January 26, 2010 in Awayfinder destinations

The backcountry beckons

Find winter adventures in unexpected spots
Jacob Livingston Awayfinder correspondent
 
Jacob Livingston photo


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In the myriad mountains and labyrinth-like ravines that serve as Sandpoint’s backyard, the white-topped peaks call to backcountry skiers like cathedral bells to parishioners on a Sunday morning.

To the outdoor purists, there’s nothing better than a day in the deep. If fresh tracks and miles of untamed slopes motivate you to rise out of bed in the morning, then visit North Idaho’s beautiful Lake Pend Oreille region to experience outdoor living at its finest.

There are several ways to enjoy the open-air arenas that envelop the bucolic, lakeside community. From miles of open-ended terrain just beyond Schweitzer Mountain’s borders, to a hilltop bungalow fit for backcountry royalty, there is sure to be an adventure for everyone and any skill level. Since many of the mountains feature peaks above the 6,000 foot mark, snowfall tends to stay on the ground and remain plentiful throughout the winter months.

The Caribou Mountain Lodge, an off-the-grid recreational rental roughly 15 miles northwest of Sandpoint and five miles north of Schweitzer, offers the luxury to be in the backcountry, with access to miles of untracked runs, and still be able to have a hot shower, all at an elevation of 5,00 feet.

In addition to uninterrupted panoramas of the Selkirk Mountain Range from almost anywhere in the oversized, two-story cabin – especially from the front and rear decks – visitors are granted one of the best places to view the Purcell Valley below and its crown jewel: Lake Pend Oreille, one of the biggest, most unspoiled bodies of water in the U.S.

“I think there’s a magic being up here any time of year,” says Mark Remmetter, who owns the lodge along with wife Lynn Olafson. “This is the most incredible piece of private property in North Idaho, as far as I’m concerned.”

The 2,400-square-foot lodge, which took nearly four years to build, including a year of scouting the area, Remmetter says, “to find the perfect spot,” boasts three bedrooms, two full baths, a kitchen, and plenty of room to comfortably sleep 10 people. Exposed Douglas-fir beams, milled on-site from the surrounding forest, line the interior. Solar and wind systems supply enough power for hot water and ample lights after a hard day spent tackling the abundant tracks on the nearby 6,200-foot Caribou peak. And a wood-fired sauna on the 80-acre property works wonders for any aches and pains.

While the ridge-top lodge is open almost all year long, with fresh huckleberries available by the bucket in late summer, it’s during the colder times of the year that the sites true magic shines through. With wildlife the only other inhabitants within seven miles, the lodge becomes a backcountry delight that sheds most modern tech amenities and relishes in the area’s isolated calm. The trees become shapeless white pyramids under heavy snowfall, and snow piles so high it blankets most vegetation and signs of society.

“I’d say 90 percent of the people who stay here are downhill skiers,” Remmetter offers, adding that through the years he and wife Lynn have named the best skiing spots and gladly share the highlighted areas with incoming guests. “The terrain up here is so varied. It’s anything from intermediate to beginner to advanced.”

Lynn adds, “It’s earn-your-turn, though, that’s for sure.”

The less advanced runs are on Caribou Peak, located at the top of an open bowl with a 700 foot vertical drop that turns into gladed, well-spaced old growth hemlock forest for an additional several hundred feet. For advanced skiers, Keokee Peak offers steep chute and tree skiing and boarding.

If a day on the slopes or exploring the woods on snowshoes isn’t on a visitor’s agenda, the lodge offers any number of places to curl up with a book and enjoy the peace and quiet. “It’s still just a nice place if you want to pretend like you’re camping,” Remmetter says.

There are a few independent operations that take tours into North Idaho’s forested area.

If you’re looking for a day on the slopes next to but not within Schweitzer Mountain’s official borders, the Selkirk Powder company provides guided tours of the backcountry. From the top of the mountain’s Great Escape Quad lift, guests ride or snowmobile west from the Powder lodge to an open area nearly the size of the resort, which stands at about 2,900 acres, according to Ken Barrett, president and chief guide with the outfit.

“We have a really unique situation,” Barrett says, referring to the partnership between Selkirk Powder and Schweitzer. “We wanted to do a different kind of outdoor operation. We wanted to give people a day in the backcountry and have an exit to a resort or their vehicles.”

The runs vary from intermediate to expert, with some tracks extending downhill for three miles. “It’s extremely good terrain,” Barrett offers. “Skiers should feel confident skiing the double-black, black diamonds and harder runs at their local resorts, and they should be fine out here.”

IF YOU GO:

Caribou Mountain Lodge offers rental packages starting at $900 for a three-day weekend or four-day mid-week stay, or for $1,500 for a full week. For reservations, call 208.255.2333 or e-mail remmetter@povn.com.

Selkirk Powder offers cat skiing and guided snowmobile tours near Schweitzer Mountain. Snowmobiling packages start at $150 per person during the week and $175 on weekends, while cat skiing packages start at $300 per person during the week and $350 per person on the weekends. Private snow cat sessions are also available and start at $2,000. For reservations and more info, call 1.866.464.3246.

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