we hear a roar as a slide comes cascading over a nearby rock band. It silences the group for the first time in a week. On our last day, Nelson and McCabe decide to crank it up. Turner’s Tomahawk is a 3,000-foot fluted face that’s 50 degrees at the top, dotted with rollovers, and has a huge bergschrund at the bottom. My biggest fear coming to Alaska was the bergschrund, where vertical face meets glacier, and the glacier peels back under its own enormous weight, leaving a crack in the snow as deep as several hundred feet. McCabe tells us to watch for the tracks and a stick in the snow that indicate a snow bridge where we can safely cross. Ulmer, Gannett, and Fisher ski the flutes. Karen heads skier’s right to a wide-open, untracked powder field. By now, her quads have gotten stronger and she nails it. Tricia floats down a gully, and Kim follows the coaches down the flutes. I’m up. In the heavy snow, every turn feels like doing a 200-pound leg press, but the run is pure elevator-shaft exhilaration. By the time I get to the bottom, though, the tracks go every which way. They are an indication of nothing. Suddenly I see the stick. “Point ‘em,” I think. I straight-line it for about 25 feet, when, in my peripheral vision, I see another stick way off to my left. Oh shit. I feel like Wile E. Coyote suspended in the air, about to plummet thousands of feet. And I do plummet, about 25 feet, over the biggest part of the bergschrund. I clear the icy death trap but explode on the other side. Poof. Just like the coyote. I double eject and do several ass-over-teakettle rotations. I now have an acute understanding of why they call this run Turner’s Tomahawk. I am the Tomahawk. Over dinner at the pipeline club, the dismal, smoky restaurant-bar-poolhall where Captain Hazelwood slurped back vodka doubles before ramming the Exxon Valdez into Bligh Reef, Gannett and Fisher turn the group on to Creamsicles (vanilla Stoli, ginger ale, and OJ). As we sip our drinks and devour big steaks, the group counsels Tricia, who’s having trouble with her cheating, no-good rat of a boyfriend. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says in exasperation. Gannett tells her, “Dump the chump.” We all nod. It hits me then that, although this camp was about ripping near-vertical slabs of snow, managing slough, tying knots, and learning to fend for yourself in big mountains, the campers and coaches have, dare I say it, bonded. In fact, this seminal group of Valdez women has narrowed the gap between pro skier and weekend warrior. In the PZ at the bottom of Turner’s, I found Karen hugging and consoling Ulmer, who thought she might have torn her knee in a weird turn on the flutes. “I’m wiggin’!” Ulmer said, in tears, “I am wiggin’!” The mentor-prodigy roles had suddenly been reversed. It was a testament to the power of this camp that a student could become the teacher’s rock. Over pool and beers, Karen, a great contradiction in her new Carhartts and old Gucci sunglasses, borrows a pinch of Nelson’s Skoal. When she gets home, she says, she’s buying her own beacon, shovel , and probe–and getting that tattoo for sure. This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in December 2002.

The Great Rad North

Red, Fernie, Island Lake Lodge

Exploring Red and Fernie, British Columbia means radical skiing among snow ghosts and moss-covered pines.

