Another year, another winter vacation spent watching the underwhelming resort snow reports like a hawk, right? Maybe not this season. While ski hills new and old remain Idaho's cash cow, significant numbers of winter athletes are devoting their disposable time and income to activities far away from the high-speed quads. A few of these sports require significant startup costs for equipment and training, while others call only for a horse and a rope. What they all share is a lack of lines and perilous parking lots and the ability to scare your grandparents silly with a mere one-sentence explanation. Look them up if you're tired of bowing to the almighty lift ticket.
While numerous new winter sports have popped up in Idaho in recent decades, few have blossomed as dramatically as the equine snow-sprint of skijoring. Originally a lo-fi drag race for Scandinavian farmers, this sport, in which a skier is dragged behind a horse through slalom gates and over jumps, now boasts its own professional American circuit with purses reaching into the tens of thousands, as well as a thriving community of local aficionados.
"It gets pretty wild," admits Kurtis Stutz, president of the Smokey Mountain Skijoring Association in Fairfield and vice president of the North American Skijoring Association. "A lot of people screw around out in their pastures, pulling the kids behind an old horse or whatever. But here, the skier will fly 40 or 50 feet coming off of jumps, getting slaughtered by a barrage of snow coming up from the horse's feet and going right to the other side at 40 miles an hour."
Stutz hosted Idaho's first nationally sanctioned race in 2000, and since then similar races have taken place in Cascade, McCall and Hailey. Last February's state championship in Hailey boasted over 80 teams from around the West, and the 2005 version (January 29 and 30) promises to be an equally impressive spectacle. Few local opportunities exist for newcomers to train and become educated about the sport--Stutz advises using cars and snowmobiles to acclimatize both skier and horse--but plenty of information is available online at smsja.com and at nasja.com.
Dog sledding has a long and prominent history in Idaho. The first race in the lower 48 states occurred here in 1917, when mushers took 29 hours to slog the 60 miles from West Yellowstone, Montana to Ashton, Idaho in severe blizzard conditions. Times at future events dropped considerably (usually to about six hours), but for 41 years the American Dog Derby was one of the premiere events nationwide, annually drawing upwards of 15,000 spectators to Eastern Idaho and even transcending the need for snow (the drought-marred 1934 race took place via wheeled sleds).
Today, a revived version of the Derby still offers 40, 60 and 100-mile races in late February, but the event is no longer Idaho's only contribution to the sport. Both the Warren Brown Sled Dog Race in Cascade and the U.S. Pacific Coast Championship Sled Dog Races in Priest Lake hover annually in the minds of hard-training Idaho racers--or at least, they usually do. This year, according to Warren Brown organizer Julie Deloach, the traditional January race in Cascade will be cancelled to make room for a much larger event: the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS) World Championships, taking place in Bend, Oregon from January 5 to 14. In the meantime, look and listen for solitary teams to inhabit local snowmobile trails and logging roads from Grimes Creek up to Warren, particularly in the off-hours of early morning and dusk. Just don't get in their way.
If the idea of maintaining and racing a full team of purebred Huskies sounds both expensive and demanding, a condensed version of the sport is quickly taking hold across Idaho under the name of "dog skijoring." While usually relegated to sideshow-status at sled dog gatherings, the act of pulling a skier behind one or two dogs has a large following in flat Midwestern states like Minnesota and Michigan. The reason: "Pretty much any dog 35 pounds or bigger can pull a human," explains Tren Long, founder of the Bogus Skijoring Club. "One of our members has a Golden Retriever, there's a Black Lab and I've even seen German Shepherds." Long, a kayaking guide during summer, started the club last year "because I wished I could have had someone to ask my dumb questions to." He now caters to over 20 members and is available throughout the winter months for an ad hoc tutorial or demonstration with his own Husky. Visit the clubs website at skijor.bravepages.com or e-mail Long at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about dog sled races visit sleddogcentral.com or attaboy300.com.
To most backcountry skiers and boarders, the uphill climb to "earn your turns" is a grueling, phlegmy, lactic-acid burning badge of honor. But powder enthusiasts with the financial wherewithal to earn their turns on the bull market can make the trip with a few more horsepower, via the luxurious option of helicopter-guided ski trips. Currently, Idaho features only one specialized heli-ski company, Sun Valley Heli-Ski Guides, which also happens to be the oldest heli-ski service in the United States. Since 1966 the company has hauled skiers to the tops of bowls in the nearby Smoky Mountains, but recently owner and lead guide Mark Baumgartner added several impressive new services to appeal to the pretty-rich and superrich alike.
