Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Making tracks

Izaak Walton Inn puts powder on the line



We've been driving for three hours, the Subaru's studs digging into patches of slush with a familiar wintertime rumble. My boyfriend, Zach, and I are heading east on U.S. Highway 2 between West and East Glacier, a route we've nearly memorized after countless ski and work trips, he for glacier research, me for volunteer work with the Glacier Park Wolverine Project, collecting data about the elusive carnivore. On typical drives I hardly pay attention to the occasional restaurant, lonely gas station or landmark along the way. I'm always too focused on the mountains and the possibility of spotting wildlife.

Montana Headwall
  • Pam Voth

But I've also never come here just to ski, and neither of us has ever actually stayed in a resort near the park. So today, I notice the lone train car that marks the turnoff for our destination: the historic Izaak Walton Inn.

Zach turns down the narrow road flanked by tall pine. Two people cross the street in front of us, thin skis in hand and pom-pommed hats bobbing as they squint and smile in a sudden glare of sun. I stretch my legs and feel a surge of anticipation. We'll be skiing shortly.

We park at the main lodge—a deliberately quaint Tudor revival in tan and timber three stories high. It's like we've entered a time warp someplace between the Swiss Alps and the Adirondacks.

Inside, it's really quiet. I feel guilty ringing the courtesy bell.

A wiry 50-something man greets us and checks us in. We haul our stuff to our room upstairs and immediately head to the window.

"Let's go ski that!" Zach says, pointing to a rounded peak nearby.

We throw on our ski gear and clunk down the stairs, out the door and over the bridge across the train tracks, where 33K (20-plus miles) of groomed cross-country trails loop into the Great Bear Wilderness.

Seeing how well manicured the trails are, I feel a minor pang of regret for not bringing my cross-country skis. But my mission on this trip is to hone my telemark skills—my newest form of self-torture. So I dismiss the thought.

"This way," Zach says.

We skin up and along Dickey Creek Road on the eastern perimeter of the trails. The afternoon light reflects off the ski tracks that unfurl in front of us like ribbons.

I love the idea of skiing this way: no board on my back, no chilly chair ride to freeze my buns.

Within 20 minutes we leave the groomed road and pass a sign, almost completely submerged in snow, that warns "Avalanche danger beyond this point!" The area is open to skiers, but it's ski at your own risk. We double-check our beacons and continue on.

Before long, we reach belly-deep moose tracks and follow them up a small drainage to a slope that recently slid. The rawness of the exposed snow and stone makes me think of a mango slice—the skin peeled back and the flesh of the fruit slightly ravaged. My mouth starts to water.

"Let's go up here," Zach says.

"Really?" I ask. Zach is competent with his avalanche skills; I'm in the process of refreshing mine, so we often discuss our choices in detail. After judging the temperature, aspect and stability, Zach helps me get comfortable with the idea of heading up this way.

We zigzag through trees and debris. The sun begins to fade. After about 30 minutes of moderate climbing we stop and prepare to ski down before it gets dark. I wobble on one leg while I pull the skin from my opposite ski. A brief flutter erupts in my chest as I look at the spacing of the trees below me. Zach talks me through the checklist:

"Skins off and put away?"

"Heel risers down?" (This is a fair question, in my case).

"Helmet buckled?"

"Beacon transmitting?"

"Layers tucked in?"

He drops in. I watch him deftly bounce in and out of the trees—pouncing and gliding down the slope.

I drop in, make one turn, then crumble and roll through my next. I extract my right ski out from under my arse.

Zach waits patiently for me at the bottom as I repeat the sequence in roughly the same fashion, all the way down—as quickly as possible. Both of us want to put in a full day of skiing tomorrow. And there is rumor of a sauna at the Izaak Walton.

Skate skiing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing— anything on planks—is the pièce de résistance during a winter stay at the Izaak Walton resort by a railroad yard in tiny Essex, Montana.

The inn was built in 1939 along the Great Northern Railway tracks that stretched from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. With 29 rooms,10 bathrooms and an accommodating lobby and kitchen, the original place was a luxury destination for travelers coming to see Glacier Park.

Today, the rail lines are still in use, although no longer for the defunct Great Northern. Of the 30 to 40 trains that roll through daily, most of them freight trains, the most notable is the Amtrak Empire Builder, which stops at the inn while shuttling passengers from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. Time has brought a few other changes: six small Western-style cabins and additional lodging in a remodeled luxury train engine and three cabooses, blue, orange and green.

Zach and I have a great view of them from our chosen après-ski spot: the Izaak Walton's dining room.

Like the rest of the inn, the restaurant is adorned with train memorabilia. The tables are set with Syracuse China—reproductions of the dinnerware originally used on the Great Northern Railway—including plates decorated with an image of a mountain goat against a backdrop of Glacier's mountains, or wildflowers by an alpine lake. The doors, hand-painted with columbine and fawn lilies, advance the wildflower theme. A chalkboard announces offerings of local food—including trout, elk and huckleberry pie. I prepare myself for a Montana-style meal—rich, ample portions served by cordial, honest folks.

There are only two other guests here at the moment: women in long skirts and big sweaters who are chatting with the chef/server about their visit. Their train has been delayed due to snowdrifts on the tracks. It's not unusual for the Empire Builder to get held up by flooding, derailment, snow and the occasional avalanche.

I begin to realize that Zach and I are a minority, simply because we drove here. Many of the guests (70 percent, as the inn's ski pro, Mark Ambre, later tells us) travel to the inn via train. In fact, a big draw to the Izaak Walton is its reputation as a "railfan destination." A whole culture of people relish train travel as much as we relish ski travel, and arriving at the Izaak Walton by locomotion culminates the journey of a lifetime.