Even in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined such a place. Mountains where you ski among 20-foot ghosts and moss-covered pines on downy peaks high above a sea of clouds. A land where the moon shines brighter than the sun. And where you pay for a beer with a 20 spot and get 20 back in change. I had discovered the Shangri-la of schuss. Well, interior British Columbia, to be more precise. My buddy Pam and I had heard tales of radical skiing and epic dumps, we had studied maps and brochures… man, we just had to get out of the office. Driving north from Spokane, Washington, we pass a sign outside a snowblower shop: “Snow: The World’s Most Annoying Commodity.” This, I decide, is a bad omen. Then, at the Canadian border, we are interrogated by Dudley DoWrong (it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, I should have brought my passport). “And the nature of your visit to British Columbia?” he probes. When we admit to covert skiing operations, his snakelike eye-slits open wide, his grimace erupts into a grin, and he bursts forth conspiratorially: “It has been dumping!! The skiing is awesome.” With that he waves us into Canada. The parking lot of the Ram’s Head Inn, the only lodging at the base of Red Mountain, is filled with copious amounts of the world’s most annoying commodity. A very good omen. The snowbanks are piled so high, the entire first floor is buried. But when Pam and I venture out to ski the next day, we’re disappointed to see that we can see very little. The mountain is wedged in a dense fog. Red overlooks the Columbia River Trench, a valley system of winding rivers and big lakes. All that moisture means the skies are often gray and foggy. But nobody minds when there’s powder. And that happens when a low-pressure storm system spins out of the Gulf of Alaska, wrings out some moisture over the Coastal Range, and dumps the light and fluffy on Red. On the chair, we meet Max Bankes, a former property-tax assessor dressed in a grubby and tattered black-and-yellow North Face one-piece. He’s become a rental-shop guy, landscaper, and construction worker so he can ski every day. We pretend to be ignorant Americans, and Max agrees to give us a tour. Red Mountain is actually two mountains, Red and Granite. First we take a creaky double to the top of Red and cruise around the mountain’s flank. The fog lifts just high enough that we get pretty views of the town of Rossland nestled below. But Granite Mountain, where a hundred unmarked trails wrap 360 degrees around an ancient volcano, is where we want to be. On the chair, we can’t see much, really, but Max assures us, “To the left, it’s pretty much black to double black, and to the right…well, it’s pretty much black to double black.” The summit is covered with 20-foot-high forms snow-caked beyond recognition. Only a tiny tuft of green pine poking through the thick white crust gives them away as trees. We work our way around the massive granite cone, skiing long runs through the mist on open powder fields, through thick glades, and down steep avalanche slide paths. Pam keeps getting vertigo, and has to stop and make sure the ground is underneath her. I tell myself that vision is a crutch and ski by braille, my feet reading the terrain. Every run is unique, but each leaves us with the same sensation: We are skiing raw mountain. The terrain rolls and heaves underneath us as if it were alive. There are bumps and cliffbands and boulder fields and rock gardens and ridges and trees. Lots of trees. It’s like tumbling down a series of ledges. And the runs are so long¿more than 2,000 vertical feet–our ears pop at the bottom. Mount Roberts, the peak to the southeast of Granite, is covered with north-facing, avalanche-prone chutes crowned by a 15-foot cornice. I get the willies just looking at it. It’s out-of-bounds terrain, but legal; here there are no police and no gates. We don’t have beacons or shovels, so we don’t hike to the top. Plus, Mahas promised us freshies along Roberts’ gladed shoulder. All around us tall, skinny pines reach for the sky. With branches sagging under heavy snow, they look like gigantic closed umbrellas. Like the trees in a Dr. Seuss landscape. Moss hangs from the trees in shades of green and black witch’s hair and old man’s beard, the locals call it. I remind myself I am in Canada, not a Louisiana swamp. After 20 minutes, we peel off the boot-pack trail and end up just above a snow-covered cliffband. Rocks and trees poke out at odd angles. Wind lips have created a row of vertical fingers. It’s like a miniature Alaskan face. “Think we can ski this?” Pam asks. “Just hike up your skirt, sister, and ski it,” I tell her. There’s really no other way down. I make four hop turns down one of the fingers. Stopping midway, my skis scrape the finger walls. Four more ungainly turns and we’re down. Max promises the rest will be cake. “Not much to worry about in here; just point ‘em,” he says. So we bound through the moss-covered trees, through a foot of untracked over big rollers, picking up speed. Suddenly the earth drops away and I’m flying. Mystery air. I drop eight feet to a pillow–which I actually land–then another 10 to the slope below, where I stick the landing with my rump. I look back up, with no small amount of shock, at a gargantuan boulder. Max peers over the edge from above, “Whoah! Huckin’ Helen! Right on!!” Then he backs up and launches the whole thing. Hucking gives you an appetite, so we head for Red’s base lodge. Like the lift system and the snow-grooming fleet, the lodge is refreshingly underdeveloped. When it was built in 1947, the area was owned by a ski club, and the lodge was a sort of clubhouse. Skiers could rent a cot for the night for a buck. In 1989, the club sold the mountain to Skat Petersen, but he hasn’t changed much. Later, when Pam and I have dinner with Skat at the Uplander in town, he tells us of his plans for a 100-room, four-star hotel with hot springs at the base. But today, most skiers have brought sandwiches from home and Tupperware filled with leftovers. The cafeteria is packed with kids—school groups imported by bus. “They’re breeding a hockey team,” Pam decides. We head upstairs to Rafter’s and devour a pizza. Over lunch Max introduces us to a few of the local hot shots. There’s Kirsty Exner, Red’s 22-year-old extreme darling and the antithesis of a Telluride trustafarian. Her dad is a welder who works at Rossland’s zinc and lead smelter. “Big smoke brought the work,” she says. Ski tourism brings in some cash, but the region’s main industry is the smelter. And there’s World Cup downhiller Kevin Wert, 22, a big guy with a shaved head and blond goatee just back from Nagano. He tells a similar story: His dad, who puts up poles for West Kootenay Power, would drop him off at Red at eight in the morning and pick him up some 14 hours later. “In Rossland, you either ski or play hockey; there’s nothin’ else to do,” says Kevin. We make plans to meet them in the morning. The fog is so thick that snow and sky blend into one horizonless gray slate. “Just tuck it,” Kevin advises and takes off into the soup. Those with vertigo do not tuck, Pam insists. Instead, we seek definition in the trees. Kirsty leads us to what she calls Orgasma. At this point Max, Kirsty, and Kevin begin arguing over trail names. What she calls Orgasma, Kevin calls The Needles. What he calls The Needles, Max calls Cambodia, and so on. Basically the trail map at Red is useless. For starters, Granite’s cone doesn’t translate well onto a two-dimensional piece of paper. The map indicates 75 marked runs, but on the mountain, only the groomers have trail signs. Whatever it’s called, the run is a series of 45-degree steeps, narrow chutes filled with deep snow, trees, and big rocks. Wind lips form minichutes within megachutes. “This looks a little gnarly,” I say to Pam, who tells me to hike up my own skirt. We pick our way down, making hop turns, emergency stops, and dropoff-hop maneuvers. Kevin clips a tree and says, “Either those trees got tighter since I was a kid, or I got bigger.” This, of course, inspires remarks about the size of his downhiller butt. Below, the run opens up into a powder field, then flattens out onto a boulder field. We porpoise our way down, exploding the gigantic mushrooms of snow. Day three: A fog that would make San Fran look clear means we still haven’t seen the mountain. Pam is preparing for more vertigo. But about halfway up Granite, the chair rises out of a sea of clouds. It is crystalline on top. We can see beautiful steeps and glades and chutes. Giant snow ghosts stand guard over the “Coolers” (Redspeak for couloir) at the tip-top. In the distance, the Valhalla and Bonnington Ranges poke through the clouds. I couldn’t have dreamed up such a spectacular sight. And at the end of another day of never skiing the same line twice, I’m grinning. Pam tells me I’ve got a little something stuck in my front teeth. It’s moss. The next stop on our tour is Fernie, a five-hour drive to the east. The first day, we treat ourselves to cat skiing at Island Lake Lodge. The morning dawns blue. This seems unusual. The cat is filled with an odd assortment, including our guide, Reto, a bushy-bearded Swiss who smokes a pipe while skiing; Bob, Rob, and Ben Mullin, on their annual boys’ trip; and a gonzo older guy and his reluctant girlfriend. We ride the cat up toward a triumvirate of limestone peaks called the Three Bears. They look like mini-Matterhorns. Island Lake owns 7,000 acres of bowls and trees and chutes, and three 12-person snowcats. Roughly 200 acres a skier. On a run called Breathless, we find creamy but heavy snow on a 38-degree pitch dappled with tiny fir trees. These turns are floaty, but lower down the sun has baked the snow to a perfect crème brûlée mush underneath a crusty layer that explodes off my shins in great chunks. After a few runs, Reto decides, “You know what? I’m not doing the normal guiding anymore.” Our Rastafarian cat driver, Chris, grins knowingly and takes us to 45 Nonstop. The cat plows the trail up; no one has been up here in a while. A good omen. Chris drops us off on a saddle surrounded by jaggy peaks. Snow sloughs cascade down the rocks. We shoulder our skis and hike up a knife-edge just wide enough for a small pair of boots. “Didn’t think you’d be hiking on a cat-skiing trip, did you?” Reto ribs us. But we don’t mind. One at a time, we each make several dozen turns down a winding gully framed by dizzyingly high rock walls (mama bear and papa bear). The snow is light, deep and untracked. After six runs, at nearly 2,000 verts a run, we head back to Island Lake’s cozy lodge. We drink big bottles of Fischer Hoopla amber ale in front of a huge stone fireplace. After dinner and too much red wine, Pam and I hitch a snowmobile lift back to Fernie from a nice young man with a bull ring in his nose. Around the first bend, the sled tips over and we all fall off. He tells us to keep our legs tucked in, just in case we fall again. What are the chances? I think to myself. The ride down is spectacular. We race through the woods, cold air biting our faces, a full moon lighting the peaks brighter than day. It is magic. Until we tip over and fall off again. Fernie Alpine Resort is another magical place where temperatures are mild and snowfalls massive. They call it the Fernie Factor: Arctic air tumbles down from the north and collides with moist Pacific air masses, unloading mighty amounts of snow. And with three valleys converging at Fernie, the storm systems often get jammed in for days. The ski area is a series of bowls, stacked like a row of tilted teacups along a granite shelf, the massive cliff walls and craggy peaks of the Lizard Range. The bowl skiing is wide-open and mellow. Pam and I ski mostly in the steep, gladed ridges in between, where there’s enough pitch to blast through the wet spring slush. Fernie’s layout is deceiving. Since arriving, we’d been eyeing the area’s front face runs–Sky Dive, Stag Leap, and Decline–three narrow paths cut through thick spruce and Douglas fir. But they can only be accessed by riding two chairs, a T-bar, then traversing the bowl and hiking to the ridgetop. That face and the rest of Fernie make for a spectacular backdrop to town. Like Rossland, Fernie is home to the workingman. Coal was discovered a century ago, and today the economy remains based mostly on lumber and coal mining, and to a degree, ski tourism. Which is why I end up skiing with a coal miner. Darrell Schmidt, a blue-eyed, gray-haired 48-year-old with deep laugh lines, is a welder at one of Fernie’s mines. His four-days-on, four-days-off schedule means he skis a lot. He wears heavily duct-taped ski pants and a layering system of cotton on cotton. We pass two snow guns. “That’s the extent of our snowmaking,” says Darrell. Last season, he tells me, it snowed 39 feet¿18 consecutive days of fresh in December alone. There aren’t any high-speed quads, either. Lots of slow-moving chairs, T-bars, and of course, the Face Lift. Darrell calls it the Lift From Hell. The top of Lizard Bowl is so avalanche-prone that this towerless lift is the only kind that can survive. It’s basically two bullwheels and a long thin cable with evenly spaced meat hooks. And you’re a slab of beef getting dragged up a mountain by the backs of your legs. The snow is a glutinous gumbo that’s impossible to turn in. My ACLs insist we start skiing groomers. But Fernie is a ski area on the edge of change. Relatively unknown in the lower 48, this powder paradise was snatched up by Canadian Charlie Locke in 1997. Now he owns seven B.C. ski areas, including Lake Louise, and has big plans for Fernie. By ‘98-’99, he will have poured C$8 million into lifts (including a high-speed quad for January ‘99), trails, and base facilities. Pam and I have made reservations to go cat skiing in the expansion area, but the weather has gotten too warm, the snow too slushy. Still, we make friends with the cat drivers, Carl and Trent, and they take us up on snowmobiles so we can have a look. (By now I have developed a tremendous fear of tipping over.) We switchback up the cat road into Timber Bowl, the second teacup over from Lizard, where the two new chairs will go in. They’ll double Fernie’s terrain, accessing three new bowls: Timber, Currie, and Siberia. Beyond Siberia, for those willing to hike, is Mongolia Bowl, then Outer Mongolia…. Sounds like a little place called Vail. Fish Bowl is the teacup to the north of Cedar Bowl, and that’s where Jack McKay takes us. A former used-car salesman from Calgary, he’s been skiing Fernie since 1974. This makes him a Calgaferniean. Five years ago, he moved to Fernie for good. “I still haven’t grown up yet,” he tells us. “I’m a 43-year-old ski bum.” Tanned and fit, he looks sort of like a baked Bob Beattie. We have to duck a rope to get to Fish Bowl, but Jack assures us it’s okay. We traverse out to an area rippled with small gullies and sprinkled with alder bushes. It’s so steep, my hip hits the slope a half dozen times, and snow sloughs around my feet like quicksand. Pam makes careful turns, alternating between gully and ridgeline. “You girls are fun,” Jack says, surprised that we’ve been able to keep up. “I took a couple of business guys back here last week and they almost died.” It’s Saturday, and there are maybe five-minute lines at the Bear T-Bar. Jack apologizes. We ski what he calls 44, a short 44-degree pitch littered with alder. As we arc through the soft snow, we are startled by a shrill gobble-gobble coming from the trees. It’s a guy with a vintage fur-trimmed leather coat (“the latest from The North Face,” he says) and his friend, who’s wearing bright orange pants and striped jacket circa 1973, both two sizes too small. They’re sitting in the trees drinking beers and gobbling at people. Later we ski Steep and Deep, a fall-line plunge at the end of Snake Ridge. It’s covered with the thickest glop I’ve ever encountered. Jack calls it elephant snot. The snow sprays from our skis in liquid streams. Pam and I figure it’s beer o’clock, but the boys insist we ski Skydive first. Like Alta’s High Rustler, Skydive is an endless vertical run situated in full view of the lodge. The snow is the consistency of warm peanut butter, but the pitch is steep enough that we can blast through it. A second wind carries us to the bottom, but only that far. We’re done. In the bar I give Pam 20 bucks U.S. to buy us a couple beers. She comes back grinning with two beers and, thanks to the exchange rate, 20 loonies in change. Before bed tonight, I will think about this and about snow ghosts and mystery air and fresh tracks and hanging moss and mini-Matterhorns. And I will try to make my dreams half as good. This article, which won a Northern Lights Tourism Award in 1999, first appeared in Skiing Magazine, March 1999  

Living to Loaf

Sugarloaf Ski Bumming

Why go West when you can ski bum in Sugarloaf, Maine?

