When you have winters as intense as ours, people get creative in their quests for diversion. There are times when you just don’t want to ski, but you definitely don’t want to stay inside. Thanks to those who saw outside the box, the Sun Valley area offers a plethora of options, from snowshoeing in the woods around Galena Lodge, to—for the more adventurous—sailing over your friends in a kite. Those who miss riding their horses might reunite with them for a weekend of skijoring. Here are some of the ways we found that are beyond the pale and perhaps right up your interest level. First, let’s start on earth.
How’s that for turning work into play?
There are a lot of things you probably remember about the ’70s, but the advent of the snowshoe as a recreational vehicle as opposed to merely an implement of employment and survival likely isn’t in your top 10.
According to the Outdoor Industry of America, in 2000, more than 5 million people went snowshoeing nationwide.
How’s that for turning work into play?
But some may find the idea of strapping on some strange shoes and plunging out into the wild a bit daunting. For those, allow Susan Kranz to help you break the ice. Kranz is the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s education coordinator and currently takes snowshoeing hikers along the groomed trails that fan out from Galena Lodge, north of town. Along the way, she’ll point out the area’s rich assortment of flora and fauna, and detail the area’s history in the mining trade. Her free weekly snowshoe hikes generally start the second week of January and last through March.
Bring your own shoes, or, you can rent some from Galena Lodge.
If you want to venture out without a guide, there are groomed trails, packed for easy snowshoeing for a nominal fee.
Kranz suggests some planning before you go. You should know the area in which you’ll be hiking, and the day’s forecast. You should also put a call in to the SNRA Headquarters, where they conduct daily analyses of avalanche dangers.
Once you’ve planned your trip, Kranz says you should gather the “10 basics” any hiker should have with them before taking to the trails, including extra clothes for changes in weather, water, food and snacks, a flashlight and a topographical map of your route. And, most importantly, tell someone where you’re going before you go. >>>
“It’s like any sport in that there’s an adrenaline rush . . .”
There are peak people and valley people and there are ways to satisfy those who fancy one or the other, or both.
Kiteskiing allows you to soar over the slopes and scoot along the snowscape at high speed based on the wind and how you steer your kite.
Just last year, a team of British and Canadian adventurers sailed into the record books by trekking to the geographic center of Antarctica on foot and by kiteskiing.
It’s not just fun, Mom, it’s educational!
The basics needed to snowkite are pretty minimal. All you do is strap on a pair of skis (or a snowboard), harness yourself to a kite (similar, but smaller, than a paragliding kite), catch some wind and off you go.
It’s like a cross between paragliding and waterskiing, although its closest cousin is probably kitesurfing. Prepare for unbridled exhilaration depending on the wind; in a matter of seconds you can be whisked across the snow at 40 miles an hour and then lifted 20 feet in the air before your stomach has settled from the last thrill.
Chris Seldon says he took up snowkiting after moving to the Sun Valley area six years ago. Although he’s been skiing for 15 years, he says a snowkiter enjoys a certain independence other winter sport enthusiasts may not be able to enjoy.
“It’s like any sport in that there’s an adrenaline rush, but with this (sport) you don’t need a mountain,” he says.
This alone liberates snowkiters, who may go when and where they choose, without the accumulative costs of day passes, season passes or lift fees.
Seldon says he prefers to snowkite in big open spaces, usually out East Fork near his home, or in the windy flatlands in nearby Fairfield. The spaces of those areas, he says, give him a lot of room to maneuver.
Some snowkiters, though, he points out, choose to approach the mountains, and even “climb” them, by exploiting the wind and quickly ascending the slopes, an activity that can make lift passes seem quaint. >>>
“We want to keep people up in the air as long as we can.”
If you would rather go a tad more serenely into flight, paragliding might be your sport.
While Chuck Smith and Fly Sun Valley can train pilots to become certified paragliders, their main focus is piloting people down from Bald Mountain’s 9,000-foot peak in a tandem harness.
With services offered year-round, Smith says, there is good flying to be had in the winter, beginning in January and lasting through March. All you need are the right conditions (winds less than 20 miles per hour, and good visibility) a quick lesson and a trip to the top of Baldy, and off you go.
Tandem flights from numerous points launch off Baldy when conditions are right to make just about any day a good day for flying.
“We don’t need wind to fly, but a little bit helps,” says Smith.
Up to six technically-trained paragliders can take a guest from the mountain down to the base, Smith says, with the flights— depending on the conditions—lasting anywhere from 15 to 75 minutes.
“We don’t want to go down,” he says. “We want to keep people up in the air as long as we can.”
They also cater flights to “the tastes of our customers,” he says. “Flights can be leisurely and smooth,” or flights can be a little more “rowdy” for those who want to engage in more than simply floating down. When they do, the pilots will perform mild air diving maneuvers, mostly spiral dives, which allow the tandem to pick up more air speed.
Fly Sun Valley also has cameras mounted to each glider, providing in-flight photography for their customers. Reservations are recommended, although flights can sometimes be scheduled on the spot, if there is an opening. >>>
“. . . taking fresh powder days to the ultimate level.”
Bill Janss—wanting to explore fresh powder that fell on mountains we once only looked at—had an idea back in 1966 after a visit to Canada. The skiing legend and then-owner of the Sun Valley Company discovered the fledgling sport of heli-skiing there and knew he had just the place for it to make its American debut. As a result, he founded Sun Valley Heli-Ski (SVHS), the first heli-ski company in the United States.
