Cabin fever has a way of bringing out the unique in people. They’ll invent strange and sometimes vexing pastimes in those places under the brittle and icy veil covered by the darkness of a Northern winter. Take curling, for instance. Some of us will never quite understand why this ice-bound game played with brooms and gliding rocks recently became a crowd-rousing Olympic sport full of human drama and intensity.
But such is the fever that can haunt any winter dweller. No-one is immune to the curse of the cold; a chilled and lonely mind can conceptualize mundane and make it madness; the cold and quiet can relentlessly drive the sedentary toward an insatiable appetite for adrenalin.
Sadly, we too would succumb…
Christmas in the Pahsimeroi is the best time of year. There isn’t a lot going on; we can finally inhale deeply of the dense chill air—and slowly exhale. The season of hard physical work and long days are behind us, and although it was good, it is now our time to stop and breathe.
The cows are off the high country, picking through snow at last summer’s grass in the valley bottom. We peel open the big hay bales daily and scatter green summer sunshine on the snowy meadows in front of their frosty noses. Air fragrant with the sweet smell of freshly mown hay fills their nostrils, and they, too inhale deeply.
And it is quiet. Tourism freezes just as the rivers and lakes do. Hunting seasons are done, campgrounds close and ferrules freeze on fishing poles. The humans that remain live here, in these quiet Currier and Ives valleys. Most of the roads and two tracks in the high mountains are snowed in.
Sometimes even the 3 passes that access our remote valley get buried by avalanche and deep snow, and the State snowplows can’t keep up. The mail can’t get through. But we’ll still venture into the mountains as high as we can to find a nice Christmas tree. Conifer forests abound here, and literally cover thousands of square miles, once you get high enough. The undulating mountains that fill the map of Central Idaho are cloaked with snowy forests.
It was one such pre-kid Christmas Tree Expedition that we went to look for a tree up Williams Creek near Salmon, Idaho. Salmon is one of our two nearby towns. We know most folks in the little town of 3000 souls, so we weren’t surprised to bump into some families and friends we knew on the Williams Summit roadway.
We embarked on the frozen and snow spitting morning, driving about 10 miles halfway up the wide 4-wheel drive logging road on hardpacked snow. The county and Forest Service plow crews used no salt; instead, a “snow floor” was cultivated, and was plowed and polished smooth to a hardpack consistency by the passing road graders that kept this one conduit open into the wild Salmon River Mountains for the few year round hermits living at the edge of the wilderness area.
We hit the switchbacks at Cougar Point, and the tires broke loose a little on the steep curves. “We may have to get out the chains,” I remarked to Caryl as we passed the Forest Service picnic shelter, now buried by 4 feet of white powder. As we cruised by, slipping and fishtailing a little, we couldn’t help but notice the river rock mortar work on the rustic structure, crafted by CCC crews in the 1930s. I gently squeezed the accelerator down another mite; we would need a little speed to get our 1970s Silverado pickup around the next turn.
And then, I punched the brakes, Old Green sliding sideways to a gentle stop.
Apparently, there was an accident ahead, and Len Wiscomb, a friend from the valley, stopped us just after the turn that opened to an unusually long straightaway in the serpentine broad log hauling highway that eventually led to a saddle in the Salmon River Range. Five miles further up the road was the 7800 foot mountain pass called Williams Creek Summit. It was the gateway that provided access to the unending wilderness and semi-wild forests of the Salmon River Mountains.
Here, around the curve at Cougar Point, there were 10 other vehicles parked, and probably 20 other bundled people gathered, some standing in the deep snow around a big bonfire under towering fir trees, some with steaming cups of liquid in their gloved hands. Mini-Michelin Man looking kids slid down the drifts and played in the snow around the group. I rolled down my rime covered window.
Len recognized us. “Hey, Glenn, Caryl. How you guys doing?” His wild and often unkempt and fully bushy mustache sported icicles. It was cold out, and his breath came out in clouds. He had a thick sheepskin earflapped hat on with Carhartt insulated coveralls. His 1800s Arctic explorer look was complete with ski goggles flipped up on top of his tall figure.
“What’s going on, Len?” I gestured up the road. There was nothing I could see. “Somebody crash up there? Is everything alright?”