The top station of Sugarloaf’s ancient gondola has all the character of a meat locker. On one hoarfrosted, snow-splotched wall, a sign reads: If you go through this gate, you need to know: This terrain is unlike anything you have skied in the East. The landscape outside is filled with stubby, snowcaked trees, stumps, branches, sharp rocks, and patches of blue ice. It is a different world, a world left virtually treeless by glaciers that scraped the mountaintop down to bare rock ages ago. Only the hardiest vegetation grows here. Only the hardiest skiers ski here, on Sugarloaf’s Snowfields–the mountain’s crowning glory and quintessential ski experience. The view from the top is a 360-degree panorama of Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak; New Hampshire’s Mount Washington; the 4,000-foot peaks of the Longfellow Range; and a patchwork of logging clear-cuts in endless acres of Maine woods. But we don’t linger; we’re on a mission. Local ski bum Greg Caruso and I cut across the wind-scoured front face, our edges making the sound of a knife cutting Styrofoam. Little balls of snow skitter across frozen ripples like shattered glass across ice. We traverse to the edge, where we peek over the back side. It looks more unskiable than what we’ve just crossed. The only option is down the nearly bald face, which is so steep it drops out of sight below our ski tips. It’s my fourth day at the Loaf, and I’ve started to figure out why it has such a loyal following. Why so many skiers and riders spend winter after winter here. And why they don’t go West. The Snowfields are one reason, but it cuts deeper than that. Greg, a 26-year-old from Millinocket, Maine, works the two-to-10 shift behind the bar, serving beer and slinging pizzas, at the on-slope Sugartree health club. After three years on lifts¿he worked his way up to foreman, at $6.75 an hour¿he’s landed one of the more coveted ski-bum jobs. As often happens, he just fell into this good fortune. For six summers, he’s been a raft guide on the Penobscot River. Fellow raft guides skied the Loaf and worked at the health club in the winter. Now he does, too. He shares a $400-a-month log cabin in the woods with another raft guide, and by ski-bum standards, it’s considered plush. Steve Pierce is a Sugarloaf institution. He’s a bartender who actually lists “ski bum” under occupation on his tax return. A bearlike mountain man with a big, bushy beard and curly brown hair, Steve has skied all over New England. But he tells me nothing can compare to Sugarloaf. “When I come around that mountain … the view captures me every day.” What he’s talking about is called “Ohmygosh Corner.” About four miles south of Sugarloaf, there’s a big bend in Route 27, and when you come around it, the mountain comes suddenly and unexpectedly into view. And it is huge. A single, hulking, bald-topped massif. “One Big Mother of a Mountain,” the brochure copy reads. From the 4,237-foot summit, the ski area stretches 2,820 feet to the base, starting out wicked steep up top and gradually lessening in pitch until it spreads out in a gentle apron at the bottom. When that fills your windshield, it’s impressive. Steve started as a night auditor at the Sugarloaf Inn in the early ’70s, with the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. He lived in an old wooden A-frame with no running water. It cost $50 a month, which he split with another guy. They’d sneak showers at the Inn and fill up plastic containers with water from the spigot at the general store. Now, at 47, Steve’s got more responsibility. He helped form the town of Carrabassett Valley in 1972 and has been active in town politics ever since. Sugarloaf doesn’t have a mayor, but if it did, it would be Steve. Still, being a bartender at Gepetto’s in the base village gives him the flexibility to schedule his day around skiing. We take the SuperQuad to King’s Landing, a winding blue run with an even pitch, and I follow Steve, who’s makinng short, zippy turns down the fall line. Then he breaks rhythm and speeds off in great swooping arcs through the soft corduroy. Steve’s already around the next bend; I’m just following contrails. We take a run down Narrow Gauge, part of the FIS downhill course. It starts with a series of big cruising turns, then dumps into a steep headwall. We are humming. Mach schnell. On the next run, we hook up with Kip Files, another Gepetto’s bartender. He’s sporting a grungy gray jacket, a long wool scarf, old Atomic race skis, and a shiny new Boeri helmet. Typical Sugarloaf. Also typical is the speed at which he skis. Maybe it’s the steep, wide-open, immaculately groomed runs. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes from years of skiing on boilerplate. “I used to think I was fast,” Kip says, “but when I came to Sugarloaf, I met people who could time me with a calendar.” Not surprisingly, helmets have come into vogue on the mountain. When I ask Kip about his, he starts talking about open-casket funerals and squirrel fodder (chunks of brain left on the hill by helmetless skiers). Not every run here is groomed, though. Upper Double Bitter is a double black and one of several trails that’s designated as a “Wild Thing” area: no grooming, no snowmaking. It’s skiing like Mother Nature, not Father Otten, meant it to be. The afternoon sun breaks through the trees, casting zebra stripes on the slope. With a thick blanket of new snow on top, it’s like skiing on velvet. But under that plush layer is raw mountain: bumps and banks, sharp curves and steep drop-offs. It’s a roller-coaster ride that has us grinning uncontrollably. The trail spits us out onto the Alpine Park, where grooming machines have sculpted manmade snow to resemble, well, Upper Double Bitter. Living in the Loaf presents certain convenience challenges. The place is remote. For some, a doctor visit can mean a two-hour drive. The movies and a Big Mac are nearly an hour away in The Big City (Farmington, population 7,500), with not a single stoplight in between. “You plan for all your chores,” Steve says. And you do a lot of catalog shopping. For out-of-towners, it’s a four-hour drive from Boston, eight from New York City. I chose to fly in, which took about two and a half hours, two planes, and $360. Then it was an hour and 45 minutes from Augusta on a twisty road. Probably would’ve been less if I hadn’t been stuck behind one of the big logging trucks that rumble down Route 27. But the ride along the Carrabassett River was worth it. And somehow the effort of the journey made the arrival more worthwhile–the way hiking to ski somehow makes the turns sweeter. “It’s remote and rugged and beautiful,” Steve says. “It’s the kind of place you leave your door unlocked.” It’s also the kind of place, I found, that obsesses about the weather. The local TV news spends more time on meteorology than Denver stations spend on the JonBenet Ramsey case. “Strengthening clouds, embedded thunderstorms, cold fronts, silent winds, warm air, 16 degrees in Bangor, nine on the top of Mount Washington…” Okay, so some people groove on the remote factor, and there’s the Snowfields, but I still couldn’t help wondering, Why not go West to ski bum? The more people I met, the clearer the answer became. There’s something in the water. Kip grew up on a lake outside Bangor and in the summers he captains the Victory Chimes, a century-old three-masted schooner, sailing the Maine coast. Nearly every ski bum I met in Sugarloaf has some connection to water.   Peter “Pablo” Bevins is a chef at Gepetto’s and a crusty 33-year-old snowboarder from Ogunquit, a small beach community on the southern coast of Maine. Over a beer, he tells me that he used to be a “diehard redneck skier who hated snowboarders,” but friends convinced him to try riding and now he’s hooked. It’s Pablo’s fourth season at Sugarloaf, and he’s got it dialed. He started as the pizza guy, but has worked his way up to kitchen manager. He also scored a $250 season pass and the upstairs apartment. “I don’t do roomies,” he says with a clenched jaw. And on powder days, he adds, “I need to be first in line.” The next day is not a powder day, but I plan to meet Pablo early anyway. First, though, I stop for a steaming cappuccino and freshly baked muffin at Java Joe’s in the Sugarloaf village. Young guys are talking about sweet rides, bitchy waitresses, and washing dishes. The village is pretty much self-contained. There are dozens of shops and bars and restaurants. I’m staying in one of the 800 condos sprinkled through the woods below the base, but there’s also the 120-room Sugarloaf Grand Summit Hotel, right at the village center. In either case, most people drive to the ski area, but find that, between proximity and the shuttle system, they don’t end up driving again until they leave. Pablo and I ride up the SuperQuad, which whisks us a mile and a half and 1,800 vertical feet in about seven minutes. Wearing a blue helmet, reflective blue Revo goggles, and a shiny silver fireman’s jacket, Pablo looks like Robocop wrapped in tinfoil. We take a warmup run on Hayburner, which is groomed, but long and steep (call it Thighburner). Like the others, Pablo rides fast, and I find myself chasing him, barely glimpsing bits of silver in clouds of powder. We take the Spillway double chair, a.k.a. Chillway, to the highest point on the mountain you can get to without taking the gondola. From Spillway X-Cut, we stare down into a snarl of trees so thick I can’t imagine it’s skiable. Pablo pulls an old, ratty pair of goggles from his fanny pack. “Beater goggles,” he explains, “for the woods.” He disappears into the trees, and I jump in behind him. The glade is so tight it’s like skiing a slalom on 225s. Lower down, still spitting out chunks of bark, I follow Pablo into the Rookie River glade, a big treed bowl with a river running through it. We follow the riverbed as it snakes over boulders and around trees. We use the banks like bobsledders, going faster and faster, trees whizzing by, then suddenly we pop out of the woods, back into the groomed world. We saw no one else in the trees. It seems mostly the locals know the lines. Pablo looks at me with piercing blue eyes and says mysteriously, “Those that know, know.” Not that you can’t go in the trees. In fact, Sugarloaf boasts a boundary-to-boundary policy, which means you can ski anywhere you want within the area’s 1,400 acres, including a dozen cut glades. By afternoon, a storm moves in. The wind blows mercilessly in every direction, and the temperature dives. As I ski down, a fierce wind blasts uphill. The effect is like dry ice in a horror flick, snow boiling up around my boots. It tricks me into thinking I’m not skiing on a firm surface. Time to quit. The storm has blanketed the mountain with six inches of heavy snow. I run into Abby Serina, 22, another snowboarder in her fourth season at the Loaf. A born-and-bred Mainer, she works in a little cubby in the condo check-in building from noon until eight, and the job comes with a pass. We get freshies in the trees off Winter’s Way, then cut over to the gondola line. It’s an awesome plunge straight down the fall line with great potential for a slide for life. Next run, Abby takes me into Broccoli Garden, a tree shot off Buckboard indicated by a stick stuck in the snow. I can’t find it on the trail map, but the trees, with stubby bunches of branches on top and thick trunks, do look like broccoli. George Bush wod be freaking. It’s not too steep, and the trees are generously spaced. We get enough momentum to cut through the frostinglike new snow, Abby’s long red pony tail bobbing in the air. Abby spent last summer sailing with her brother off the coast of New Jersey, and she’s making plans for sailing school. “Every year, I think about leaving, but then I get sucked in.” Her life is simple. “I see people with a cloud around them like Pig Pen: kids, cell phone, beeper. They have lots of stuff.” Abby has no credit cards, no health insurance, no car registration. “I bought a snowboard instead,” she explains. In the afternoon the clouds clear out, turning the day into a postcard of bright white trees against an electric blue sky. Abby has taken off for work, and I’m skiing with Greg in King Pine Bowl at the eastern end of the mountain. He sports a goatee and wears a basic red coat and beat-up black ski pants. (Facial hair seems to be a local’s prerequisite, and red, blue, and black are the only clothing colors I see for a week.) We struggle down Ripsaw, a long, steep dogleg left covered with bumps and junk snow–it’s another Wild Thing trail. We take a run on Misery Whip, an old T-bar line turned trail. With new snow piled up on the sides, it’s a straight-down-the-fall-line luge run. The wind dies down, and the gondola opens. Miracle. Built in 1965, the gondola was a marvel in its day. Today it’s an antique. The four-person cars look like gigantic M&Ms, colored in red, yellow, and blue. The lifties lock us in with a key, then manhandle the car out of the loading dock. The ride is scary. Since my trip, the gondola has been replaced. We ski the top of White Nitro, at 43 degrees, the steepest slope in the East. Today it’s a perfectly groomed swath through the above-tree-line, untrammeled world of the Snowfields. We slice perfect arcs down it, feeling the weightlessness of momentary free fall between turns. At the tree line, Greg cuts over to Powder Keg, where the snow is Rockies-style soft but tricky, the slope decidedly ungroomed. We abruptly shift into survival mode. Finally, we cut over to Bubblecuffer, a narrow, curvy run with huge bumps. It’s named for loggers who would walk on logs floating in the river to prevent jams, the water bubbling up around their pant cuffs. We need to use fancy footwork, too, to stay on top of the moguls that bubble up around our ears. I’m sweating by the time we get back to the gondola. February is a little early in the season for Snowfield skiing, but Greg and I decide to chance it. We take the inhospitable traverse through the stunted trees, over the Styrofoam snow, to the edge of the front face. At the bottom is a very definitive, very immovable row of trees. We prepare for 20 white-knuckle turns down the no-fall steep. But the sun has baked the crust to soft corn, and the turns are memorable, the run exhilarating. Below, we hit a runout that wraps around the bottom of the Snowfields, bringing us back to the top of King Pine Bowl. It’s time for Greg’s shift at the health club, but it doesn’t take much to convince him to make one more run in the Snowfields. At dusk, I drive south toward the Augusta airport. The Carrabassett river is crammed with snow-covered boulders, and soft lights glow from A-frames alongside the road. I notice a sign I passed on the way into the Carrabassett Valley: From here on in, your life will never be the same. That’s certainly true for those who live to Loaf. They’ve been transfixed by this massive, remote ski mountain that draws them back season after season. And in a state with 3,000 miles of shoreline, when the frozen stuff melts, the lakes, rivers, and ocean call Sugarloaf’s bums to other parts of Maine. And so the seasonal migration goes. This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in March 1998