First and foremost among the new offerings is exclusive access to the only fly-in ski lodge in the lower 48, Smoky Mountain Lodge, located 36 miles west of Ketchum. Utilizing an immaculate 700-horsepower chopper, SVHSG promises up to 10,000 feet of backcountry descent per day for lodge patrons, along with prepared meals and warm beds. The bill for a three-day package for you and two of your dearest board bums can reach into five digits--consider yourself warned. However, backcountry fans on a tighter budget have also been recently allowed into the heli-fold, by way of SVHSG's heli-assisted ski touring adventures. For a starting price of $275 per skier, the SVHSG ride will drop your party and a guide at a remote locale to ski powder all day and schlep out to the road on your own. Sure, you may actually have to break a sweat along with your bank account, but at least you can say you earned it.
So, Mr. or Ms. ex-Eagle Scout, you've hiked up the summit cap of an Idaho peak during a summer or two and think you're ready to try it in winter? Think again. Winter mountaineers, be they of the crampon, snowshoe or backcountry ski variety, are a different breed than their summer counterparts. Case in point: Borah Peak, Idaho's 12,662 crown jewel, was first scaled in 1912, and is climbed hundreds of times each year. The first winter ascent, however, wasn't accomplished until 1970, and the first winter conquest of Borah's steep northern face waited until 1977--at which point it required a 25-hour nonstop effort from three mountaineers, one of whom lost the tips of several toes to frostbite.
The financial downside to winter mountaineering is that it usually requires a comprehensive and costly selection of specialized equipment that summer mountaineers consider luxuries--like avalanche transceivers, warm boots and climbing skins for skis. The upside is that once appropriately equipped, climbers can find heaps of tips and information from like-minded adventurers in books, Web sites and in person. First and foremost are Idaho's dual mountain bibles, Winter Tales and Trails by Ron Watters and Idaho: A Climbing Guide by Tom Lopez. Between the two, virtually every range, backcountry bowl and obscure approach statewide is described, illustrated and ranked for difficulty from both climbing and skiing perspectives. If, on the other hand, you require the sure hand of a guide to pull your shaking mitten over the cornice's edge, Sawtooth Mountain Guides in Stanley offers numerous educational opportunities during the winter months, including telemark camps, avalanche safety courses and an early-spring ski mountaineering camp. Owners Kirk Bachman and Erik Leidecker also offer guided climbing and skiing trips year-round, and maintain three high-altitude yurts in the Sawtooths which offer quick access to all the frozen riches the range has to offer. Visit sawtoothguides.com for all the specifics and rates, and idahosummits.com or idahoaclimbingguide.com for peak info.
Just like summer kayaking, winter kayaking is more about your brain than the number of waterproof gaskets and neoprene goodies you're sporting. As one all-season paddler posted on another's Internet wish list, "you can paddle safely naked if you realize the risks and act accordingly." His instructions involve thinking once, twice and thrice not only about having the right outfitting (both on your body and in your boat), but also about gauging the weather and potential changes, noting any hazards from above, analyzing every worst case scenario, testing the feasibility of escape/survival if you bail into freezing water and plotting a line long before leaving the beach. After you've gone through each detail, go through them all again and see if you're still up for the challenge. If you are, practice as much caution as possible while still enjoying the thrill of off-season water. Above all, be prepared to get back in your car and drive home without ever getting wet, because the best boaters are the ones who go skill for skill, good judgment for good judgment.
Once you've screwed your head on straight, then you can think about building up a wardrobe that might include a Gore-tex dry-suit with a relief zipper and matching booties, neoprene pogies (mitts that seal around your paddle shaft to keep cold and water out), a warm hat that fits comfortably under a snug helmet, expedition-weight underwear and a group of buddies who are trained in water rescue. As another winter boater added to the wish list, "There is little or no margin of error in 40-degree water. You are in very deep feces very quickly if you go over. I'm not joking, either."
Much to our dismay, the only Web sites that offer information on this particular term are forums for discussing its "lameness," but we found documentation on two others that could almost adopt the same moniker. The first is a downhill spin on street skates that requires a product called "snow blades." Snow Blades are basically mini alpine skis that are easy to carry, easy to turn and cut for crazy tricks. They come in a variety of lengths, widths and shapes based on your own level of gutsiness, and you can get a pair on sale for about $100. They are a happy medium between skis and a full-on board, combining more freedom with less length and the option of packing your gear in a briefcase ... a big briefcase.
The second is called rollerskiing, and as the name suggests, the equipment mimics a pair of cross-country skis equipped with wheels. There are designs to fit every style from the Crosskate 616 Backcountry (the "SUV of Roller Skis") to the Nordixc SST 150, which look like a pair of scooters attached to a person's feet. Many designs can be used on both paved and dirt surfaces, and Canada offers a variety of venues that cater almost exclusively to street skiing. Sturdy, flexible poles are a must for obvious reasons, and the pastime is one of the best ways to train year-round or excite pedestrians (what are those things, Gladys?!). If you want to get involved or take a trip across the northern border of the U.S. with legal goods, visit www.jenex.com/rollerskis.