Len turned around, and looked up the road corridor, bounded by walls of tall snow crusted conifers to where I was looking. “I don’t know…maybe.” He put his hands on my open windowed door, and smiled, chuckling. “You never know. It’s pretty dang easy to wreck when you approach those speeds. I bet some of those guys are pushing 50 miles per hour, even on those tight curves.”
“Fifty? Can you even go fifty on this road in these kinds of conditions?”
“Oh yeah, Glenn. It is pretty dang icy up the road a ways.” He gestured uphill. “Unless they try to slow it down…but they probably won’t. Yeah, so they could easily hit fifty.” He grinned broadly and leaned into our pickup as if to tell us something for only our ears. “Especially some of them big fat guys…” He laughed as he pulled back, then raising his voice. “It’s just physics, you know.”
Len stood up, and a radio crackled to life in his pocket. He pulled it out.
I recognized it. It was one of those expensive government radios used for firefighting in the summer. I wondered how he managed to borrow one—at this time of year. They were all locked up in the firefighting cache for the season. But then again, Len had connections…
“Wiscomb, this is Allen.”
“Yeah, this is Wiscomb. Go ahead Tom.”
“Are you ready, Len?”
Len turned around and yelled toward the small crowd. “Hey Bill, are you ready?”
Bill Thompson came trotting over from the firewood clan while reaching into his pocket, and fishing out what looked like a stopwatch. “Good to go, Len.”
Len keyed the mic. “Whenever you are, Tom”
Tom’s muffled and a little static bound voice over the radio started a countdown: “Five…four…three…two…one…GO!!!!”
Bill clicked the stopwatch.
The radio again: “They’ve started. Two coming at ya.” Static pause.
Len keyed back: “Copy that. Two coming.”
Len turned back to us. “Sorry guys. It’s gonna be awhile. We got two coming, and it’s almost 5 miles.”
“Two what?” I said.
Len fixed his eyes on mine. “Well, sleds, of course. I mean, you know what’s going here, right, Glenn?”
I looked around, looking for clues so I could at least pretend to not be the dumbest human Len had met today. I scanned the pickups and the laughing revelers, for clues so I could be in the know, you know. All I saw was a bunch of people standing around the bonfire in Carhartts. Both men and women; some of them had ski goggles over their very warm looking hats. And then I saw them: the missing piece of the puzzle, and put two and two together.
Flexible Flyers. Many.
“So…ah…they are sled racing? With Flexible Flyers?”
“You got it.” Len’s icicle crusted mustache folded into a grin. “But these aren’t your regular cheesy Flexible Flyers. These are the souped-up version. Some of these guys are pretty handy with a welder, and fabricating stuff with steel.”
I recognized some of them around that fire. They were an eclectic mix of loggers, foresters, ranchers and river outfitters, to name a few. They all worked long days in the summer. And now, there was just enough margin in their lives to take on some things for just R&R, plain and simple. Most logging operations were shut down, and the rivers were frozen. Plus, you couldn’t legally hunt or fish anymore; seasons were over.
So why not sled?
Len continued; “You see, a regular Flexible will hit those hairpin curves up there on the summit road, going about 40 to 50 miles per hour—and there’s no brakes, see?” his hands made a sweeping curving motion to illustrate. “And that sled has to hold it all together. A store-bought stock sled’s runners will simply buckle under the pressure of the G-force of a turn at that speed…especially with one of those big guys on board.” Len grinned and winked ever so slightly.
The problem was that the steel in the stock sleds was made for kids sledding in the backyard, not for full grown 30 and 40 year old loggers wearing heavy Carhartts and Sorel pack boots going at literally breakneck speeds of up to 50 MPH over 5 miles.
And then…there was that other nagging thought that came wafting through the fog of my brain: there were no brakes.
“So these guys who weld on hay balers, raft frames and log skidders in the summer fabricate stabilizing bars on the bottoms of their sleds—so they couldn’t collapse. It’s what they need to win!” Len looked up the road, and made eye contact with Bill, who gave him a nod. “Gotta go, guys. We got some sleds coming in to the finish line.”
I parked our four-wheel drive in the row along the road with other vehicles. Some were chained up on all four wheels for traction in the winter deep. This was too much; Caryl and I were quite intrigued. I knew her well enough that she was already plotting how we would be among the brave or crazy or both…next time.