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Hiking along the surreal landscape of the Great Sand Dunes.

Bison, UFO’s, and Skiing on Sand

Hiking along the surreal landscape of the Great Sand Dunes. The pile of gear laid out in our garage was incongruous: sand shovels and pails, skis, sun hats, a snow sled. We were packing for a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. Tucked in the curve where the Sangre de Cristo range meets the San Luis Valley, 30 square miles of sand pile up in dunes as high as 750 feet. On the drive toward the park along the flat expanse of the valley, the dunes materialize unexpectedly, as if someone had superimposed the Sahara onto Colorado’s lush, blue-green mountains. Last month my husband, Jeff, and I, along with our three small children, hiked through the sand sheet, the vegetated stretch of sand surrounding the dunes. In the distance a fuzzy-antlered elk nibbled on Indian rice grass. Yucca and prickly pear cactus lined the trail, which led us to the base of the dunes. The children cooked sand cakes and lay down to make sand angels. They dug until they hit water, then jumped into the mucky pit, barefoot and giggling. Jeff snowboarding on sand. Requisite gear: a wide-brimmed sun hat. Wind, water and the geography of the San Luis Valley created the dunes. The San Juans thrust up on the western edge of the broad basin, and the Sangre de Cristos flank the eastern edge. Since the last ice age, eroded minerals from the mountains, mostly the San Juans, and sediment from dried-up lakes blew into the giant sand trap of the Sangre de Cristos. Today the dunes are constantly recycling as snowmelt fuels seasonal creeks that carry sand downstream. Southwesterly winds then blow it back to the dunes, and northeasterly winds help sculpture a frothy meringue of peaks, valleys and ridgelines. Our campsite was set in a stand of 700-year-old junipers overlooking the dune field. The first night in the tent, the wind howled, and we imagined the sand swirling on the dunes, erasing the feathery pattern of handprints we’d left. The next morning we headed to the main dune parking lot and trudged to High Dune, a 1.1-mile slog through soft sand. We were not alone. On any given summer day, a hundred visitors make the hike. We passed people flying kites, a man snowboarding in sneakers and college guys doing flips off ridge lines. Playing in Medano Creek at the base of the sand dunes. Walking uphill in the dunes is a Sisyphean endeavor: take one step forward, fall half a step back. But the panorama at the top was worth it. The dunes appear like a gigantic, rumpled bedspread. What looks uniformly beige from a distance is really a multitude of shades. Waves of white sand rippled through sheets of gold. Up high, we found swirls of black magnetite, a mineral that can spin the needle on a compass. On another morning we set out to find Medano Creek and slopes for skiing. We drove a mile down the sandy Medano Pass road, parking at the Point of No Return. Every week in a dry summer, several cars get mired in the deep sand on the next section of road. Instead of driving, we hitched a ride in a 1979 International Harvester Scout with Dale Mark, a dunes regular in a pith helmet and aviator sunglasses. He directed us to Castle Creek for the best skiing, tipping his hand near vertical to indicate the pitch. I strapped my skis and ski boots onto a pack and headed uphill. Leaving tracks in sand means skiing in super slow-mo.Photo credit: William Rogers Though it was still early, the heat of the sand burned through my hiking boots. By summer afternoons, surface temperatures can reach 150 degrees. Sweating, I hiked past clusters of prairie sunflowers growing defiantly in the swales. The sand cracked and hummed underfoot. When it comes to sliding, the salient difference between snow and sand is friction. Even on the 34-degree pitch — the angle of repose for sand here — I was barely moving. I made a dozen slow-motion turns down the 300-foot face, setting off sand avalanches around my feet. “Wet sand would be way faster,” Mr. Mark said. Water was the driving force behind the Great Sand Dunes’ becoming the country’s newest national park. In the 1920s people here began lobbying to protect the dunes from gold mining. In 1932 Herbert Hoover established 38,000 acres of dunes as a national monument. Decades later, as researchers began to understand better the integral role of water to the dune system, the threat of commercial water development made it critical to protect not just the dunes but also the surrounding creeks and wetlands — and the massive aquifer beneath the dunes. In 2004 the boundaries were expanded to cover 150,000 acres, and the area was designated as a national park and preserve. A scene in layers: sage brush, bison, great mounts of sand, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Just outside the park, the Nature Conservancy manages a preserve of another sort: a herd of 2,000 American bison that roam on the 103,000-acre Zapata Ranch. The kids were eager to see the beasts. At the ranch, we piled into a creaking wooden wagon pulled by a Suburban to scout for bison. Bumping along a dusty, rutted road through yellow rabbit brush, we came upon a group of 75 or so. On the horizon we could see hundreds more. With the dunes as a bizarre backdrop, the bison rolled in the dust, nuzzled their rust-colored calves and gave us the opportunity to explain “hanky-panky” to the children. The children learned other, somewhat more wholesome, things on the trip. At a kids’ talk, the park ranger asked, “How do you think a kangaroo rat pees?” The answer: “It doesn’t!” The kangaroo rat, the only mammal that spends its entire life in the dunes, conserves water by excreting crystals. To escape the afternoon heat, we hiked to Zapata Falls just south of the park. After a half-mile, we walked through ankle-chilling water to the falls, a 30-foot surge of water squirting through the rocks. The spray cooled us instantaneously. Back at the campsite, we watched shadows grow long on the dunes, creating dark crescents on the light sand. The sun set in shades of pink, purple and orange as hikers moved along ridge tops like tiny commas. “Okay, so we’re holding a real live gator. This is some seriously questionable parenting.” As if the dunes themselves weren’t trippy enough, we toured the nearby Colorado Gators, where some 400 alligators wriggle in ponds heated by a geothermal well. The tilapia farmers here originally introduced alligators as garbage disposals for fish carcasses, but they soon became a tourist attraction. The farm also houses a menagerie of exotic reptiles, including an albino Burmese python. The kids held an alligator, receiving a “Certificate of Bravery,” which was then ceremoniously chomped like a hole-puncher by said gator. Stranger yet, we stopped by the UFO Watchtower, just down the road in Hooper, Colorado. A former cattle rancher, Judy Messoline has erected a metal observation deck around a monolithic dome. We climbed up and scanned the skies, to no avail. Out front, there’s a gravel “Healing Garden” that, according to Ms. Messoline, contains two spinning vortexes: portals to a parallel universe. Hundreds of items left by visitors as offerings litter the garden: a Snow White Pez dispenser, a BlackBerry, a pair of fuzzy dice. Before heading home, we hiked the park’s Montville Nature Trail, which winds through gnarled pinon pines. Red fairy trumpets lined the trail, and beads of rain on the aspen leaves sparkled like diamonds in the sun. We caught views of the dunes framed by weathered snags. Even after a week, the hills of sand continued to surprise. “They are just so strange,” my husband said. Again. Then the weirdness ratcheted up yet another notch: Our six-year-old reported he’d seen a U.F.O. “It was a big, orange fiery ball,” he said. “I think it was a … a flying saucer. I definitely saw something.” Wild skies at the Great Sand Dune. IF YOU GO The park is about 240 miles south of Denver, and 175 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M. Park information is at nps.gov/GRSA/index.htm. WHERE TO STAY The Pinyon Flats campground has 88 first-come, first-served sites inside the park ($14 per night) . On summer weekends, the campground fills nightly, so arrive early. There are also 25 free backcountry sites along Medano Pass road, which requires a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. With a permit from the visitor center, you can backpack on the dunes themselves. Just outside the park at Great Sand Dunes Lodge (7900 Highway 150; 719-378-2900, gsdlodge.com), motel rooms start at $89. Next door, Great Sand Dunes Oasis (5400 Highway 150; 719-378-2222, greatdunes.com) has a grocery, gas station, cabins, and camping. Tent sites are $18 a night for two. WHERE TO EAT Bring the Coleman stove for eggs, pancakes and bacon alfresco. Pinyon Flats campsites have fire pits with grills for hot dogs and burgers. The café at the Oasis serves all day. WHAT TO DO Bring a snow sled, old skis and a snowboard for sand sliding. In summer, start early to hike the dunes. Follow the throngs to High Dune or for solitude, drive the Medano Pass road to the Sand Pit or Castle Creek areas. Pack sand toys for building castles and bathing suits for splashing in Medano Creek. The turnoff for Zapata Falls (nps.gov/archive/grsa/zapata_falls.htm) is 10 miles south of the park on Highway 150. The trailhead is 3.5 miles up a dirt road. Reserve ahead for a bison tour with Zapata Ranch (888-592-7282, zranch.org). Tours run two to three hours; the cost is $50 for adults; $25, 12 and under; 5-and-unders are free. A no-trespassing sign at Colorado Gators (719-378-2612, gatorfarm.com) warns “Violators May Be Eaten.” From the Sand Dunes, the farm is a 20-mile drive, west on Lane 6, north on route 17. Admission is $12.50 for adults; $6.25 for ages 6-15. The UFO Watchtower (ufowatchtower.com) is just north, in Hooper, Colo. Although the San Luis Valley is a reputed hot spot for sighting alien spacecraft, the $5 admission comes with no guarantee. A version of this story appeared in The New York Times in October 2009.

