Winter traditions among friends.
Soft laughter escapes unconsciously as I burn my lips on hot coffee and examine the fresh snowfall, awaiting the arrival of friends for our next fat-bike adventure. I have the advantage of living adjacent to public land, so we’ll be pedaling from my front door before daybreak to begin our weekend adventure of winter camping, biking, skiing, and revelry.
Our journey begins with bright nightlights, warm layers, and backpacks teeming with delights. This soul-replenishing excursion will take us over 25 miles and 72 hours, roundtrip. Collectively, we’re not a rowdy bunch of females. By nature, the group is comprised of curious, experienced, outgoing adventure-seekers; and, we’re always up for a trip into Montana’s winter wonderland.
In the crisp darkness, our rhythmic crunch echoes off the rocky walls as pedals crank fat wheels deep into the wintery canyon. Granted a brief break in snowfall, our progress is steady thanks to the citizen-based groups who voluntarily steward the season’s road and trails maintenance. Miles later, we arrive at road’s end, pulling skis, poles, and gear out of bike scabbards and panniers. We stash our bicycles off the main trail and note the spot. Securing packs, we begin hiking to a scenic grove of ancient trees a few miles into the heart of this spectacularly wild frontcountry. Here we spend some time setting up our camp. On previous trips we built an immurement of snow against testy winds. Thanks to a USFS permit and a late-summer workday, we also have dry firewood for our basic needs.
Like a well-engineered machine, our longtime friendships yield a collaboration of skills and strengths as we efficiently implace a cozy encampment before skinning to powdery pinnacles for a day of laughter and fresh tracks. Finally, we reach a good ridgeline, share our thermoses of tea, and remove our skins. As the sun begins its march across the sky, a zillion crystals of frozen light dazzle and beckon us. My long-legged hound dog, sensing our imminent destination, dashes off like a wolverine through the vastness; as safety vest and snow-booted paws disappear under white tunnels, he circles back to herd us onward. We spend a few hours pursuing first runs and return to camp content.
Evening closes in early as we relax around the firepit, tidying up after a meal that rivals our previous memorable feasts. Wine, stories, and spontaneous a cappella herald the moonrising, as we give thanks for life’s bounty.
Our next day begins with our traditional firepit meeting to establish activities and rendezvous times. Buddy system intact, one group will continue skiing while I and others test fat bikes on the frozen reservoir a few miles below.
Retrieving bikes, our day’s goal is to explore by bicycle our winter wonderland. On the approach, we see activity on the reservoir as ice-fishing shacks dot the landscape. Sharing the glory of the day, iceboats sail alongside skaters racing to catch the wind. Cross-country skiers make tracks to Nordic trails that disappear into thick forest. We join the free-spirited procession of lively recreationists, exploring by pedal power the far reaches of the water system. Following a snowmobile trail, we come across animal prints, old and new, of ungulates, mountain lions, small rodents, and birds, adding our own tracks as we go.
Our journey uphill back to camp brings the familiar routine of camp stories, gourmet dining, and firepit gazing. Tomorrow morning, we’ll carefully close camp and bike back down the canyon to our separate lives as partners, mothers, professionals, sisters, and forever friends. Our next ride, we’ve decided, will include ice-fishing poles and an auger. Maybe I’ll try out a new pair of Nordic skates, too.