Snow Buffalo

Big-bearded tele-skier Dan’l Moore, who once skied every month for nearly 17 years straight, carries on a legacy of winter wisdom as a volunteer patroller and quiet leader in the snow-covered backcountry

By Clare Menzel
Dan'l Moore stands in front of the Coon Hollow cabin where he and Helen Pilling raised their two children off-the-grid. Photograph by Mandy Mohler

Dan’l Moore eases his gray truck down an iced-over dirt road in the timbered, round-shouldered Salish Mountains north of Marion. He’s eating slices of dried plums, pears, and apples grown on the 40-acre property in Coon Hollow, near Kila, where he and Helen Pilling got married, raised their two children, and live off-the-grid. There’s a bubblegum-pink hair tie at the end of Moore’s long braid, a hairstyle he’s worn for 40 years, along with a shaggy beard. After 35 years together, Pilling, 62, has never seen his bare chin. You’d be forgiven for mistaking Moore, 63, for Father Winter.

“He appears to be this Norwegian viking, but when I told him that, he said, ‘No, I’m just an old hippie,’” recalls Greg Fortin, owner and lead guide of Glacier Adventure Guides. “Certain people are just at home in the backcountry. He’s one of those guys. He’s as comfortable in the snow as he is in his own living room.”

Moore drives through the pinprick-sized flurries of an oncoming storm. Before the clouds roll in, we relish a few precious hours of sunshine, meadow-skipping on skis through low-angle clear-cuts in this “industrial forestland,” as Moore fondly refers to it. Without winter logging operations, this ski access road would be buried under snow. He notices a new-looking road branching off to who-knows-where, and pulls over. We have time to burn before we need to be home, so we walk up the frozen, icy road to read the sign, which informs us we’re entering a stone quarry.

Often, Moore spends his ski days exploring unfamiliar offshoots in this labyrinth of logging roads to nowhere. This probably isn’t exciting to most people, he acknowledges, but he feels a kinship with the little bear who went over the mountain to just see what he could see, as the old folk song goes. At the end of Griffin Creek Road, Moore turns the wheel away from home, on a roadside attraction detour.

As we follow the winding pavement up Haskill Pass, he tells me the story of how the Great Northern Railway traveled this route west from Kalispell into Pleasant Valley until 1904, when the mainline moved north, to a less treacherous route through Whitefish. The train never actually crested the top of the pass; it punched through a 1,400 foot-long tunnel, which Moore wants to show me. We park and walk in silence for about 10 minutes through shallow, crusty snow. As Moore and Pilling’s 28-year-old daughter Gaelyn says, “Dad will always take you to places you never thought existed, or were worth it, before going.”

When we climb up to the mouth of the tunnel, I freeze in awe. It slopes down into darkness, but as far as the light reaches, we can see knobby stalagmites of ice on the ground. Recent waves of warm temperatures must have sent snowmelt dripping from the roof of the tunnel. From far away, the formations appear to be hovering in the sunbeams, like little ghosts. Close-up, they look like pillar candles left over from some secret ritual. When we return home to Pilling, we trip over our words in our wonder and eagerness to tell her about our serendipitously mystical encounter in an unassuming corner of the woods.

Pilling and Moore have made a happy life together in Coon Hollow, their property in Kila. Photograph by Mandy Mohler

Moore was a winter baby, the first of three children born to Mary and Jim Moore, a high school English teacher and X-ray technician living in Coconut Grove, Florida, a neighborhood on Miami’s shoreline. As a kid, he loved exploring in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp — his original career goal was to become a marine biologist. He remembers his introduction to the mountains. In first grade, he caught chicken pox, and while lying in bed, his mother read books to him. His favorite, titled something like “Mountains and Mountaineering,” featured Rudy, a plucky and adventurous boy.

When it came time for college, 18-year-old Moore split from the Southeast. At the University of Idaho, on the Washington border in Moscow, he studied wildlife biology and resource management. He taught himself to telemark ski because it allowed him to keep hiking through winter. Even as the gear evolved, he stuck with the slow-going, old-school style; in 50 years of skiing, he has still never once locked down his heel. By the time he graduated, Moscow felt more like home, so he stayed put, finding local U.S. Forest Service work during the summer. Come winter, he skied and learned blacksmithing basics from a welder friend.

In 1983, Moore and Pilling met at the Northwest Folklife Festival, in Seattle. She had purchased the Coon Hollow property when she was 21, and was living there in a tepee perched on the highest ridge while building the main house down on the spring-fed creek. A guitar and flute player, she was performing in Seattle with the Grin and Bear it String Clan. Moore was there with a Moscow-based group called the Dingle Regatta. He played bodhran, tenor banjo, and mountain dulcimer. Their shows were scheduled back to back, so they only met in passing. Two years later, they met again in Seattle — this time on the dance floor. In August 1986, they wed on the ridge in front of the tepee, which they filled up with balloons for the occasion.

