The life and times of Frieda Johnson.
If you were to meet Frieda Johnson while cross-country skiing on one of Bozeman’s many groomed trails this winter, the encounter would be brief. She’d probably whiz by you with a wave and a smile, a chubby yellow lab following in her wake. At 76 years old, Frieda Johnson has been skiing Bozeman’s trails for nearly 40 years—and she’s having too much fun to stop.
This rural Virginian got off to a slow start, however. She hadn’t spent a single night in a sleeping bag until she left her hometown for the University of Minnesota in 1957. “People just didn’t do that where I grew up,” says Frieda. It wasn’t until she joined an adventure club in college that Frieda discovered her passion for the outdoors, and although she might describe herself as a late bloomer in discovering the backcountry, she’s since made up for lost time.
During college Frieda spent her weekends paddling a canoe on many of Minnesota’s plentiful lakes, snowshoeing into weathered Forest Service cabins, crawling through caves, and learning to rappel down cliffs. It was during these outings that she met and fell in love with her future husband, Terry. They married during the autumn of 1960 and honeymooned in the Boundary Waters. Two years later Terry got a job working for the Forest Service at the Squaw Creek Ranger Station 25 miles south of Bozeman. Pregnant with their first child and unable to travel, Frieda stayed with Terry’s parents in Wisconsin for what seemed like an eternity, then boarded the next westbound train to Bozeman as soon as their first son, Greg, was born in February.
Terry, backed by a glacial Montana wind, greeted them at the train station. They drove the icy road out of town toward their new home—a Forest Service trailer with pipes that froze as often as the wind whipped up Gallatin Canyon. “Oh, but I loved it,” says Frieda smiling. “When you’re young, you’re tough so it was okay.”
Terry, Frieda, and baby Greg lived in the frozen trailer until moving into the two-bedroom cottage next door in August; the rent was $12 a month. Although they loved the solitude of Squaw Creek, they relished trips to Bozeman, back then a quiet town. “When we came to Bozeman,” says Frieda, “there was very little traffic and just ranches from Four Corners into town.”
The family eventually moved to Bozeman in 1975 where she asked her good friend Cliff for cross-country skiing lessons. She was hooked from the start, and from Frieda’s new love sprang the Hyalite Loop Lope in 1978, a 22-mile race strung together from old logging roads in Hyalite Canyon. She, Cliff, Terry, and other skiers helped put the race together and cleared the trail for grooming. Logging operations were in full swing in Hyalite in 1978, so the main road was always plowed.
Two hundred skiers showed up on race day. “It was a big event and it inspired a lot of people to get into cross-country skiing, but it wasn’t too serious,” she explains. “It was fun and afterward we had a big bonfire.” From then on, Frieda and Terry organized three races every winter with the help of the Bridger Ski Foundation: the January Loop Lope, the February Bohart Bash, and the March Mystic Marathon. Frieda and Terry called them the Langlauf series (German for “long race”). If you finished all three, you got your name on a plaque, but it was less about competition than it was about having fun. The races ended in 1991 when the Forest Service stopped logging in Hyalite—and stopped plowing the road.
In 2007 however, Gallatin County, the Bridger Ski Foundation, the Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition, and Friends of Hyalite partnered with the Gallatin National Forest to provide winter access to Hyalite. “Now that the road is plowed and the Forest Service is grooming over 30 kilometers of cross-country ski trails up there, I’d like to get the Hyalite Loop Lope going again,” Frieda suggests.
Organizing local races was just the start for Frieda. She also skied competitively in the World Masters Cup while in her 50s and 60s, and competition was stiff. In 1992, she flew to Alaska for her first World Masters Cup, where she won the U.S. title in the 50-54 year-old age group for the 25k skate ski; she took silver in the world competition. She also won the 30k classic U.S. title, finishing seventh in the world and was awarded bronze in the world 3x5k relay race.
Exhilarated from her success in Alaska, Frieda flew to Norway for her first overseas World Masters race in 1993. Having never been to Norway, she was eager to explore and took advantage of a guided tour. As the day waned into evening, most other skiers turned back to prepare for their upcoming races, but in classic Frieda style, she continued taking in the Norwegian sights despite the big race the next day. “I thought, ‘In 30 years, who’s gonna know who finished when?’”
Although Frieda put in a lot of hours training, she didn’t take herself, or the races, too seriously. At one of the events she was lined up and ready to go. “When the starting gun went off my skis stuck to the ground and I fell flat on my face. It was so embarrassing,” she says laughing. “My goal after that was to not finish last and I didn’t, so I felt pretty good.”
At 76, Frieda still doesn’t take herself too seriously. She still loves skiing, and in 2012 she competed in the 50k Birkebeiner in Wisconsin. She says others admire her ability to stay so active, which she attributes to the fact that she’s always led an active life. It’s a value she passed on to her children.
At 15, her oldest son Greg wanted to go on a bike tour across South Dakota. She remembered the sense of freedom she felt riding a bike as a child, but wasn’t comfortable with him going alone. So she went with him. It was the first bike tour for either of them—a six-day trip from Bozeman to Aberdeen.
“You have to let your kids do things like that,” Frieda says. The experience wasn’t only liberating for Greg; it sparked a passion for bike-touring in Frieda as well. She went on to complete long tours in Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and even one along the Croatian coast.
Frieda has come a long way since her first outdoor adventures began 57 years ago. Besides her skiing and cycling, she’s since spent countless nights under starry skies, paddled many canoes on lakes and rivers all over the country, and backpacked the wilderness of Montana and beyond. And, she’s still getting after it. “I enjoy life. I enjoy the outdoors, and I enjoy trying new things. It’s just that simple.”