Sigi Vogl, SVHS director of marketing, says by founding the company in the mid-’60s, Janss handily continued to solidify Sun Valley’s reputation as a destination resort offering premier skiing and superior services.
Now in its 43rd year—more than 20 of them under the guidance of owner Mark Baumgardner—SVHS continues to lure guests looking for something a little out of the ordinary.
For guests looking to get away from it all for a while, SVHS built the 6,000-square-foot Smoky Mountain Lodge, the first accessible fly-in lodge in the continental United States.
Situated on 180 acres at the South Fork of the Boise River, the lodge accommodates up to eight skiers and includes a sauna and a private chef. In addition, or rather, in subtraction, the lodge is completely off the grid. Fresh water and fuel for SVHS’s helicopter are kept full, and radio communication is active, but, as Vogl says,
“There are no electronic gadgets to interrupt your stay and no light at night, just the stars and the moon.”
SVHS specializes in taking its guests out to remote mountains to ski fresh, untouched snow. With permission from the U.S. Forest Service to explore more than 750 square miles of peaks, valleys and inclines in the Pioneer, Smoky and Boulder mountain ranges, SVHS begins scouting early and often for ideal places to ski, and trades information with the regional avalanche center which is analyzing snowpack so safety is always considered.
Once a plan is put into place, seven guides (three of them with more than 100 combined years of backcountry experience) meet twice a day to keep up on weather and geographical updates so they can take up to 16 skiers into the backcountry. Skiers are promised at least six runs each, which Vogl says translates into about 10,000 to 12,000 feet of vertical skiing.
Careful, the experience is addictive.
“It never gets boring,” says Vogl. “First of all, flying in a helicopter is half the fun, seeing that scenery from above, and then once you get out there it’s total silence. It’s an exceptional experience.
Skiing down virgin slopes—it’s taking fresh powder days to the ultimate level.” >>>
“A refreshingly different sport . . .”
Back on earth, some choose to spend their days with their best friends, and sometimes this means their animals.
For those interested in alternative activities, there’s always equestrian-style skijoring. In the Wood River Valley, there are annual competitions held (usually either in January or February, and just south of Bellevue) in which horseback riders and skijorers partner up to compete for a cash purse for the fastest team.
Valley resident Tyler Peterson, a former competitor (he was a horseman), now heads the Wood River Extreme Ski Joring Association, the Valley’s local satellite of the North American Ski Joring Association (NASJA), which hold races in Canada, and as far away as New Hampshire.
“It’s a great sport,” Peterson says, “and it gives the community the chance to be part of a refreshingly different sport during the winter that is surprisingly open to all levels. You see a lot of fresh faces every year.”
Peterson says each satellite organization in each city chooses its own track, which may vary in length and difficulty (not to mention to-be-determined weather conditions) as long as the tracks meet NASJA requirements. Horse and rider are charged with pulling the skier at breakneck (or not) speed through a course of jumps and poles with rings that must be captured for points on the final score.
“Entries race toward a purse,” Peterson says, “and the host organizations try to sweeten the pot” by chipping in extra cash for the top finisher.
Those who don’t win the purse can go home with other prizes, like belt buckles or vests, and proceeds raised from each competition go to a notable cause in the communities that host the events.
With dogs, the skier balances with poles, on either classic skis or skate skis, and lets their pet pull them away. It’s certainly not an extreme winter sport, but it can be for a minute or two if your dog is really, really fast.
Old-time residents and tourists who hit Sun Valley’s slopes in the 1970s might remember Hurley Hamilton, owner of Thunderpaws Pet Shoppe.
Hamilton and her husband used to have a team of sledding dogs known as The Thunderpaws Express, which offered rides about town to tourists, and performed at special events.
And while Hamilton says that sledding dogs are the best skijoring dogs, skijoring can be done with any dog. Besides, she says, it is supposed to be casual and fun.
All you need is a harness, which are affordable and are available at Hamilton’s store, a long, strong leash, a pair of skis—either classic or skate—and a destination. “You can go on any trails around town that allow dogs on them,” Hamilton says, “from Sun Valley to Galena and all points in between.
“You can use one dog, or you can use three,” she says, then jokes, “but dogs numbering 10 is probably too many.” After all, to skijor well, you’ve got to have command over at least one dog.
Hamilton says there are many things to take into consideration when skijoring with your dog, all of which have to do with the dog.
“Know your animal and vary your speed,” she says, noting that variations in your dog’s speed may be an indicator that it needs a breather. And while she says there are commands specific to the sport of skijoring, using commands the dog is familiar with is best for the casual skijorer.
Another important thing to keep in mind, she says, is to be aware if there are other dogs around. If your dog wants to greet another dog, you could become ensnared and entangled in the leash. Also, “If the leash isn’t long enough and you ski into the dog from behind, you’ll find they won’t run in front of you anymore.”
There is an organized canine “skijoring” event in the Valley once a year: the “Paw ‘n’ Pole,” a 1.5k “run” at the new Sun Valley gun club, where as many as 150 people show up to ski with their dogs and to raise money for the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley. It’s a casual event all about being out in the snow with your dog.
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer soon to be based out of Portland, much to the chagrin of this magazine’s editor, who enjoyed his way with words.