When a passenger train arrives or passes through, guests are encouraged to walk to the covered porch and wave, much like the ladies and gents clutching handkerchiefs and hats in the photos hanging on the walls.

Post-dinner, Zach and I are ready for a sauna session in the more modern annex across from the lodge. While we wait for it to warm up (you have to ask someone to turn it on for you), we wander into the basement bar, home to a game room, historic photographs, and a Ping-Pong table. Zach defeats me repeatedly, but I manage to land the ball in far more interesting locations. Then it's time to walk across the parking lot for a steam and solidify tomorrow's plan.

We want to explore the backcountry opportunities further up the highway, toward East Glacier. There's ample access right off the road, so we figure we'll wake up early and drive until we see something enticing. Zach tucks his Glacier topo map into the top of his ski pack before climbing into bed.

Our hopes for an early start get sucked out the open window of our room sometime during the night. Trains rock and shimmy through the blackness at regular intervals, while the steam heat bangs. It takes a quick meal of bacon and eggs and the crisp outside air to wake us up.

We chat briefly about heading up to Two Medicine, in Glacier, but once the sun starts glinting off the windshield, we consider something closer—less car time equals more ski time.

There's skiing at Marias Pass, about 20 miles away, but it's also a more popular spot. We want to disappear for the day.

So we drive east along the border of the park, no more than 10 miles from the Izaak Walton. The valley opens away from us, and the peaks slice into the blue with imposing and brilliant cleanliness.

We spot one peak that looks particularly approachable—and doable for leaving the gate mid-morning. The mountain stretches like a long arm resting along the valley floor. A blanket of dark pine climbs above the elbow then slides from its snowy shoulder to reveal a ridgeline, curving away from us with collarbone elegance.

I unfold the map and look at the peaks running in a band along the road. "Mount Shields. Elk Mountain. This one doesn't have a name. Little Dog...I think it's Little Dog. No, it's Elk Mountain," I say, and toss in the elevation. "It's 7,835."

Wisps of snow twist from the ridge, like dancers against the blue backdrop. Zach pulls the car over and looks at the map.

"I think we just passed the turnoff," I point. "I saw a road back there, number 1066."

Still fairly new at this, I slap skins on my skis in record time and we start up snowy 1066 to the palm of Elk Mountain. A cow moose and her yearling are browsing along a creek and we stop just long enough to snap a picture and get the hairy eyeball.

Weaving our way up above the valley, we cross railroad tracks and enter the forest. The trees swallow us. Road sounds and train sounds vanish. A snag creaks.

"I think we can get to the top in three hours," Zach announces, so I assume it will take us four—based on my pace, of course. In the three years I've known him, I've spent much of the time chasing him up mountains and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm slower than he is. It never bothers him, and he always encourages me. It's a fine arrangement.

I love tele-skiing, and for good reason: I grew up on alpine skis when custom boot liners didn't exist. Eventually the foot pain overpowered the pleasure, so I decided to be a cross-country skier, and then learned to snowboard. I stopped skiing for years when life intervened, but I recently picked it up again, this time to telemark. The grace of the sport always appealed to me, and now that I can have a boot fitted to feel like a slipper, I can go as far and as long as I want.

Somewhere close to noon, after a short lunch, we pack up and break out of the trees, crossing the first of several steeper slopes that lead to the peak.

Ascending to the east, we come over a rise and get our first glimpse of the park. From there, we climb west above the tree line, then wrap around until we're on the shoulder, with a clear line to the top. By now, we've climbed some 3,500 feet, and the mountains unfold around us. We lace our way among snow ghosts. I watch Zach ahead of me, the 9,000-foot-plus spire of Mount Saint Nicholas beyond him. A gust of wind smacks me slightly off balance and I laugh—half nervous, half exhilarated.

I've had so much fun getting here that I'm surprised when we reach the top. An exposed face drops below us in a pure curtain of white. Its lines are so tempting—but it's heavily loaded and we've already opted to ski the more stable slope off the northwest.

Looking out over the Great Bear Basin, we can see all the way to the Swan Range and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The wind snatches our voices as soon as words leave our lips. We dig a hole for shelter and hunker down for a snack before skiing down.

In short order I follow a mellow line toward the spire of Saint Nick. The urgency of the wind is replaced by the quiet of a clear winter day. We lazily make our turns, leapfrogging each other, descending into the drainage.

My futile attempts to execute the perfect tele-turn land me in numerous face-plants along the way. The sound of snow exiting my ears is met with Zach's sniggers and the occasional bird song.

We make it back to the Izaak Walton just before dark, ready for meat and potatoes. The resident ski pro, Ambre, greets us as we're finishing.

By summer, this lean 40-something guy surfs on the California coast; by winter he comes to the Izaak Walton, teaches lessons and guides guests on ski tours—sometimes cross-country, sometimes backcountry, sometimes both.

"There is so much good skiing—in any direction," he muses.

My mind flickers back to earlier in the day—standing in a snow hole on top of Elk Mountain and scanning the peaks in every direction.

The conversation drifts to trains, skis and wildlife. A woman interrupts us at one point to ask Ambre if he knows about a moose carcass near the ski trails. She strokes a small dog that trembles in her arms while she scrutinizes the ski pro over her bifocals. It is clear that she wants to find this moose, dead or alive. After she walks away, it occurs to me that this would be an unusual conversation elsewhere in the world—but it's perfectly suited to this old Montana inn, tucked away in the mountains. Ambre tells us that the staff hauled the carcass deeper into the woods, earlier in the day.

I settle down for another night of snow-blown dreaming. It seems that all of us have come here to get deeper into the woods.

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