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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Icy adventure skiing on river provides thrills, chills and blisters

Skiing along river ice is not advisable, but when the trail is too rocky for skiing, it was the only choice on a March outing.  (BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette)
By Brett French The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – I was trying to convince my fellow Nordic skiers that things weren’t so bad after hiking the first mile carrying our skis and poles.

Maybe not so surprisingly, I underestimated the amount of snow in the mountains, figuring that by early March the snowpack would be pretty healthy. After rounding each corner in the trail I was hopeful the snow would grow, only to be disappointed by the continuation of the rocky route.

Walking in Nordic boots is no easy task. They have a hard plastic, inflexible bottom. The toes have a gap spanned by a metal rod that holds the boot to the binding. These boots ain’t made for walking, Nancy, but that’s just what we did.

(Pardon the oblique reference to Nancy Sinatra’s famous hit, “These boots are made for walking.” I love the line that says, “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you,” followed by a few base chords and then trumpets blaring for emphasis.)

As usual, I was unwilling to turn back and admit I was in error, despite the hardship. Then, a light went on in my brain, a dim bulb by which none of us could even read. My eureka moment was to forgo the trail for skiing on the ice along the river!


Knowing my fellow skiers would be hesitant to risk possible dunking in ice-cold water, I boldly hiked down through the brush, climbed over downed trees and stumbled over a rocky shoreline to test my theory. Looking across the gap in the ice, through which the river menacingly gurgled, I could see the opposite shore looked perfect for skiing. If only there was a bridge.

Still undeterred, I snapped into my bindings and slid across the snow-covered ice that led into a shallow-watered oxbow. It was thrilling to be skiing next to small patches of open water. Excited, I rounded the bend and strode out to the river ice’s edge. Looking upstream, it seemed like we had a navigable route along the shore ice. I hurried back to ensure my fellow skiers didn’t walk past my detour and to wave them down.


At first, they did not share my enthusiasm for skiing atop shoreline ice, for obvious reasons. So, I reassured them that it was not only better than walking, but also fun, dangerously thrilling, and that I would go first to ensure they stayed dry and safe.

It’s hard to beat river ice for a flat surface. It’s like skiing down a road, until it’s not flat. Ice will freeze and thaw, sometimes busting into upright bergs or dropping down in weak spots. In slow water, however, there are sometimes tempting snow bridges to the opposite side.

Seeing one, I carefully slid out to test its strength, jumping up and down at the midpoint to assure it would hold us. Being the heaviest of our group, I assured my party they would be safe. Tepidly, they eased across the small, snowy span in my wake. I held my breath, hopeful the ice would hold. Whew! We all crossed safely.

Joyfully buoyed, I skied farther upstream, encountering a jumble of snow like something out of the arctic – pushed up blocks and fairly deep holes all covered with snow. Again I took the lead and walked across a hump, the river just a foot-and-a-half below, disappearing under the elevated bridge. A wrong step here or a lost edge could have plunged any one of us into the water. My heartbeat elevated. Tension grew, but we all crossed uneventfully.

(Note to readers: This column is in no way an endorsement of taking risks while in the outdoors. It is also not a suggestion that you should try this activity. Please always be safe.)

Last hill

Again we navigated upstream, weaving around bends, past downfall and boulders until we reached a small waterfall and had to pull ashore. We hadn’t gone far, maybe a half mile, but it was the most fun I have had on cross-country skis in years. I felt child-like with the excitement and challenge. The cold air seemed intoxicating despite the freezing temperature. For the first time since winter set in, I felt vibrant again, marveling at the wild world surrounding us – the snow-dusted cliffs, the mountaintop disappearing into wispy clouds.

Hopeful that just around the bend we would find more exhilarating skiing, we took off our skis, had a snack and began trudging up the rocky trail again. After we topped the hill we found enough snow on the trail to don our skis, but it was a short stretch before the rocks won and we had to de-ski again. The hill grew steeper, my resolve grew weaker, and I decided I had punished my crew enough. We stopped to rest and hydrate.

Figuring I might be able to stop at the bottom of the hill without straightening out the corner, I put my skis down, locked into one binding and then the other ski took off downhill, me clumsily chasing it with only one ski on. My partners found this hilarious, practically crying, they were laughing so hard at my awkward antics. By the time I caught up with the ski, I figured its escape was a warning that maybe I ought to walk downhill rather than risk not stopping. Finally, I was showing some sense.


Despite our upstream success, there was still some concern about retracing our route on the river ice, especially after I hiked out to set up and fell through an air pocket up to my knee. Convincingly, I noted that with skis on, our weight was better distributed to avoid such problems. Heh, heh!

So back we went, me again thrilling over my nearness to running water as I glided along. If only it could have extended all the way back to the car. Imagine, I told them, what it must have been like to live in the Missouri River Breaks 100 years ago where homesteaders would hitch up a sled to horses for an easier ride to town down the frozen waterway.

About a mile from the trailhead, we hit the end of the ice and again had to walk. Our feet were aching from treading in, so going out seemed even harder.

Back at the car, I tried to encourage my fellow skiers that we had a unique adventure. It wasn’t the trip we anticipated, but given time, I thought, they will realize it was a fun outing. Especially once the blisters have healed.