Yuletide in Montana
Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Sugary snow squalls pummeled the shoreline of Flathead Lake as my cabin mate and I shouldered our skis down an ice-glazed boot path to the boathouse at his familial stomping grounds—a 40-acre sheep ranch/vineyard/RV park/full-service marina called Two Loons Resort.
Biting cold nipped our cheeks and the dark, choppy water didn’t look too inviting, but our skipper—my cabin mate’s one-eyed Swift Boat veteran stepdad—kept revving his engine in a way that signaled imminent departure.
“Cinch your hoodies tight and strap on a PFD,” the old salt advised as we stowed our packs in the allotted weatherproof compartments. “This headwind has some giddy-up to it but the fuel tank is topped off and the outboard’s chomping at the bit.”
The skipper gave us deckhands just enough time to haul the mooring lines and dock fenders in and then, with a concerted push off the dock, his aluminum-hulled commuter boat slid into open water bound for Wild Horse Island.
It was the third morning of my first Rocky Mountain Christmas and even as the booming swells crashed hard against our bow, dumping a few buckets worth of brain-numbing ice-water over our heads, I felt recreationally blessed and well-equipped to partake in this amphibious expedition.
While my cabin mate and I settled into the aft bench cushions to minimize incoming wave spray exposure, the skipper stood stalwart at the helm in a tattered wool beanie and quilted flannel shirt zeroing in on our destination with lethal efficiency.
“Land ho, you scurvy ski bums,” he bellowed as he wheeled around a point toward our landing area in a sheltered cove. “You’ve got three hours to make tracks and have your jollies before the homebound bus returns. Prepare to debark!”
“Thanks, skip,” I said just before I heaved myself over the gunwale. “Where are you going?”
“First, I’m gonna cut some bait,” he said. “Then I’m going fishing.”
“What for?” I asked once I finally hit the beach.
“Lunch,” he grinned, struggling to shift the gummy old outboard into reverse. “And hopefully supper too.”
As the skipper motored away to plunk trout from more favorable waters, my cabin mate and I marched inland, searching the windswept contours for skiable snow.
Judging by the paltry smattering that greeted us it seemed like a dubious task, but my cabin mate—who’d expended a fair amount of energy exploring the four-mile-long Montana State Park throughout his formative years—knew precisely where to find it.
Emerging from a glade of pines high on the shoulder of a meadowy ridge we soon encountered an expanse of powdery goodness that beckoned us to bust out our boards.
We didn’t see hide nor hair of the Bighorn sheep that inhabit the island, but at the bottom of a deliriously long telemark run I encountered a small band of shaggy-maned equines who provide the island’s Salishan namesake.
When the skipper returned he had three decent-sized chars for his smoker. We enjoyed a couple meals worth and kept snacking judiciously until the New Year.
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