Following the Bears' Lead

Skiing, Cooke City, backcountry, nordic skis, montana, bozeman

Coming to terms with a small town’s discovery.

There was a morning this past winter that started gloriously. Following a routine we’d established of skiing lonely terrain nearly every day, we stepped into our skis and left our little cabin on the edge of town before the sun rose over the ridge. Three miles of breaking trail delivered us into a wide bowl of sunlight and silence, ringed by stony peaks. From there, we climbed up a steep mountainside, tracked only by the occasional hare or marten.

To my surprise, three young men following our track joined us on the ridgeline as we dug our snowpit. “Really?!” I blurted out, mumbling something about etiquette. They were surprised to see us grumpy old people in the woods, too, and quickly moved on.

I quickly realized that I hadn’t reacted well to having company on that ridge for the first time. My lack of grace embarrassed me, and luckily, I had the chance to apologize later.

The backcountry in our little mountain town has been discovered. Our friends at Winter Wildlands tell us the pandemic accelerated growth by maybe a decade. People who couldn’t travel for powder in Japan or the Canadian Rockies found this Montana mountain town to their liking.

montana, rocky mountains, Republic Creek, bozeman, snowy west

We can’t blame anyone for wanting to come here, but prosperity costs us tranquility. Growing up in these mining and logging towns, we enjoyed—and took for granted—our community potlucks and walks back to cozy cabins under starry skies. Some western towns have rejected recreationists, but we sought revitalization, and likely even welcomed the mutation of our rustic cabins, struggling businesses, and associated sense of lawlessness. We may have been unprepared for how quickly the shift would change our experience—and our ability to stay here. But winter was always our respite. The quiet season.

The backcountry in our little mountain town has been discovered. Our friends at Winter Wildlands tell us the pandemic accelerated growth by maybe a decade.

With ever more skiers venturing beyond the resort boundaries, people are returning to the roots of the sport, to mountain towns like ours. Younger folks are moving in, figuring it out, and bringing a new vibrancy. The locals adjust and find new avenues for solitude. Like the black bears who switch to daytime foraging when grizzlies move in and take over the night shift, we adapt. We shift to the pre-dawn hours for solitude

This time, we clip into our bindings at 4:15am. We use our previously set skintrack, with its layer of fresh snow. As we occasionally lose sight of it, we follow a fox’s track, as she prefers to travel on the compacted route. The light of our headlamps also showcases prints of mice, squirrels, martens, and moose. A cat of some kind. Loads of Old Man’s Beard lichen hanging from the spruce, casting weird shadows in the lamplight. We ski under a waning half-moon, with the Big Dipper in the west. Abandoned mining equipment, with its thick mantle of snow, appears slightly menacing. Following a rhythm learned from decades of moving uphill, at a pace I can hold on to, we make the ridge by 6:45. A beautiful alpenglow spills across peaks to the north and west.

We break out our breakfast of pumpkin bread and hot tea, put on our puffies, and wait for dawn in still air. There it comes—the sun rising behind iconic peaks that tower over our small town. Not a soul in sight, but we don’t wait around to find out. We turn to the west and slide into well-earned turns.

This essay originally appeared in Backcountry magazine.

Red Lodge Beartooths sunrise