Floating the Niobrara

niobrara_3

Nebraska, With a Paddle

To the uninitiated, Nebraska conjures a certain image: a treeless prairie steamrolled pancake-flat, stretching to the horizon. But tucked in a north-central patch of the state is the Niobrara River Valley, filled with a surprising collection of conifers and hardwoods, 200-foot sandstone bluffs and spring-fed waterfalls. To the south are the Sandhills, grass-stabilized dunes that roll and ripple like a gigantic rumpled bedsheet in a hundred shades of green, blue and gold. And half an hour from Valentine, the town that is the base camp for thousands of float trips on the Niobrara River every year, is Merritt Reservoir, a deep emerald lake rimmed with white-sand beaches — all that’s missing are the palm trees. The Niobrara starts in eastern Wyoming and flows across Nebraska for more than 400 miles, emptying into the Missouri River. Seventy-six miles, starting just east of Valentine, are designated as national scenic river. The rapids are mostly riffles, and the water is knee-deep in most spots, inviting a journey that’s more about socializing than sport. In summer, groups of young partiers dominate the river, hitching tractor-tire-size inflated inner tubes together and guzzling beer as they drift downstream. Some paddle in canoes or kayaks; others float in giant plastic tanks used to water livestock. But come fall, when the college set heads back to campus, empty nesters and leaf peepers take to the river in canoes and kayaks, paddling in search of solitude in one of the country’s most diverse environments. Unlike the raging white-water rivers that swell in springtime runoff, the Niobrara is spring-fed, so its rapids are mellow and the water level fairly consistent across the seasons. Dorothy Laabs, a gregarious 48-year-old obstetrics nurse from Omaha, rallies a group of nurses every fall to float the river. “I like the fall because you can see the changing of the leaves,” she said. The birch, aspen and cottonwoods turn shades of gold, and sumacs add a flash of red. “You see less people and more wildlife,” she said. “This year, we watched a beaver cross the river. We saw deer, a whole family of wild turkeys and a blue heron, as regal as ever.” On a family trip in August, my husband, Jeff, our children and I loaded up a canoe and a kayak and put in on a Friday at Cornell Bridge, inside the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to float for two days and camp two nights. Little Outlaw, one of a handful of outfitters in Valentine would rent us boats and shuttle our minivan from point to point. Over the eons, the Niobrara (pronounced nigh-oh-BRAH-rah) has cut more than 400 feet through a series of rock formations: the pinkish-red Rosebud formation, the chalky white sandstone Valentine formation and the Ash Hollow formation, a cap rock of gray ash. Drifting in it was not unlike floating through an enormous block of Neopolitan ice cream. Having reached impervious bedrock, the river spreads laterally, making it wide and shallow enough that we felt safe taking three children under 8 onto the water. We often beached our craft at the edge to go for a swim or take a walk on shore. In all, the Niobrara cuts through six ecosystems, including ponderosa pine, Eastern deciduous forests and tallgrass prairie. Four of those systems are disjunct, meaning they really have no business in the region. While the warm arid landscape of the Great Plains eventually proved inhospitable to many plants that thrived after the last glaciers retreated, the cool, moist environment in the river valley has preserved relics like the giant paper birch and a rare hybrid aspen from a colony 10,000 years old. Animal life thrives in the diversity: turkey vultures ride the thermals, sandpipers perch on sandbars, dragonflies dart above the water’s surface.

Cooling off in one of dozens of waterfalls along the Niobrara.

Wading through cold streams, we discovered small waterfalls tucked in side canyons. A recent National Park Service study found more than 230 falls, most only a few feet high, along a 35-mile stretch of the Niobrara we visited. After six hours on the river (note: adding three kids to the formula doubles your float time), we spotted our camp compound perched on the riverbank at Smith Falls State Park. We had pitched it there the night before — our palatial two-room tent and matching screen house, an arrangement that seemed a little slick by Nebraska standards. Other campers were erecting old-school tents with plastic tarps. After a camp dinner, we walked across the steel truss Verdigre Bridge and up a boardwalk winding to Smith Falls, Nebraska’s tallest. At the falls, cold water plunged 63 feet over a bell-shaped rock. Surrounded by moss and mist, red cedar and bur oak, we found it hard to imagine that just a short hike could take us to the dry, windswept Sandhills Prairie. As the purples and pinks of a fading sun reflected in the rippling water, Jeff strolled down the belly of the river with our two boys. Their giggles carried in the dusky air as they bobbed in lifejackets, dragging their heels in the silted river bottom. By noon on Saturday, we were passing flotillas of tubers from Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska — young things in bikinis and shorts, broiling in the late-summer sun and imbibing mightily. A group of campers had set up tiki torches and lawn chairs midstream and were cooling their toes in eddies. As a bald eagle soared overhead, Jeff fished an abandoned can of Bud Light from the river. (And drank it.) Our youngest fell asleep in the canoe in a pile of life preservers, despite the rap music thumping from boom boxes. Stuart Schneider, a park ranger, patrolled the river, passing out mesh bags for empties. “On a busy Saturday, we can get 3,000 people,” said Mr. Schneider, who writes the occasional ticket for disorderly conduct. “My favorite time on the river is the fall,” he told us. “The water is clear, there are no bugs, and the leaves can be spectacular.” After our adventure on the river, we spent a few days exploring by car. At the Fort Niobrara refuge near Valentine, orange and red smeared the dawn sky, the grass smelled sweet with dew and fog hung in the hollows. The fort was established in 1879 to keep peace between Lakota Indians and settlers. Today the site is home to black-tailed prairie dogs, 225 bird species, and a herd of 300 to 400 buffalo (though as few as 15 might be pastured close enough to view). Even from afar, the one-ton bison looked massive and lumbering. In the 1800s, as many as 60 million roamed the plains; by 1900, the buffalo was hunted to near extinction. In fact, a thick, curly-haired buffalo skin coat is one of the items on display at the Cherry County Historical Society Museum in Valentine. Other exhibits include a collection of spittoons and a display of nearly 100 cattle brands used on the area’s ranches. Valentine also has the oldest standing high school in Nebraska, now reinvented as another museum, called Centennial Hall. Built in 1897, it is said to be haunted by the ghost of a student poisoned by her clarinet reed. The old classrooms are filled with artifacts, including the original wooden door to Valentine’s jail and a collection of 1,700 bells. In Valentine (population 2,820), red hearts are painted on the sidewalks, and cattle-country stereotypes ring true. Ranchers in cowboy hats roll down Main Street in dusty pickups, and Young’s Western Wear, purveyor of all things cowboy (jeans, chaps, hats, ropes, saddles) stocks 5,000 pairs of cowboy boots. They come in snakeskin, elephant, stingray, ostrich and — if you must — cow leather. We outfitted the kids in checked cowboy shirts and headed 26 miles south through the Sandhills, past grazing cattle, massive spools of rolled hay and spinning windmills, to Merritt Reservoir. We set up camp in a small cove lined with shade trees. Anglers pull walleyes, crappies and wide-mouth bass from the depths here, and jet skiers trace arcs on the surface. With the wind blowing and our toes buried in the warm sugar sand, we forgot altogether that we were in Nebraska.

