An Epic Trip, Close to Home

By Beacon Staff

Nine skiers veered off the trail at Blacktail Mountain Ski Area on a recent Saturday, and did not come back to the resort. They weren’t lost; they went out of bounds to descend the roughly 3,600 feet, over 15 miles, from the summit of Blacktail Mountain to the gates of Herron Park in Kalispell.

The route follows the proposed “Foys-to-Blacktail” trail corridor along a network of single-track trails and logging roads over private, public and preserved land. The group was comprised of several strong skiers from the Glacier Mountaineering Society, members of the FtBT organization working to secure the Foys-to-Blacktail corridor, as well as a reporter.

And while the day didn’t proceed exactly as planned – one skier was eventually injured and the group split up – the trip revealed the possibility of an extraordinary public resource should the trail proposal become a reality.

The FtBT is in talks with Plum Creek Timber Co. about preserving the areas where the trail crosses its land, should the company decide to develop in the future. The organization has also secured conservation easements and is raising money to purchase a 320-acre tract adjoining Herron Park, currently being held with bridge funding provided by a local family trust.

But the trail itself, particularly in winter, is very much a work in progress. There are no signs and route finding would have been next to impossible without the group’s trip leaders, Jack Beard and Brian Miller of the GMS. Upon leaving Blacktail’s boundaries, the men guided the skiers along zig-zagging lines through dense forest until hitting a logging road and following it north for several miles.

Trip leader Jack Beard, of the Glacier Mountaineering Society, discusses snow conditions with Becky Petrashek. March 1, 2008.

Skiing from Blacktail is not like a trip through the wilderness, and that’s the beauty of it. Coasting along an old road looking down into the Flathead, clouds roll through the valley at eye level and familiar sights like Kila and Smith Lake are hard to discern, at first, from the top of the ridge looking down. Feeling so close to home while zipping along above it all is part of the trail’s appeal.

The miles passed quickly until lunch, after which the group encountered several steep descents and climbs. Some ambitious skiers would, for the good of the group, attempt to make a few turns to see if the pitch could be skied. After they ended up in a pile, and the rest of us snickered, we promptly removed our skis and started post-holing in the thigh deep snow.

Snow conditions deteriorated rapidly, until the group was dealing with about an inch of breakable crust on 11 to 18 inches of unconsolidated corn snow.

“When we were on logging roads, we were humming; when we got off trail we screeched to a halt,” Miller said. “I don’t think you could get much harder than that.”

After leaving U.S. Forest Service land the group entered the area Beard had dubbed, “The Vortex,” a section of logged Plum Creek land with few recognizable landmarks or geographic features – just a series of hills where it is easy to become disoriented. The heavy crust grabbed ankles and made it hard to muscle skis around for turns. Fatigue set in. Falls were frequent and recoveries awkward.

After several miles, Miller’s wife, Heidi turned to him and said, “You know, Brian, I’m afraid of falling.” A few moments later, she did, twisting her knee. From there, the group’s progress slowed. With Herron Park visible, but miles away, the group decided to split, with Beard and Matt Brake skiing ahead to get a snowmobile, while the rest of us shuffled along a logging road that did not take us where we intended.

“Descents were harrowing, as they seemed only to occur on north aspects where the crust was a little colder and stronger. We could stay on top at times, but at others, we would suddenly break through,” Brake said. “If we had much speed at all, an over-the-ski-tips face plant ensued. After a few of these falls, it became apparent that any speed at all was dangerous.”

Becky Petrashek and Denise Davies ski a logging road from the summit of Blacktail Mountain heading toward Herron Park in Kalispell.

The rest of our group emerged at the top of Haywire Gulch and called to be picked up. A friend of the group in a Hummer arrived to shuttle the rest of us down the hill, and the GMS members assured me that most of their trips do not end this way. We met up with Brake and Beard an hour later.

But though we veered from the trail in some areas and ended the trip far from where we intended, the uncertainty and adventure of a day in the woods is what makes such a trip fun. And with improvements to the trail, more Flathead residents can travel the route and, hopefully, not get as lost as we did.