Adventure December 02, 2014
Great Escapes
Gem of the 'Northwest Passage'

Ask a film aficionado who starred in the 1940 classic “Northwest Passage” and the stock response will be Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and Robert Young. However, the true movie buff will come back with the Double Jeopardy answer: What is McCall, Idaho?  For, as unlikely as it may seem, McCall and its Payette Lake were production locations for the cinematic tale of the Raid on St. Francis (Quebec), a mid-18th-century battle during the French and Indian War. The irony here is twofold: not only is McCall nowhere near the Northwest Passage, but the film’s title refers to an entire subsequent plotline that was not included in the film. (There were plans for a second film, but they were never realized.)

What is not ironic is that the stunning beauty of McCall and environs translated beautifully into lush Technicolor—so well, in fact, the film was nominated for a 1941 Academy Award in cinematography.

For McCall in the summertime, with its glacial Payette Lake, rich forests and life paced by little more than water lapping on sand, is reminiscent of another place and time: Lake Tahoe, perhaps, 30 years ago. It has all of the beauty and twice the charm.

Less celebrated but an equally enchanting experience is McCall in the wintertime. Certainly, the Sun Valley area offers a wealth of winter activities, but McCall provides a quite different and refreshing take on winter. Imagine ice-skating on a 5,300 acre “pond” surrounded by ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. For those displaced Minnesotans, the ice-fishing opportunities are plentiful. And snowmobilers—whether beginner or “high-marker”—will find 544 miles of groomed trails available throughout the county. This is all above and beyond the action at two ski resorts—Brundage Mountain (which offers cat skiing) and Tamarack Resort—60 kilometers of groomed Nordic skiing and virtually unlimited snowshoeing possibilities. Yet another option is to skip the activities and go straight to the two geothermal springs in the area: Burgdorf and Gold Fork hot springs.

Perhaps the highlight of the winter season, however, is the annual McCall Winter Carnival (January 30 through February 8), which draws nearly 60,000 people. Started in 1924, the event is celebrating its 50th consecutive year.

The Shore Lodge has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation over the last several years. (Photo courtesy The Shore Lodge)

Throughout the week there are parades—a children’s torchlight and a Mardi Gras parade—live music, snow bike races, hockey games, curling events and the ever-popular Monster Dog Pull competition. The headline event, though, is the Idaho State Ice Sculpting Championships. Artists come from all over the Northwest to create enormous yet intricate ice sculptures. These are not your average Frosty the Snowman creations with a corncob pipe and button nose. They are, rather, something to behold: giant unicorns, Sphinxes, cupcakes and cartoon characters. Not to worry, however, there is a “locals” category that caters to the icy works of families, businesses and otherwise aspiring sculptors. 

One of the true historic gems of McCall is the Shore Lodge, which overlooks one leg of the “A”-shaped lake. Established in 1948, the lodge has long been a weekend refuge for Boiseans. In 2008, Joe Scott, grandson of Joe Albertson of the Albertsons grocery chain, and his partners purchased the lodge and the nearby Whitetail Club, a gated community and golf course. Since that time, the Shore Lodge has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation of its 77 suites, three restaurants and spa. Much of the décor, which includes floor-to-ceiling windows, large pine logs, polished marble and river rock, serves to incorporate the natural beauty of the area, as well as reflect McCall’s history in the mining and logging industries. The property also boasts a boutique spa with indoor and outdoor saltwater immersion pools, as well as a 5,000-square-foot, three-suite lake cottage available for guests.

As one might expect in a town that caters to a large tourism business, the eatery scene in McCall is lively. Some of the notable spots include Bistro 45 (which has great grilled panini, steamed mussels and an extensive wine collection), Rupert’s and Steamers, the latter two of which would be considered more in the fine dining category. The Sushi Bar is another popular spot that is fashioned after Japan’s Izakaya-style restaurants. It reportedly offers the largest selection of sake in Idaho.

For those looking for a morning hangout, the Fogglifter Café, the HUB Coffee House and the Alpine Pantry are all inviting spots that serve great coffees and breakfasts.

While the film “Northwest Passage” might be a little outdated in its stereotypical and arguably racist portrayal of Native Americans, the McCall scenery in Technicolor is true to life today. McCall and Payette Lake are as breathtaking as they were when filmed over 75 years ago. And, safe to say, the lodging and dining are now top rate. If you go, just don’t expect to find the Pacific Ocean, or the Atlantic, for that matter.

This article appears in the Winter 2014-2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.