The author and kids on the banks of Merritt Reservoir.

Because of its remote location, the reservoir is a prime spot for stargazing. At night, my older son and I curled on a blanket on the beach and stared at the stars. I pointed out the Big Dipper, exhausting my knowledge of the heavenly skies. “On a clear moonless night, no kidding, it’s so bright the Milky Way casts a shadow,” we were told later by John Bauer, owner of the Merritt Trading Post and Resort, the only development at the lake. He sent us to see nearby Snake River Falls. We descended the trail through sumac and yucca to the base of the falls and crawled behind the 54-foot-wide falls. We marveled at the gushing torrent inches away. “Is it thundering?” my 2-year-old asked in total confusion. On our drive home, we detoured through the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles south of Valentine. Where the Ogallala Aquifer nears the surface, bright blue lakes and marshes sparkled like jewels in the green grass. We hiked up to a rusting fire tower and gazed at the Sandhills, which spread out like a turbulent sea. It occurred to me then that the only pancake we’d seen in Nebraska came with syrup and a generous pat of butter. IF YOU GO Valentine, Neb., is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive southeast from Rapid City, S.D. From Valentine, to the east, a 76-mile stretch of the Niobrara has been designated a national scenic river (402-376-1901; www.nps.gov/niob). The first part, to Rocky Ford, is an easy float; later sections require portages and skilled paddling. Little Outlaw rents boats and tubes and arranges shuttles (800-238-1867; www.outlawcanoe.com). After Labor Day, the visitor center at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (402-376-3789; www.fws.gov/fortniobrara) is open weekdays. For information on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge log onto www.fws.gov/valentine. Smith Falls State Park (402-376-1306; www.ngpc.state.ne.us) offers campsites at the river’s edge for $4 per person per night. In Valentine, the Coachlight Inn (302 North Main Street; 402-376-3145) has tasty cheeseburgers ($6.45) and friendly service. For dinner, the Bunkhouse (West Highway 20; 402-376-1609) serves up big Nebraska steaks ($13.50 for a top sirloin). The Trade Winds Motel (East Highway 20; 888-376-1601; www.tradewindslodge.com) is locally owned, retro and impressively tidy. Rooms start at $55. In the fall, the local museums are open by appointment only. For more information, contact the Valentine Chamber of Commerce (239 South Main Street; 800-658-4024; www.visitvalentine.com). This story first appeared in the New York Times in October 2008.

Camping is For Babies

Dandelion_camping_web

Any mom will tell you it’s hell just mobilizing a trip to the grocery store when you have kids. But camping with a baby? How hard could it be?

Crickets. Coyotes. Wind rustling through the trees. The snuffling of deer outside the tent. This is the symphony of sounds I relish when I’m tucked inside my sleeping bag, out in the woods somewhere. But on my last camping trip, the song of the wild was punctuated by the howling of a small child. To be more precise, my child. It was not the first such adventure with our son. When Quinn was 10 months old, my husband, Jeff, and I had camped on top of Steamboat, Colorado. That inaugural camping trip had been surprisingly easy. The gondola whisked us high on the mountain. The baby was portable but not mobile, so we didn’t need to worry about him wandering into the woods or pitching headlong into the campfire. Our biggest concern seemed to be whether Quinn would ever nod off–the sound of tiny fingernails raking against the tent’s nylon ripstop delighted him to no end. The true challenge, however, was changing diapers in a tent…in a pile of sleeping bags…in the dark. And these were not your run-of-the-mill wet diapers. After months of doing his serious business in the daytime, Quinn picked this particular night to recommence nocturnal number-two. Maybe it was the altitude. (Note: pack a headlamp to avoid balancing a flashlight between your teeth.) That night no one slept like a baby. But, hey, who sleeps well on a Thermarest in the dirt, anyway? We woke to an electric cornflower sky and views of the Flat Tops wilderness filling our tent window. We said we’d do it again. We did, which brings us to the night of that god-awful screeching. Our vision for this second alfresco overnight was more Bedouin than backcountry: A spacious two-room tent, a queen-sized blowup mattress, a pack-and-play crib for Quinn, who had just turned two. We would slumber like royalty! Right. We forgot the blow-up (see “make a list” below), so we were back on the Thermarests in the dirt. And then there was the wailing. Before long, we discovered the source of Quinn’s midnight misery: A spider had bitten him square on the eyelid, causing his poor little peeper to swell shut. (Note: Always pack Benadryl when camping with kids.) Despite the fact that our son looked like a Rocky Balboa Mini-Me, we still considered the trip a success. We were car-camping, so the truck was full of icy-cold micro-brews and salty snacks. Quinn spent hours chucking rocks into the river, giggling with every ker-plunk. In the morning, Jeff whipped up blueberry pancakes and bacon on the Coleman stove. Then we hiked a nearby peak, lunching on salami, cheese and crackers, grapes, and chocolate. We said we’d do it again.   What to know about camping with kids: Car-camp now; backpack later: Unless you’ve got a team of sherpas who can carry your gear, the baby’s assorted paraphernalia, and a weekend’s-worth of dirty nappies, start with car camping. Save the backpacking expedition for when junior can carry his own load—or better yet, when he can spend the weekend with the grandparents. Bring a first-aid kit: Without the stash of meds on our trip, we would have been racing to the nearest hospital. When you least expect it, babies and toddlers can go from happy and healthy to coughing and crabby. Be prepared for fevers, colds, cuts, and bruises, as well as camping-specific ailments like slivers, blisters, and poison ivy rashes. Stock the first-aid kit with tweezers, alcohol wipes, band-aids, instant hand sanitizer, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, baby Tylenol and Benadryl. Fun with flashlights: What could be more fun than playing with a flashlight in the dark? (Matches, maybe, but that gets Smokey’s shorts in a twist.) A portable light source is part safety, part security blanket, part monster slayer. And for projecting “magical” patterns on the tent wall, Coleman has a kid-specific flashlight (coolflashlights.com). Avoid tussles by issuing one to each child. Dress like a New Yorker: You’re in the woods. It’s dirty. Forget the lights and whites, and pack dark clothing. (Although outfitting Bambi-sized toddlers in camo during deer season is not advised.) And with tots of any age, bring lots of baby wipes for grimy hands and faces—dishes even. Keep them toasty: Even in summer, when the sun goes down, so goes the mercury. On our Winter Park trip, we all wore hats and gloves, and that was in August. For baby, bring fleece booties, fleece bunting and a soft hat for sleeping. Or, keep the whole clan warm by zipping two sleeping bags together (Kelty has bags that mate; kelty.com). Dress toddlers in synthetics, which wick moisture and dry quickly, and bring lots of layers. Do a dry run: At home, set up the tent in the living room or backyard. The kids will get used to the camping idea; you will learn how to make a shelter out of polyester, poles, and string. Choose a tent like Mountain Hardwear’s Hammerhead 3, which is easy to assemble, fits a family of four, and stows loads of gear in its two vestibules (mountainhardwear.com). Make a list: A time-tested key to any successful family trip is The List. Camping is no exception. Without The List, you’ll likely drive away without something critical. Like marshmallows. Assuming you can figure out the basics (like underpants and food), here’s a rundown of key items not to forget: Basic Camping Checklist Baby’s lovey blanket Toddler’s favorite bear A few toys and books Whistle (kids can blow them if they get lost) Baby wipes Child’s potty Fully loaded Swiss Army knife Waterproof matches Toilet paper Headlamps and flashlights (and batteries Camera (and film) Tent, poles, stakes Tarp and tarp poles Sleeping bags Pillows (why not?) Thermarests or blow-up mattress Folding camp chairs Lantern Hiking boots (broken-in) Sandals Hats and gloves Rain gear Water bottles Collapsible water containers First aid kit (see above) Bug repellent Sunglasses Sunscreen Binoculars Day pack Maps of hiking trails Ice box Corkscrew and bottle opener Stove (and fuel) Pots and pans Plates, bowls, cups Silverware Coffee press Hand towel Sponges Dish soap Aluminum foil Trash bags and Zip-loc bags This article first appeared in Dandelion Magazine in June 2004.

