Dear Tobacco Roots, Thank You.
I was not born in Montana. I have lived here, however, for half of my life. In the twelve or so years, I have been here I have settled in and adapted well to the Montana lifestyle. My grandmother on my dad's side, her siblings, and her dad were all born in Bozeman, and as far as I know, my great-great-grandparents settled out here in the days of the true pioneer west. Despite not being born in Montana, Bozeman and the landscapes of Montana run deep in my bloodline.
Last weekend I went on a three-day backcountry ski trip to complete my Avalanche Level 1 Certification in the Tobacco Roots. I had always admired those mountains from a distance, hunting or fishing in their shadow. Eight Bridger Babes drove in the early morning whiteout conditions to meet our ski guides in Harrison. If you don't know where Harrison is, that's ok. It's a short strip of a few business and homes somewhere on 287 between Ennis and Three Forks. My car broke down there once and I sat at the bar for a few hours waiting on AAA to come tow me back to Bozeman. The Babes and I waited in a dirt parking lot between the railroad tracks and the road, nervous and excited for our trip. A Tacoma pulled into the lot and we were introduced to our guides, Tucker and Spencer. After introductions and waiver signing, we followed the boys up a winding road, past some cowboys on horseback moving cattle, and through a landscape transitioning from dry ranchlands into the snowy mountains.
At the parking spot, we all geared up and went through our checklists one more time in our heads, making sure we had everything for 72 or so hours in the backcountry. Skins on, packs adjusted, beacon batteries charged, shovel, probe, extra socks. The guides brought the snowmobiles down to us, we'd ride in a few miles to the trailhead then skin the rest of the way. After some beacon checks and practice at the trailhead, we were off skinning, snow falling around us and hiding the peaks above us from view.
I prefaced the trip with a warning to my fellow Babes that I am a slow skinner. Tight hips and little experience find me bringing up the rear from a distance. I am strong, I power lift, play hockey and ski regularly, but for some reason, skinning is incredibly difficult. It took me a while (the better part of three days) to find my rhythm. So while I watched the Babes disappear into the woods or up the mountain ahead of me, I focused my frustration and, honestly, embarrassment, on just getting there and not letting it ruin my attitude for the weekend.
A few hours later we arrived at the yurt. We did some talking, dropped off our things and went down to a meadow to do rescue training for a couple hours. Back at the yurt, we talked more about avalanches and what the rest of the weekend held. I went to bed feeling overwhelmed by the skinning and information. The next morning came and we woke up to the guides cooking our breakfast while we stumbled around the yurt, deciding how many layers to wear to make the short trek to the outhouse and stretching out our sore bodies. After a few cups of tea and some breakfast, we lectured more and then were on our way out the door. We finally could see the peaks surrounding us and just how much it had snowed the day before. I was met with frustrations again as soon as I started skinning, my competitiveness and high expectations were getting the best of me. I knew that as soon as I let my mood go sour, that would be it and the trip would be ruined for me. I hovered around that emotional border for the better part of the trip, knowing I could easily tip toward being extremely upset and overwhelmed or to keep my head up and keep moving with a smile on my face. I fought back the negative thoughts and pushed my way to the lake, trying to take in the views instead of dwelling internally. We stopped at Bell Lake and scoped out our options for the day.
We headed up the mountain and found spots to dig pits and investigate what was happening under our skis. I kept working to find my rhythm with my breathing and skinning, pushing out the negative thoughts. When I lift or play hockey, I have this competitive zone I can get into, and once I am in it, my focus is intense and I can push my body to do the task at hand, generally this manifests pretty aggressively, as it would have to in order to pull a big lift or play a strong shift and comes in explosive bursts. I was trying to balance that drive with the quieter and more pace based action of skinning. Thank God for the patience and kindness of our guides, who were encouraging and spent time explaining to me the finer points of the technique. We dug our pits, ran tests, collected data and decided where was safe to ski. We were standing at the top of the run, a foot of untouched snow on top of a pleasantly pitched and open slope. Tucker skied down first, setting the outside boundary for where we should ski. I was next (a perk of being a photographer is that you can get fresh tracks so you can position yourself in a spot to get good photos). After making some arching turns, I felt better about why I was there. I may not be a great or quick skinner, but I do know how to ski. I got myself positioned to take photos and watched as each Babe made their way down the mountain, choosing their own path and leaving their own beautiful marks on the slope. Smiles, giggles and high fives all around and we were off, skiing through the trees back down to the lake. After a quick shuffle across the lake, and skin up through some trees, we found ourselves some good tree skiing back to the yurt. We hung our gear to dry, reeling in the glory that is skiing untouched and fresh snow, to ski in trees or any slope for that matter, that was not skied out and riddled with bumps was a treat.
Sunday morning we woke up and discussed as a group where we should tour and ski on the time constraint we had. We decided to try out a slope on the other side of the lake. The skin to the run provided the most beautiful light as the sun rose above the peaks. It was finally a bluebird day and the sun provided a warm feeling over an otherwise frigid world. We looked up at past slide paths and admired the peaks, smiling under the cloudless sky.
The group broke out of the trees and onto an exposed slope. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. I usually run pretty warm, so while some people were layering up, I was trying to regulate my body temperature and not let myself get too warm. I found a layering system that seemed to work, but was still sweating, despite having no beanie or gloves on. As we crossed the slope, on the final leg of the skin, I looked across the vista and was struck by the beauty before me. The mountains were incredible and untouched, the wind whisping snow among them and creating a soft, dreamlike landscape. I need to spend more time in the Tobacco Roots, I had been marking little streams and the lake in mind to come back and fish in the summer. It was in that moment of catching my breath and admiring the world that I remembered someone along the line telling me that the Tobacco Roots were my great-grandfather's favorite mountains. From what I know of my great-grandfather, he was an outdoorsman and a worked with his hands. I have heard stories of his outdoor pursuits and seen the evidence of a life lived outdoors. I told myself I wouldn't cry on the yurt trip, but now held back tears as I thought about my great-grandfather exploring the same mountains I was now in, each of us in pursuit of some sort of solace, education, and adventure. The rest of the day, I imagined him chasing elk, maybe following the same path that I had just skinned up. It is incredible to think that through the years, the generations of my family before me experienced the same landscapes I was, each of us in our own way. The streams I fish, the peaks I admire and the fields I walk across are the same ones my forebears did.
I have never thought too much about where I came from, or at least how my ancestors and their experiences with places trickled down and have a hand in shaping who I am today or who I will be. I have become intrigued by the idea that places like the Tobacco Roots have played a role in who I am, like so many places in Montana. Whether they were favorites of an older family member passed down through the generations or places I found on my own, these are the places that ultimately have played a role in my life. Maybe my great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, grandparents or parents traveled to and explored these places learning something about themselves or the world that changed their existence. I sat at the Pony Bar that night, drinking my usual, Makers neat, surrounded by a grab bag of patrons. I wondered if my great-grandfather had stopped at the Pony Bar on his way home from hunting in the Tobacco Roots, chances are high he did and maybe he drank his bourbon neat.