By Tom Boyd
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December 11, 2008 — In the light of a pre-dawn morning the eyes will see things where none exist, especially in the dark, especially when moving through the margins of a snowy wilderness. So, during a recent early-morning backcountry trip, I wasn’t too worried when I noticed a large, black, Sasquatch-shaped figure looming ahead of me.
I figured it was just a blurry patch of my vision, just something imagined in the darkness, but as I grew closer the thing grew bigger. I continued cross-country skiing through the snow, listening to my skins make the quiet whisper, my headlamp aimed downward, trying to ignore this weird thing which seemed to grow before my very eyes.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed (no, it couldn’t be!) … yes, it’s a human being! A huge, Sasquatch-sized human being! I thought to myself: ‘What the hell is that guy doing up at Piney Lake, wandering through the darkness of the forest without a light at 5:30 in the morning!
I called out, but there was no answer.
I edged even closer and the man didn’t move. I could barely see his outline against the blacker blackness of the pine trees. I shined my light on him and, no kidding, there stood a nine-foot-tall wooden sheriff, hand upraised in a signal of greeting.
“Howdy folks!” he seemed to say, glaring at me with painted eyes. I stared at him for a moment, waiting to see if he would come alive and point me toward the right path, or maybe challenge me to a game of poker.
Deer, elk, moose, bear, pine martin, and many other forms of wildlife thrive in the federally-protected areas beyond ranch boundaries.
In summertime, car camping and backpacking are quite popular, but the Ranch itself also offers rooms in one of three rustic cabins. The cabins have been remodeled and upgraded in recent years, and include fully-outfitted kitchens and bedrooms designed to please Vail’s high-end visitors. The typical summer activities include horseback riding, fly fishing, canoeing, hiking, and simply relaxing on the sunny Ranch deck.
The top attraction, however, remains the award-winning Carson City BBQ, available in peak season (June through September in summertime and November through April in winter).
Wintertime snowmobile or snow-cat tours are run by Piney River Ranch and can be scheduled for lunch or dinner trips. For more information visit www.pineyriverranch.com or call (970) 477-1171.
“Holy sh*t sheriff,” I said aloud. “You had me going there for a bit.”
Once I saw the feller, I knew why he was planted in the snow at just that very spot. You see, Piney Lake, for most of the year, is a recreation destination 11 miles north of Vail — a high-altitude ranch by a lake with access to some of the best elk hunting in Colorado.
The sheriff acts as an icon of Wild West friendliness during the busy seasons, welcoming people to Piney’s horse stables in the summertime or, in the winter, to its snowmobile shack.
The reason I had come so far is because of heavy early snows and, of course, elk hunting. With a camp already set up in the valley but opening day yet to come, I decided to take a day away and the southern-exposed aspen glades which, over the years, I’ve always felt would make a tremendously good ski run – but only in perfect conditions.
I had harbored this little ski dream since I was a teenager renting paddleboats to visitors (and rescuing them in my canoe when they ran aground). On some evenings, after the tourists had gone home, I would paddle across the lake and up the shallow creek until I was all alone, then I would lie back and drift downstream. My adolescent mind allowed me to believe, in those quiet moments, that I belonged to Piney and that Piney somehow belonged to me.
This feeling was intensified when autumn came and Piney became the family hunting grounds. On many dark evenings I’ve clambered down the slippery aspen meadows thinking to myself: ‘I’m already halfway skiing this meadow now, in my boots! Next year I’ve got to bring my skis.’
And this time around, I actually did, which is why I was running into the wooden sheriff at such a god-awful hour. The pitch was perfect—about 35 to 40 degrees and more than 1,000 feet of vertical. The trees have beautiful slim white trunks, which, from far away, look like streaks of acrylic paint. To the east, Mount Powell, monolithic in the foreground, dominates a view of rocky peaks, which extend all the way to Summit County.
My 4x4 drive up Piney’s winding dirt road had been abbreviated by at least a foot of new-fallen snow. I drove as far as my fear of sliding into a ravine would let me, then parked and packed in the rest of the way. Dad had already chosen the best camp on the creek, on the margins of a beaver pond, and we set up our big sheepherder’s tent (for cooking and communing), plus our smaller backpacking tents (for sleeping).
Snow was pounding as we made camp, which I tried to remind myself was good news. My little two-piece avalanche shovel does pretty well, but by the time I cleared away room for the tents my back was beginning to voice complaints. Gathering wood was the next task, and by the time we finished with that we were soaking wet from sweat and melting snow. We fired up the handy, collapsible woodstove, and exchanged wet clothes for dry.
Piney is by no means a coveted off-season camping or backcountry skiing destination. Camping is hugely popular in summertime, but in winter the only visitors are daytime tour groups who come to feast at the BBQ restaurant and see the sights. They come in snowmobiles or snow cats, eat, and return home at nightfall or stay in one of the lakeside cabins.
The only good time to ski Piney is in early winter, early in the morning, and immediately after a big snowfall. Put more succinctly, skiing Piney requires a perfect storm. The northern-exposed slopes are too crowded with timber for a good ski, and the sun quickly rots the southern-exposed slopes.