Llama Trekking with Kids

Hiking and Backpacking with Llamas in Colorado

Backpacking Near Silverton, CO, with Four-Footed Friends

Hiking with Llamas near Silverton, Colorado It was a sublime moment. Deep in the woods, the fire had burned down to glowing coals. Our sticky-faced children munched contentedly on perfect s’mores, the marshmallows uniformly toasted and gooey. Pine cones popped in the fire. And nearby, the llamas grazed quietly in the bushes. We were in Colorado’s backcountry, our tent pitched in a stand of Engelmann spruce next to a burbling creek. Our large heap of gear included the rotating and telescoping metal roasting sticks we’d just been using. Ordinarily, we would have scavenged and whittled sticks — if we’d packed marshmallows at all. But we were llama trekking, with furry 325-pound porters to carry our load. So why not? My husband, Jeff, and I forged our early relationship in the backcountry, cooking black beans over an ultralight stove and falling asleep to the chirping of crickets. Since we’d had kids, our weekends were spent car camping, often amid noisy throngs. Now we wanted to venture deeper into the wild, but with three children under 9, the prospect was daunting. Then we heard about the llamas. They carry your gear. You just need to herd the kids. We planned our trip with Redwood Llamas, an outfit in Silverton, in southwest Colorado. We would hike four miles into the San Juan Mountains, camp for two nights, then hike out. Afterward, we would spend a few days nosing around Silverton, a rough-hewn old mining town perched at 9,318 feet. Our itinerary there would include a gunfight and a gold mine — and most certainly a saloon. While Redwood offers fully guided trips complete with a backcountry chef, we opted for the more affordable drop-camp option. A guide and four llamas would ferry us to and from our campsite, leaving us with two of the llamas to carry our packs on day hikes. Mark Pommier, our llama guide, showed us the saddles, lead lines and panniers, and the picket line for securing the llamas in camp. We practiced snapping buckles and tightening cinches. Mr. Pommier also gave us some insight into the llama psychology. Although they are fuzzy and adorable, batting their Tammy Faye eyelashes, they tend to be aloof — “more like cats than dogs,” he said. But they’re hard-working and dependable, and would be easygoing companions on the trail. The most important advice: Don’t lose the llamas. “You do not want to be chasing down a llama in the backcountry,” Mr. Pommier warned. Other worries we might have had turned out to be unfounded. Like camels, llamas do spit, but properly trained animals won’t spit at people. Males have razor-sharp fighting teeth, intended for biting one another, but they’re removed when the llamas are young. Llamas have been domesticated for perhaps 6,000 years; they carried loads for the Incas in Peru. Ours could each carry 60 pounds of gear, which meant we could bring certain luxuries: a two-room tent, coolers of beer and steak, a Harry Potter hardback. On a Friday morning early last month, we followed the trail from Little Molas Lake just south of Silverton across a grassy hillside covered in columbines, Indian paintbrush, buttercups and fuzzy white bistort. Gnarled gray stumps littered the slope, remnants of a century-old fire. In the distance jagged peaks thrust in every direction — black needles striped with snow and maroon pyramids wrapped in green aprons. Mr. Pommier let our boys, Quinn, 8, and Aidan, 5, lead the llamas, which inspired them to set a quick pace. If they slowed, the llamas would give them a little nudge. The boys loved it. They stopped occasionally to let the llamas graze, watching to make sure they didn’t nibble on larkspur, a pretty but poisonous spur-shaped purple flower. Our daughter, Anya, 3, also started out as a llama “michiy,” Quechua for herder, but her privileges were revoked early; she’d lose interest and drop the rope. Most of our hike followed the well-traveled Colorado Trail, but after lunch we bushwhacked onto a narrow trail that cut across a steep mountainside. Loaded with gear, the llamas were surprisingly sure-footed, crossing downed trees and rocky streams. Llamas’ feet have two soft pads with toenails and are said to cause less environmental impact than most hikers. Their feet seemed small compared with their oversized fur coats topped by the wide load of the panniers. By 2 p.m., we set up camp in Putnam Basin, at roughly 11,300 feet, in a spot surrounded by walls of gray rock and sky-scraping ridgelines. Mr. Pommier headed back to town, leaving C.C. and Comanche behind. We could easily have fit our day packs on a single animal, but we were told that llamas are social creatures and need company. An added benefit: Bears tend to avoid campsites with llamas. When threatening wildlife approaches, llamas sound a piercing alarm cry. We gathered dead wood for the fire, and the children collected wild chives to add to our chicken and rice. When the kids inquired about bathroom arrangements, we showed them the backside of a tree and our little orange shovel. The boys were in heaven with the woods to themselves and a roaring fire to poke at. They became obsessed with cutting through a huge log with our collapsible saw. Even Anya joined in. “Look at my pretty nails,” she said, followed by, “Hey, can I have a turn with the saw?” That night, I woke up confused by a startlingly bright light against the tent wall. It was the moon, not even full but blinding nonetheless. In the morning we feasted on pancakes and sausages grilled on a Coleman stove. Here’s where things went slightly south: It took us three hours to get a single mile down the trail. Blisters needed moleskin; bare knees needed bug spray; and each child, in short succession, needed to use the orange shovel. In an impatient moment, Aidan ventured ahead of the group with C.C. on the lead. Separated from the herd, the llama grew antsy and started prancing in circles on the steep hillside, tangling the rope in Aidan’s legs and knocking him over. Llama trauma. We sat on a rock, surrounded by delicate drooping bluebells, and regrouped over cheese and crackers, cherries and summer sausage. Jeff and Aidan and the llamas retreated to camp. I hoisted Anya in the backpack carrier and headed for the ridge top with Quinn, who was determined to summit. After a steep climb through loose rock, past the remains of an old mine, we headed up a hillside covered in marsh marigolds. When we crested the ridge, the wind howled, whipping at our faces. The San Juans crammed the view to the horizon: huge hulks of gray rock mixed with peaks banded red and gold. Quinn took a gander and shouted into the wind: “We’re going to die! Let’s get outta here!” On the descent, I had time to make some calculations. Mr. Pommier told us that llamas can carry a third of their body weight. A pack with 35 pounds of wriggling flesh is roughly one-third of my total body weight, which makes me no less of a pack animal than a llama. Other similarities: When llamas get agitated, they make a humming sound not unlike the whine of a discontented child. Llamas also cluck, burp, sneeze and snort — noises that delighted the kids. Our children adopted the llamas, feeding them wildflowers, petting them, walking them to the creek. For dinner, we grilled New York strips on an old baking rack, flipping the meat with a salad fork, and cooked red potatoes in foil packets in the fire. That night we snuggled close, reading “Is Your Mama a Llama?” as a thunderstorm pounded the walls of our tent. Fueled on a breakfast mash of rice, potatoes, chicken and steak, we saddled up the llamas and packed our gear into the panniers. Mr. Pommier met us at noon, bringing two fresh llamas, for the hike back. We were nearly at the trailhead when we got pummeled by another storm, this one complete with downpour and hailstones. Oblivious to the weather, the llamas plodded down the trail with a stoic lack of concern. Having parted ways with our furry friends, we spent the next day in Silverton, exploring streets lined with landmark 1880s buildings and touring an old gold mine. At Handlebars, a watering hole filled with moose heads and snarky signs, Jeff and I toasted to our survival with draft beer served in Mason jars. Winding among century-old headstones in Hillside Cemetery on a rocky incline covered in aspen and fireweed, we pondered the fate of Silverton’s early adventurers (scarlet fever, avalanche, gunshot, mine explosion, dropsy) and realized that backpacking with llamas is truly a plush endeavor — an idea we were very comfortable with. IF YOU GO ON THE TRAIL Redwood Llamas (1708 Green Street; 970-560-2926; www.redwoodllamas.com) is in Silverton, Colo., a town that sits in the center of an ancient volcanic caldera an hour north of Durango, Colo., and six and a half hours south of Denver. Frontier, US Airways and United Express all have flights to Durango. Redwood offers full-service pack trips that include guide, tents, llamas and meals for $4,000 for four people, four days, or $1,000 a person per day. Less costly is the drop-camp option: The guide leads you in and out; you bring gear and food. A three-day trip in July cost $1,075. The llama-trekking season runs June through September; mid-July to mid-August is the best time to see wildflowers. Redwood has a permit to operate in the San Juan National Forest, where it has more than a dozen designated routes and campsites for full-service and drop-camp trips. For those leasing the llamas without a guide, virtually any trail in the national forest is fair game. There is no fee or permit required for individuals to camp in the San Juan National Forest, and you can camp anywhere. Redwood also offers trips that use the Durango & Silverton train to access the backcountry. You ride the rails to the trailhead; Redwood meets you there with the gear and llamas. IN SILVERTON Silverton, an old mining town, has a single paved road and a downtown that’s a National Historic Landmark. Many tourists arrive from Durango on the steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (888-872-4607; www.durangotrain.com; $79 to $159 round trip). Wander through three floors of mining paraphernalia at the Mining Heritage Museum (1569 Greene Street; 970-387-5838; www.silvertonhistoricsociety.org; $5, ages 12 and under free). In summer, gunfights are staged at Blair and 12th at 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. The Old Hundred Gold Mine (800-872-3009; www.minetour.com), on County Road 4-A, runs hourly tours. Admission ($16.95; $7.95 ages 5 to 12) includes gold panning. Handlebars Food & Saloon (117 13th Street; 970-387-5395) serves a tasty mushroom cheeseburger ($9.95) and chicken-fried steak ($12.95). Its huge collection of stuffed and mounted wildlife, including grizzly and elk, will keep both small fry and adults entertained. This article first appeared in the NY Times in 2009    

Thrills, Chills, & Other Placid Moments

Lake Placid Skiing Magazine

In the Olympics, people do insane things on snow. In Lake Placid, mere mortals can, too.

