Winter Adventure in Western Montana

by Adam Sawyer | Photo © Adam Sawyer

Montana, Big Sky Country, the Treasure State. I hadn’t been there since I was a six-year-old visiting my grandparents who had run away to Montana from Southern California. Until last winter, that is, when I indulged in an outdoor adventure in the heart of Western Montana.

The journey began in the remarkably charming town of Missoula where I joined up with my fellow adventurers. After introductions and a quick lunch we loaded into a van and headed up to Seeley Lake. The short drive gave me a taste of what to expect over the next few days. We passed rivers, creeks, prairies, mountains, lakes and quite possibly more deer than people. Upon arrival at the lake, we met our guides from Yurtski Backcountry Lodging & Skiing. Our plan was to take snowmobiles miles up into the backcountry, spend the night in a yurt, go skiing and snowshoeing the next day, and then snowmobile back down. This all sounded great to me, and having never driven a snowmobile or slept in a yurt, I was pumped by the prospect; pumped until our guides handed us our avalanche packs.

These packs contained a number of items including a shovel and a locator beacon. I understood that there was no imminent avalanche danger and the guides knew exactly where to go and, more importantly, where not to go. But there’s always that moment of trepidation when you encounter something that reminds you of your vulnerability in the face of Mother Nature’s power. I remember reacting the same way when I moved to the Northwest and saw those “Tsunami Hazard Zone” signs with the stick figure running for his life.

When we arrived at the yurt I was a bit surprised to see that the thing was almost buried in snow, with only the top and the entry way clear. It was evident that it would be a good idea to keep wood in the stove all night. We settled in, warmed up, chose bunks, and prepared for dinner. I’ve eaten many a backcountry meal, and I understand that at the end ] of a long day in the wilderness, a pine cone and a handful of dirt can be delicious. But trust me when I tell you that night our meal was sublime. It turns out that the skills responsible for those epic lettuce wraps were honed in one of Missoula’s most respected kitchens. It’s good to have multi-talented guides.

When we woke the next morning we had an equally satisfying breakfast and then went out for some exercise. Some in the group opted for cross country skis while others chose snow shoes. The guides provided a number of route options based on
our choice of locomotion, skill, and comfort level. After a long climb, I watched our guides effortlessly ski down perfect powder as I began to regret my decision to don snowshoes for photography purposes. C’est la vie. We made our way back to the yurt, packed up, and steered our snowmobiles down the mountain and to our van.

Simultaneously invigorated and exhausted, I dozed on the drive to our next home, the Double Arrow Resort in the Seeley Swan Valley. This was the sort of place I always pictured in my mind when daydreaming about luxurious cabins in the woods. The inviting fireplaces, hunting trophies, numerous nooks perfect for stealing away for a few hours of reading or contemplation, it was all there. I enjoyed a hot shower, a toothsome meal at the resort’s Seasons Restaurant, and then a long, cabin-cozy slumber.

The next day’s big event was a guided snowmobile adventure to the summit of Big Mountain, courtesy of Swan Mountain Snowmobiling. This was another day of firsts for me. Not only did I witness moose in the wild, but I encountered snow ghosts. These hauntingly beautiful figures are trees that—thanks to wind, clouds and fog—have accumulated a thick coat of rime ice. Though very much alive, the trees slouch under the weight of their wintery burden. An army of them stood guard at the summit and outlined views of Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies. In the late afternoon sun, this was one of the most uniquely beautiful settings my somewhat well-traveled eyes have ever witnessed.

Afterward, we drove into the vibrant resort town of Whitefish for a memorable dinner at the Tupelo Grill. Because Montana has a well-earned reputation for its beef, I wasn’t sorry I decided on the steak. After dinner we loaded up and drove to our home for the night, the Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls.

The last day of the trip began with a sojourn to Glacier National Park where we joined a family-friendly, ranger-led snowshoe trek. This was a welcome change of pace from some of the previous day’s outings. I caught my breath and reveled in the easy pace of the scenic and educational wandering.

Next up was an experience I had been salivating over since I spotted it on the itinerary. It was time to go dogsledding on a frozen lake. After Mark, owner and guide of Basecamp Bigfork, gave us a quick primer in the art of controlling Inuit sled dogs, I was at the reigns. When given their cue, the dogs took off like proverbial bats from hell. We traveled briefly along a snowy path on land and then headed for the frozen Swan Lake. Here was another moment of trepidation.

Having grown up in warm-weather environs, the whole idea of doing anything on a frozen body of water, as thrilling as it might sound, feels very counterintuitive. But, sure enough, I glided seamlessly onto the ice and traveled rosy-cheeked around a frozen lake under a warm sun and a big, blue Montana sky.

I again spent the evening at the relaxing Meadow Lake Resort before heading home in the morning. However, when that flight was oversold, I immediately volunteered to get bumped, affording me two unexpected and glorious days in Kalispell. With that week’s worth of experiences under my belt I understood that my grandparents weren’t running away from anything when they left California. They were running towards the life they’d always dreamed of, and they found it in the one place they knew it existed— Montana.