THE Methow Valley in north-central Washington is cross-country ski heaven — a Lillehammer for those of us in the rain belt. It is a land of the strapping and superfit, where the general population seems a little taller, their chiseled cheekbones rosier, and their quadriceps decidedly more defined than those of the average American.
The modes of Nordic skiing here are diverse — classic kick-and-glide, backcountry telemarking and speed-demon skating. It is even one of a handful of places in the country where someone could stumble, as I did recently, into a biathlon, that strange militaristic sport (strongly supported in this country by the National Guard) that combines both skiing and target shooting.
How did the Methow Valley become such a Nordic hub? To start with, the valley, with its pine forests, clear rushing rivers and varied terrain, is achingly lovely, and has consistently good snow. But it is the interconnected ski trails that set the Methow apart. “So few places in our country are really trails-based,” says the former Nordic skiing Olympian and Methow Valley resident Laura McCabe. “This is one of the last, best places.”
She's referring to the valley's 120-plus miles of ski trails, maintained by a nonprofit organization called the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. Most everywhere one ventures on skis, the association's snow-cat and snowmobile crews have come before, pressing the snow into a wide belt of corduroy for the skate skiers, and cutting two long grooves for the classic skiers with their parallel strides. Last August Sunset Magazine pronounced the Methow town of Winthrop one of the top Western locations for second-home purchases, but the valley casts a wary eye on development. At one point it faced a much bigger form of winter tourism: a major alpine resort was proposed on Sandy Butte just past nearby Mazama. But financing fell apart and much of the land intended for it is now in trust. Developed alpine skiing in the area remains limited to modest Loup Loup Ski Bowl — a charming nonprofit ski hill 30 minutes away.
Unlike the flashier alpine plan, the cross-country system in the area arose organically. In the late '70s and '80s, several inns around the valley began to groom the trails immediately surrounding their properties. Eventually they decided to join forces, and by the mid '90s, the trails association had developed a snowy throughway, the Methow Community Trail, which connects the towns of Mazama and Winthrop and resorts throughout the northern end of the valley. Terrain ranges from Mazama's fast, open fields and Sun Mountain's rolling terrain to the Rendezvous area's more mountainous slopes.
On our visit over the New Year's holiday, my husband and I skied up to Rendezvous Pass, towing our 2-year-old son in a sled called a pulk. The six-mile climb for the most part was not steep, but utterly relentless. We were using classic touring skis, and as we took turns hauling our son, our kick-and-glide technique became more of a shuffle-and-moan. Down at lower elevations, the snow hung heavy on the pine trees. As we gained altitude, the trees shook off their snow in smoky plumes, and the valleys opened up below us. Pretty glades called out for a telemark run or two.
Our destination — the Rendezvous Hut, part of a five-cabin wilderness hut system accessible by ski trails in the winter — perches on the edge of a steep slope; its roof was blanketed with more than a foot of snow. The cabin is, to borrow a line from a Jonathan Richman song, “rough, rough, rough, with ancient rustic hippie stuff,” but its view, across a valley to Gardner and Silver Star Mountains, is astounding.
As earthy as the hut is, we were perfectly well provided for, with a well-stocked wood stove and a normal kitchen stove hooked up to propane. Most importantly, we had paid extra to have our gear hauled into the hut by snowmobile, so we could indulge in pork chops, good cheese and whiskey rather than dehydrated camping food.
The descent the next day was a breeze — we started out above the clouds and slid down from sunny, sparkling snow dust into dusky grayness. When one spends days upon end skiing, one becomes a connoisseur of the light.