“Welcome to the six-man bobsled,” said the brakeman. “Climb aboard.” Bobsleds look so high tech and shiny on TV, but when you’re sitting in one — this one in Lake Placid, anyway — they seem about as high tech as a Boy Scout canoe. He handed me a dinged-up red helmet the size of a wrecking ball. How it got all those dings was a concern. Here was another concern: I was pregnant and had just unwittingly waltzed past a NO PREGNANT WOMEN sign. Oh well, call it the 6.2-man bobsled. I have happy recollections of Lake Placid. I grew up in New York State, and Whitefacewas my hill away from home. This is the place where I learned to knit wool hats and race downhill. It’s where I inadvertently burned a hole in a motel toilet seat with P-tex. And then there was the time Bobby Catalano swallowed a quarter during a drinking game and for days after we all asked him for change. Now I’d come to Lake Placid in part to rummage around in my mind’s attic of long-forgotten memories. But mostly I’d come to play — to do all the things I’d never had time to do because I was too busy sneaking around with boys and drinking Meister Bräu. Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and again in 1980. Today Olympic rings still adorn most everything. There’s even a store on Main Street where you can buy a gold-colored Olympic medal for $3.59 plus tax. But it’s not just a history zone — here you can ski, bobsled, toboggan, ice-skate, cross-country, dogsled, and otherwise have fun in the snow. And the bobsled was really fun.My unborn child and I mached 60 miles per hour down an icy track built when Herbert Hoover was in office, registering enough g’s for a surgery-free facelift. On the curves, the sled flew up onto the walls like an open-air Batmobile. The driver had warned me not to squeeze him with my knees. Right. After the first turn, I had him in a WWF scissor-hold. My first day back was windy, snowy, and gray. A Gothic-feeling, Eastern-skiing kind of day. Whiteface’s two peaks were barely visible. Turning off Route 86, I could just make out the series of steep runs that spill off the top of Little Whiteface. High in the mist, a thousand feet above that, was Whiteface Summit, home to Cloudspin and Skyward, the relentlessly steep men’s and women’s Olympic downhill runs. In the lodge, I ran into Horst Weber, an old coach of mine and clearly a Whiteface fixture. He hadn’t changed much: sort of Napoleonesque, with leathery skier’s skin and Coke-bottle glasses. Flashback: It’s 1978. I am 12, and I’m at my first downhill camp. I’m sitting on a tuning bench in the Whiteface training center with Horst and maybe 20 other shrimp-sized racers watching videos from our training runs on a small black-and-white TV. A racer appears on the screen moving slowly in a bad tuck: rump high, hands bouncing out in front, as if begging for change. I recognize the baggy purple downhill suit my mom made. In his thick German accent, Horst barks, “My Gaadt!! Who da hell eez dat?” This will remain the single most embarrassing ski moment of my life. Whiteface, I found, hadn’t changed much, either. Runs have been widened, the midstation lodge has been spiffed up some, but it’s still a big, cold, steep, hard mother of a mountain. In an age of hyperdevelopment, a state-owned ski area located in the 6.1-million-acre Adirondack Park moves slowly. Still, despite tight budgets and strict environmental constraints, Whiteface has been able to get a $5 million gondola off the ground. The next step is to build a 200-seat lodge at the top of the gondola. But that’ll take some time. In the gondola I met a couple of diehards from nearby Tupper. There was Jeff Staves, who owns a pizza joint in Tupper, where he dries his ski clothes in the ovens, and Mike Sabin, a Lake Placid shop repair guy who can carve hip-dragging arcs on a snboard. They’re at Whiteface every day. The gondola completely changes the way Whiteface is skied. The shiny silver cars run from the base to the top of Little Whiteface in eight minutes, making it the fastest gondola in North America. Instead of making short sprints up Mountain Run like I used to, we made top-to-bottom loops, almost 2,500 vertical feet. And it makes skiing warm: With heated cars and padded seats, the lift is part of an effort to “weatherproof” the notoriously frigid ski area. Next, we took the Summit Quad to Whiteface Summit, a good vantage point for the Slides, gnarly avalanche paths carved into a tree-covered cirque. Considering my condition, it was probably a good thing they were closed. The Slides only open in spring when there’s enough snow to cover the frozen waterfalls and boulders and stumps. Instead, we took Skyward, the women’s downhill run, which at about 34 degrees is the steepest continuous pitch at Whiteface. There were a few inches of new snow, which had the boys from Tupper giggling. Underneath it was boilerplate, and I still found spots where the snow looked blackish (read: ice). “If your fingers don’t bleed when you touch your edges, they aren’t sharp enough for Whiteface,” Mike explained. My skis were as sharp as rolling pins. With the mix of steep and hard, skiing became an exercise in defying gravity. Turning became more about self-preservation than the delight of a perfect arc. It was an adrenaline rush, Eastern style. For lunch, we stopped at the midstation lodge. The ski-rack dividers were still lined with old pole grips, and the bathroom coat racks were fashioned from old gray Rossi FP’s. The only thing that had changed was Boule’s Bistro, a fancy new sit-down restaurant. Fancy by Whiteface standards means the guy serving the soup doesn’t wear a hair net. My husband was not happy about the bobsledding business, so I skipped tobogganing onto the lake in favor of dogsledding. Just off Main Street in Lake Placid, I found a musher and a bunch of yelping huskies. For $5 they dragged me around in a circle through the snow on Mirror Lake. Here’s a little detail I learned about dogsledding: Running dogs fart. And when you’re sitting behind 10 dogs all simultaneously passing Alpo gas, it is stinky. “It’s kind of like an exhaust system,” the driver told me. In the interest of fresh air, I went out to the new bobsled and luge track, a gray funnel of ice twisted like a pretzel. Built in 2000 as Placid’s new competition track, it’s the venue for the sickest sport of all: skeleton. Skeleton is like luge, only the racers slide belly-down, head-first.I watched from the 15-foot-high bank known as Big Shady as racers flew by like human shuttlecocks, slippered feet and hands flopping behind them. Totally insane. The next day, I met up with Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, Olympic medalist and Whiteface ambassador. We had planned to ski, but it was minus 22, with 65-mile-an-hour winds — that’s a wind chill of minus freakin’ 90.Chairs were swinging sideways, banging into lift towers. Sane skiers were getting vouchers for another day. Mike and Jeff, noses pressed against the lodge windows, were waiting for the gondola to open. If I was ever an Eastern diehard, I realized, I no longer am. Diann and I went cross-country skiing instead at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, site of the Olympic X-C events and a quick 10-minute drive from Whiteface. Inside the lodge, skiers in knickers were eating lunches out of Tupperware and thermoses. Out in the woods, protected from the wind, it was cold but bearable. In fact, with a couple inches of fresh on the trail and snow in the trees and sunlight streaming down, it was beautiful. And quiet, except for the zingy zit, zit, zitof our fish scales on the downhills. That night, I headed to the speed-skating oval in Lake Placid for the public skate. (“Speed skating?” my husband would later question.) What you don’t notice when Olympic skaters are zipping around the oval is that it’s huge — 400 meters a lap. As I skated around, gaining new appreciation for Bonnie and Eric, flakes the size of macaroons started falling from the night sky. I looked up at Lake Placid High School, which sits on a hill above the oval. Flashback: March 1984. I’m taking off two weeks from high school to train for the Empire State Games in Lake Placid. Mrs. Mira, my Spanish teacher, had warned: “Go skiing again, and you’ll score a ONE on the AP test!” (five being UN translator material; one, you can’t order dos cervezas in Tijuana). On the top floor of the high school, I fall dead asleep in a hallway, drooling on my Spanish book. I win the Empire Cup. I get a one on the AP. The next morning was cold and crystal blue. Time to ski again. Along the curvy 20-minute drive from Lake Placid to Whiteface, a mist hung low against snow-crusted mountainsides. In the lodge at Whiteface, kids from Lake Placid High School were milling around, the arms of their GS suits dangling lifelessly at their waists. Outside the lodge, blue gates and red safety fences were stacked like oversized hot dogs. On Parkway, I found Diann standing at the start of a training course, coaching kids from a local ski academy. Teenagers in race suits, helmets, face guards, and knee braces filtered into the start. Diann gave each something to think about: “line” or “focus” or “add a little more energy this time.” Ethan, 11-year-old son of Ed Weibrecht, owner of the Mirror Lake Inn, clicked his little poles together, launched his tiny 95-pound frame out of the gate, and ripped the course like a Hermann Maier Mini-Me. “You can’t teach that,” Diann said to me. Nearby, mogul coach Richie Morgan was standing on the sidelines of Wilderness, a thousand vertical feet of bumps and big kickers. One kid threw a twister twister. Another a spread eagle. A third balked at the jump. “Commit! Commit!” Richie barked, running down the hill after him. He walked back up to where I was standing and admitted, “Way too much coffee today.” The bumpers Richie works with are among some 200 kids training on the mountain. “Whiteface is a full-on, in-your-face competition hill,” Richie told me. And with this, he summed up not just Whiteface, but all of Lake Placid. There’s an electricity in the air — a sort of competition buzz — that you don’t feel in any other ski town in America. It is the ultimate winter-sports mecca. For competitors, Lake Placid is an inevitable pit stop en route to the Winter Olympics. And for mere mortals like me, it’s a place to revel in winter adventure. Flash-forward: It’s the year 2022 and Lake Placid is holding the Winter Olympics for the third time since ’32. My son, Quinn, who’s wearing little cleated booties and a skintight silver suit, is in the start of the four-man bobsled. He is the brakeman. I am at the finish in a throng of screaming fans, wondering to myself about nature versus nurture. This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in January 2004. Click here for an info sidebar on Lake Placid that appeared alongside this article.