When their first child, Quincy, now 33, was born, they traveled to Philadelphia, Pilling’s hometown. Moore stopped by Samuel Yellin Metalworkers for a tour, and left with a job. Moore describes his time there as “grad school” for blacksmithing. For two years, their young family bounced between Kila, Moscow, and Philadelphia, until finally settling in Coon Hollow for good in the fall of 1985.

Moore opened his own workshop in Kalispell, where he forges “bling for houses,” as he describes it, or, put another way, “future heirlooms and antiques.” Pilling works as a seamstress, constructing custom corduroy-lined instrument cases; she also guides Adventure Cycling Association trips. Three decades later, both Moore and Pilling are masters of their trades. Moore frequently plays Celtic music jam sessions at venues around the valley with musician friends; Pilling is still an active musician with the Grin and Bear it String Clan and other bands.

“All the while, I’ve loved skiing,” Moore says.

Moore tees up a Newton’s Cradle that Pilling made from bowling balls and installed in their back yard. Photograph by Mandy Mohler

In November 1998, he began a streak of skiing at least once every month. He kept at it for more than 200 months, until June 2015. He has volunteered on many wildlife research projects, col-lecting wolverine, grizzly, and fisher hairs deep in Glacier National Park. And though he’s skied across the globe, on a hypothetical perfect day with perfect weather and perfect snow, he says he’d be happiest skiing with Pilling right out their back door.

“For him, a good day skiing is one in which you put on your skis. I think he may have taught himself that by skiing really horrible conditions in August,” Gaelyn Moore, his daughter, says. “If you’re on a hut trip with Dad, you’re usually the last ones back to the hut, and you’ve also skied the least vertical feet of anyone. But you’ve covered a lot of territory. You’ve seen a lot. He likes to be rooted in where he is … He takes his time, does his research. He’s always looking at maps.”

During the fall of 1990, at a bonfire in West Valley, Moore met Mark Johnson, a neighbor in the area who was a member of the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol, a nonprofit organization of volunteers trained to respond to backcountry winter emergencies. The patrol dates back to 1975, originally formed to monitor the nordic trails at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. As gear became burlier and lighter, recreationalists traveled deeper into the snowy backcountry. Of course, they still got into trouble way out there, so the organization evolved to meet that need. Before Northwest Montana’s original avalanche center opened in 1995, Nordic served as the region’s primary purveyor of backcountry wisdom. As a member of the Northern Division of National Ski Patrol, Nordic offers opportunities for its members to train in avalanche safety, emergency backcountry care, mountain travel, and search and rescue. Johnson became a valuable friend to and mentor for Moore, who joined Nordic in 2004.

“There’s certain people that show up, and he was always there,” Fortin, a fellow patrol member, says. “There were a handful of us that were always there, every training, every rescue mission. We were the backbone for a long time. Our little ski patrol was well-established and well-known. People were amazed at some of the things we were doing with education. Dan’l and I both, we did all the trainings we could possibly do.”

In 2009, Fortin hired Moore as a winter guide. Among the Glacier Adventure Guides crew, there’s a running joke that Moore is so well-prepared, he carries firewood at the bottom of his backpack. In 2014, Moore and Fortin were part of a six-person crew that successfully completed a 10-day, self-supported exploratory ski traverse of Glacier National Park’s Nyack-Coal Creek loop. Fortin says he’s always admired Moore’s backcountry ambitions — for years, Moore’s pipe dream has been a ski traverse down the entire 900-mile Montana-Idaho border. He calls it the Borderline Insane. Fortin says “we don’t have enough winter, or daylight, or time in our lives” to execute a trip this complicated — but he respects the vision.

Dan’l Moore in the Apgar Range. Courtesy photo

From 2014 to 2016, Moore served as the director for the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol, and he continues to be a committed member, now in a position to pass along the formal instruc-tion and mentorship he and Fortin inherited from the old guard, like Mark Johnson and Jim Bacon.

As Pilling says, “Dan’l is really steady. His friends call him Snow Buffalo … He’s the first to admit that the more you know, the more you don’t know, but with the depth he’s gone into [mountain travel], people trust what Dan’l thinks.”

He has mentored up-and-coming Nordic members, including 38-year-old Trevor Howard, who is currently serving as Nordic director.

“I respect Dan’l so incredibly much,” Howard says. “[On Nordic,] we just want to help people, and education is such a big piece of that, and that’s where Dan’l comes in. He has this wealth of knowledge from years and years of studying, being an avalanche professional and putting his hands in the snow. He is a true knowledge base. He is my sounding board. I come to him and run everything I can by him. He’s that sage, that person who doesn’t talk very fast, but you take the time to listen.”

Howard, a real estate agent who is raising two daughters in Whitefish, says he appreciates not only Moore’s backcountry abilities, but also the home he and Pilling have made for themselves in the woods of Coon Hollow.

“They’ve established this happy, beautiful life,” Howard says. “His day-to-day life is a wonder to me: He makes his living as a blacksmith — a real, traditional blacksmith — he’s an artist, a musician … They just have this ethereal approach to living a more simplified life.”

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