We walked over to what was evidently the finish line, joining many of the warming fire congregants who had already come over. The line was a not-so-straight red spray-painted stripe in the packed snow (almost ice) of the road, or raceway, rather.
Suddenly, one of the women raised her mug of holiday joy and yelled: “Here they come!”
And they were. Two sleds whipped into view, one about 50 feet ahead of the other, careening, sliding sideways at an almost out of control speed on the poorly banked curve just above the straightaway we stood on. Both racers counterbalanced, preventing rollover by placing most of their body on the inside runner while splaying out their inside leg widely as a counterweighting outrigger, dragging heavy winter boot on the packed racing surface.
The die was cast on who would win now; they were entirely at the mercy of gravity and road conditions. It was like Olympic luge run with the sideboards off, both literally and figuratively. They were outside of the confines of a course, a track and any sort of formalized racing rulebook.
And they wore no Lycra; no helmets; only Carhartts replete with wear holes and grease stains from seasons on a log skidder.
And in a moment, the first racer crossed the line. Bill called out the time, and clicked ‘stop’ as racer number two passed in another second. In the excitement I forgot to worry about how they would stop. They both rocketed past, headed for Len and the few vehicles now amassed, waiting in the center of the road, stopped by Len, before continuing their drive up and over the summit for places unknown.
And I remembered: this was Lemhi County, Idaho. There were about 4000 people in it, and it rivaled the State of Massachusetts in land area. It was one of those places where although the sheriff might know about such goings-on, he cared not. There was no deputized traffic control set up here. It was a rural resident self-appointed governance, and everyone was OK with it. After all, everyone knew everyone. It was just what it was. Most of the vehicles in waiting emptied contents to watch this particular racing heat unfold.
And in that next second, heading hell-bent-for-leather toward the undercarriage of that first parked and idling headlighted pickup truck, suddenly, with an impulsive grunt, first placer’s frame completely flipped over; sled was now runners up, and the racer’s Carhartt coveralled back on the frozen roadbed. In just 25 feet, the friction of cotton duck on the white hardpack stopped him. Racer number two followed suit, and in a moment, both rime encrusted racers stood up, smiling, more than a little out of breath, towing their roped Flyers behind them like two schoolkids at the local sledding hill.
Except that they were in their 40s. And they had been going as much as 50 mph.
Caryl and I watched the whole scene, and began devising ways we could retro our own sleds to participate. Just the aspect of cruising down a 5 mile long run sounded incredible, especially to us, then, in our mid twenties. We watched as several more racers tore by, and then proceeded to continue today’s humble quest: The search for a Christmas tree that would be perfect for our own abode.
In the end, as the near solstice sun dipped behind the thick forest glades, we didn’t find one that day, and planned another Christmas Tree Expedition Day. You see, it was the first ones we would harvest from the forests together in the early years of marriage. And we were learning about compromise; each of us had spotted trees that day that captivated our own eyes. The trick was getting spousal agreement on any one candidate.
Thirty years later, we still have the issues in that regard. And now we have a whole host of offspring to further complicate choosing from literally thousands and thousands of wild and very diversely foliated evergreen specimens.
“I would like a spruce this year,” says one blonde haired daughter.
“They are too prickly,” says another.
And then I say I’d like to find a nice subalpine fir. The balsamy fragrance is very becoming in our log home, I say.
“But after a few days, it smells like cat pee,” says my youngest daughter, and I have to admit she has a point.
And so it goes.
But all of these things fall into what we do in the winter when the quiet descends on our mountain country. There’s no malls, no towns of any size for 3-4 hours. So folks have always come up with ways to stand firm on the fight against cabin fever, and it often means heading back up into the wintry hills together for an adventure. And over the years we have sledded a lot of long runs on icy mountain roads.
But Christmas is coming on us now, and there are things to do relevant to that celebration. Tomorrow after nightfall, we will carol with a group of longtime friends to some older folks around our community, and reconnect with over hot chocolate and cider in Mike and Anne’s cozy home after our feet and voices are frozen.
I hope you can find time to likewise share in the good gifts of this holiday season.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowhands at Alderspring