With dad going off in his own direction for a hike, I was ostensibly alone, which isn’t such a grand idea whenever heading out into the backcountry, but there were a few things on my side: scattered aspen trees keep avalanche danger to a minimum, and my friends and family knew exactly where I was and when I was supposed to return.
On the morning of my ski I could see, even from my tent, that conditions were ideal. Overnight another two feet had fallen on top of the foot from the day before, which gave the whole world an eerie feeling. I had awoken at 4 a.m. to find the plastic window of my sleeping tent covered in white.
Inside the tent it was a balmy 50-degrees or more, a result of the huge load of new, insulating snow. My tent was straining under the weight – the poles were twisted and near-collapse. I put on my boots and used my trusty shovel to dig my way out of my sleeping-tent-turned-igloo and into the cooking-tent-turned-igloo, by which time I was absolutely freezing. My hands couldn’t grip the tent zippers. Fortunately a hot cup of coffee was on the menu. There is no coffee quite so good as the one you serve yourself before dawn, unfiltered, in the high country.
As the coffee slowly defeated my grogginess I began to pack my bag with standard winter gear: food, knife, waterproof matches, warm clothes (no cotton), rope, cell phone, headlamp, and marking tape. I consider this stuff mandatory. The way to do it is to plan as though you’re going to be spending the night out there, alone under a tree. That way, when it happens you’re not surprised.
Once I downed my coffee I strapped on my telemark skis, with skins attached to the bases for traction, and headed out into the dark. The deep snow was intimidating, dragging my legs with every push. I pulled myself uphill toward the Marug trail, which traverses to the top of Piney Ridge and the top of my ski slope. To avoid sweat, which is always the precursor of ice, I endured a bit of cold for the first 20 minutes, but by the time I met up with the wooden sheriff I was nearly overheating. To stay dry, and to enjoy the moonlit view, I did my skiing in short intervals, and spent long moments gazing at the terrain. The horizon began to brighten, and from halfway up the ridge I could see the Piney River articulating wide S-turns through its wetlands, down into the half-frozen lake. Stars crowded the sky above me. The moon was falling behind the ridgeline to the west. There were no other tracks in the snow.
Pure beauty, I thought. Winter camping includes a lot of drudgery and hard work and cold, but all those aching-cold fingers and shivery nights are worth it for moments like this. Solitude of this kind, in a place which is typically perforated with humanity, is priceless. It puts the mind into a state like no other, a kind of trance.
I was involved in such a daze when I heard a “quack,” like a duck, or at least I imagined I heard it. Were my ears hearing something when there was nothing to be heard? Or maybe it was the squaak of my boot in the binding, or a hunter playing tricks with a duck call. I ignored my hallucinations once more, attributing it to the power of my coffee, or the trickery of the wooden sheriff, and began following the vague depression in the snow left by the trail. Again, I heard a distinct “quack,” but dismissed it because no one is supposed to see ducks while skiing. It’s just unnatural. I concentrated on following my trail upward, to where my bounty of freshies awaited.
The sun peeked over the mountaintops just as I reached the top of the slope. Even though I’ve seen sunrises before I was simply stunned by this one, the blue sky day and the perfect snow below, the bowl of Piney Valley a natural amphitheater populated with unseen wild denizens. Elk tracks retreated into the timber behind me and I could still smell their musk. I was on top of the world. I felt like a king. I almost gave a speech but remembered, just in time, that sunshine was king here and snow its loyal subject, and I should shut up and ski. And ski I did, carving a few big, plowing turns through the buttery powder, loving it, possibly even letting out a holler before slamming my knee into a stump. I flew forward in a cart-wheeling, yard-sale crash, which left me on my back and, for some reason, laughing, probably ecstatic that I wasn’t hurt more seriously.
My situation could have been much worse. My kneepads had protected me from any serious harm, but a broken kneecap in these conditions, or worse, would have lead to a long and difficult day. I imagined myself with a shattered leg, carving out a shelter with fallen logs, struggling to build a fire. Not a pretty picture. Beautiful nature can quickly turn black and menacing. I’ve always preferred to leave my survival gear where it belongs—in the bottom of my backpack.
For the remainder of the morning Piney proved to be an excellent ride so long as I avoided stumps and logs. A few minutes later I emerged onto the flats and reached my tents, still sweating from a fast trip down the slope. As I lay down to relax and let my burning legs rest, I was alone with my thoughts once more. The feeling I once had as a youth − that Piney belonged to me and me to it − began to well up in my mind. Or at the top of the mountain, when I imagined myself a wild king of this land … I had to chuckle at my own incorrigible ego. Then, to my astonishment, I heard the same brief but unmistakable “quack.” I lifted my head to see, only a few feet from my camp, a pair of Mallards swimming through the beaver pond. They left tiny ripples in the black water and seemed to be talking, with their heads turned toward one another. Most likely separated from their brace during the snowstorm, the ducks had taken refuge near my camp for the day. I sat still and they grew comfortable. They dove and quacked and swam around in a leisurely way while I watched, and thought more about Piney, eventually coming to the conclusion that, like so many other things, my ownership of Piney was just another shadowy illusion. Like the ducks, I was just passing through.
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