Extending the Seasons

By Kellyn Brown

I just returned from my annual fall vacation – each year I squeeze in a few days of sunshine in Mexico before the snow falls. But on Nov. 3, when my plane touched down in Kalispell, white already blanketed the valley. So began the quick transition into winter.

And three days later I was hiking Big Mountain in the dark with a headlamp on my stocking hat and a snowboard strapped to my back.

Accompanied by two friends, the hike up was mostly uneventful, except for achy legs that hadn’t plowed through snow in several months. The mood among the group was upbeat. “There’s more snow than I thought there would be,” we each repeated. And there was, especially compared to last year at the same time when many of the area mountains were still mostly bare.

But visions of deep powder and easy turns were quickly scuttled once the ride downhill began. The undergrowth, while not exposed, lay just below the surface. And tall grass and small trees grabbed at our boards, sent us tumbling more than once and changed our tune, “Perhaps we should have waited for one more dump.”

But while Montanans share plenty of sensible characteristics, their response to changing seasons is not one of them. For many, the days leading to winter, and summer for that matter, is an exercise in impatience.

When the snow begins to fly, the gear is hastily gathered, boards and skis are waxed, and whether or not the conditions are ideal, we’re heading outside anyway. Because that’s what we do – head outside.

Last week, hundreds gathered in front of Cabela’s for its grand opening. Many were dressed in camouflage and other hunting gear. And many of them would enter the store to buy more of the same, so they could go back outside in search of game.

I’ve previously lived in Bozeman and Missoula before moving here and, when people ask me the difference among the three, I tell them, “While residents of those two cities talk about doing things outside, people in the Flathead actually do them.”

That’s not to slight either of those towns or the outdoorsmen and women who live there (it’s mostly a joke), but the zeal with which Northwest Montana residents attack each season is difficult to match.

We watch web cams, scan the mountains, read reports and often head out regardless of the elements. So our first day of ski season was typical – winter had arrived, but just barely. And our inaugural run, instead of riding smooth powder, was completed in fits and starts, with several fits.

But who cares, really? A few days later that anticipated dump arrived and the snow was good. And the mountain attracted dozens of skiers and boarders and sledders eager to make turns well before the lifts begin doing the same.

Instead, I headed out on what I thought was a late fall hike up Columbia Mountain. You see, we extend the seasons on both ends. A couple miles up the trail, we hit about a half-foot of snow and blazed the trail in our tennis shoes before running back down.

By late April, when the temperature begins rising – to the low 50s – we will begin wearing shorts way too early. We will grab fishing rods, mountain bikes, hiking boots, and rafts and imagine it’s the middle of July.

And when people say it’s too early: They’re right. But after six months of winter, we imagine it’s warmer and the water isn’t that cold – at least with a dry suit on. But there’s still snow on the mountains if you hike far enough, so winter isn’t really over either.

A friend of mine has skied every month for the last six years, so perhaps the seasons never really end.