Warming Up to Winter

There are snow many ways to learn to love our coldest season

By Kay Bjork
Horseshoe Lake. Photo by Kay Bjork

Winter. It’s a period when nature slows down and seems to take a seasonal nap. The days are shorter and darkness descends before we can get home from work. Animals prepare to hibernate while some humans wish they could. The landscape is stripped of color and vegetation and frozen fields lie brown and stiff – a bit of a letdown after the splashy splendor of autumn. And then the snow begins to fall.

Shoveling snow, driving on snow and ice and negotiating frigid weather will probably not seduce you into a winter love affair. The old “love it or leave it” attitude probably applies to most. But since leaving isn’t always possible, why not learn to love it?

Winter has its own wonders. The landscape is swaddled in a clean white blanket with plenty of bling, be it dangling icicles, hoarfrost blossoms, sequin ice or the silky sheen of navy-blue ice on a frozen lake.

But as they say, looks aren’t everything, so set out to discover a winter activity that will draw you into this winter wonderland. Find a winter passion and you will find a passion for winter. Here are ways to become engaged with a season that might not be easy, but is well worth a try. This way as flamboyant fall bids you a sassy goodbye with the last wave of leaves – you might actually look forward to winter. 

Dress for it

First things first, you need to learn to dress for winter. You will be more comfortable if you dress in layers. Start with a base layer, once more commonly known as long johns (the saggy cotton waffle knit underwear that didn’t layer well and when wet just made you colder). Over the years the name, along with the fabrics and fit, have changed.  No need to feel like a stuffed sausage with the high-tech gear available now. Today’s base layers are close-fitting and either synthetic, wool or a wool blend to wick moisture. Synthetic materials can be more durable and economical but can retain odors. Wool is odor resistant and usually made with soft fibers that aren’t scratchy. If you get a good-fitting base layer you can wear it under just about anything and be warm throughout winter. Additional layers should be loose-fitting to allow for trapping body heat. Down and synthetic puffy jackets serve this purpose well. 

Winter weather in the Northwest comes with ups and downs, including temperature. Consider waterproof footwear and clothing for the slushy, sloppy weather that occurs with a rise in temperature. With the recent emphasis on outdoor activities, there are tons of options for functional and fashionable winter clothing, from sweaters to boots.

The Farmers’ Almanac predicts that Northwest Montana will be in the “hibernation zone” and “glacial snowy.” That forecast makes it all the more important to layer up. 

Swan Lake. Photo by Kay Bjork

Learn a winter sport 

Staying warm in cold weather can be difficult if you are just standing around, so finding a way to stay active while outside is imperative.

People travel to Northwest Montana from all over the world for great skiing and snowboarding. Whitefish Mountain Resort is ranked one of the best ski areas in the nation and Blacktail Mountain has made its own mark as a smaller, less expensive resort with a laidback atmosphere that is great for families. Both also have spectacular views of Glacier National Park and area lakes and mountains. If you are a beginner, start out with lessons offered at both ski areas.

Cross-country skiing is more versatile, offering options for all abilities and personalities. Slow things down on a flat, groomed trail, or speed things up with backcountry skiing up a mountain slope with the benefit of a self-generated downhill run. You can set your own trail or try one of the groomed trails locally that include Round Meadows west of Whitefish, Blacktail Mountain Nordic Trails near Lakeside, Bigfork Community Nordic Ski Trails or the Seeley Lake Nordic Trails in the Swan Valley. 

Snowshoeing is a great starter sport where you can take a casual walk on a hiking trail or across a snowy field (once you adjust to your oversized footgear). 

If you like to ice skate you can hit one of the area’s many ice-skating rinks, including the outdoor Woodland Ice Center in Kalispell or the indoor Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish. The city-owned Woodland Ice Center is maintained by the Flathead Valley Hockey Association for youth hockey programs, but also offers public skating, skating lessons and adult hockey programs. If you get hooked on ice-skating you are in luck, because Stumptown Ice Den is the only facility in the state with ice year-round. The more adventurous and ice-savvy can enjoy the unique and more challenging experience of skating on area ponds or lakes. Just remember, winter has zero tolerance for the foolish or inexperienced, delivering hypothermia in a matter of minutes if you get wet. Always skate safely. 

Look for the beauty in winter

Even though winter might seem long and tedious with its monochromatic tones, it is actually constantly changing. A change in the weather often indicates that nature has a new art exhibit on display. It uses wind to sculpt a snowy field, cold to create an ice sculpture and snow to transform trees into robed monks. Take a walk along a creek or near a lake to see some of nature’s best artwork. 

Play in the snow with your kids 

Keep it simple and just go outside and play. Make a snowman, snow angel or snow fort. Be the instigator and start a snowball fight! Sledding just requires a sled and a snowy hillside free of hazards for an afternoon of fun. You will stay warm doing laps up and down the hill and earn that hot chocolate (with marshmallows) afterward inside a toasty house. 

Catch a sunrise or sunset 

Sunsets and sunrises are easier to catch during the shorter days of winter, displaying fiery orange or soft pink sunsets framed by a white landscape. You will have to watch the weather to catch a colorful sunset or sunrise because cloudy, gray skies are more common than sunny ones in the winter.

Photo by Kay Bjork

Winterize summer activities

If you are a jet skier or dirt biker, snowmobiling or snow biking might be your winter sport of choice. They even make a system to convert motorized bikes back and forth from dirt to snow use. According to the Flathead National Forest, there are 157 miles of designated snowmobile trails and thousands of acres for open play. Pick up a free map at one of the ranger stations. The Flathead Snowmobile Association maintains and grooms three trail systems with over 200 miles of trails in Northwest Montana. For information regarding licensing and regulations visit: www.fwp.mt.gov/activities/snowmobiling.

Single-track bikers can extend their season with a fat-tire bike, which offers more traction and stability on snow and ice. 

Fisherman can expand their gear and season with an auger and an icehouse for shelter from the wind and cold.

Visit Glacier in the winter

A visit to Glacier National Park in the winter offers an opportunity for solitude, which is more difficult to find the rest of the year. January 2022 saw 17,587 visitors in the park, less than 3% of those that visit during a normal July. Even though many of the access roads are closed in the winter, there are still plenty of areas and ways to explore. Visit the park website for other ideas on where to go on a winter adventure and how to stay safe: www.nps.gov/glac/

Fire up 

You can literally heat things up with a campfire or cookout during the winter. The popular patio fire pit offers a great option for where it is allowed in urban areas. Sitting by a fire recreates some of summer’s laidback atmosphere and the natural inclination to circle a fire sets up a perfect setting for conversation. 

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