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January 17, 2013
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Cabin Fever

I knew it was time to finally get back outside. My dogs were looking at me much in the same way hungry wolves stare down potential prey.

It had been almost three weeks since we had ventured into the wild, and cabin fever was setting in.

The weather had warmed up for a few days and another brutal cold front was looming. If we didn't get out now, the dogs would show no mercy.

Then again, without getting out of the house, I'd probably be sporting a foil hat and clown shoes when the attack occurred.

Besides, my backcountry ski setup had become a beacon of shame, shining brightly from within my garage. It took me three years to purchase all the gear, starting with the boots in 2010, skis in 2011 and the bindings and climbing skins last year.

I've always wanted to learn about skiing in the backcountry. The problem was that most skiers that I know who spend a lot of time there, don't seem to want to bring novices with them.

And I don't blame them.

The backcountry can be a dangerous place if you're not prepared.

We decided that a day trip to the Four Mile Park area would be a good starting point for my first day skinning.

For the uninitiated, climbing skins grip to the snow, allowing a skier to ascend a slope with relative ease.

Depending on the angle of the slope that is.

My fiancee, Jolene, and I were accompanied by our friend "Starsky," an accomplished backcountry skier. He agreed to show us around the area and take us up some gradual terrain for practice.

The weather had warmed on this day, and Four Mile Park welcomed us with bluebird skies and gentle breezes. The warm temperatures, however, belied the sturdy-looking snow at the road's edge.

Apparently, one of the first lessons of venturing into the backcountry is, don't pull too far off the road when parking.

Lesson learned.

After digging the right side of the vehicle out of the snow and pushing it out, we set out in the general direction of Williams Peak.

Starsky and I were skinning, while Jolene wore her cross-country skis. My dogs, Ranger and Greta, bounced about through the chest-deep delight, sure they had gone to doggie heaven.

I was amazed by how easy it was to balance in my new gear. The skis slid effortlessly through the snow as we glided toward the trees.

"Where's the trail?," I asked.

"It's over here about a half mile or so," Starsky replied as he disappeared into the forest.

Within the shade, the landscape began to look like a fantastic, Dr. Seuss-conjured world.

The sun's heat had molded the snow into strange, sloping shapes - marshmallow-like fungi were growing upward from the downed trees. Shadows stretched their dark fingers outward, and all around us animal tracks cut looping trails through the snow, each leading off in random directions.

With the glare gone, we were able to enjoy the scenery without squinting. Four Mile Park is a breathtakingly beautiful place in summer or winter.

"I can't believe this is my backyard," I thought.

As we neared the edge of the trees, the sunlight lit up the sparkling snow. It looked as if trillions of tiny rubies and sapphires were tossed liberally across the white landscape.

We continued on over the next hill and spotted a short, but unspoiled, field of powder sloping down a small ridge.

It wasn't more than 90 feet from top to bottom, but it was ours, and it was perfect.

"This is a good place for you to test out your setup," Starsky said.

I found a solid spot atop a snowmobile track and removed the skins from my skis.

Starsky plowed ahead, making a few turns and coming out near a snowmobile track at the bottom. I followed suit, enjoying the backcountry bunny slope.

By this time the dogs were looking exhausted, but were still following the game trails and checking trees for messages.

Jolene had taken a different, more level approach to where we were now running our quick laps, and was out of sight.

"Good thing," I thought.

No need for her to see me faceplant on the world's easiest ski run.

Suddenly, the air was buzzing with the sound of approaching snowmobiles. They were a mile or so off in the distance, but clearly heard over the quiet expanse of white. The dogs were not happy. I imagine it sounded like a hungry, mechanical beast to them; a beast on the hunt for their mom. They were off, charging toward the tinny growl of the machines, but stopped abruptly when Jolene came skiing out from the trees to our left, safe and sound.

Crisis averted. They had run off the raging beasts.

Starsky and I ran a few more laps and decided to call it a day.

We skied our way gently down toward the car, following the snowmobile tracks. There was a deep dip in our path where a streambed crossed beneath the snow.

I tried to gain enough speed to make it up the opposite side.

However, I fell just short and started to slide backwards, twisting my left knee in an unnatural direction and, losing my balance, I plunged awkwardly into about three feet of powder.

I knew I hadn't injured the knee in a serious way, but I had a larger problem. I couldn't reach the ground to push myself back up and there was a bear fast approaching.

Greta came flying in, joyously pouncing on me and driving me deeper into the snow. Perhaps this was her revenge for the last few idle weeks - the licks came fast and furious.

With her quarry safely buried in the fluffy powder, Greta bounded away toward the others, triumphant in her quest.

Minutes later, I emerged from my snowy prison, finally righting myself, and skinned off to join the others.

Arriving at the car, I took a quick look back at Williams Peak, knowing someday that I'd make it to the top.

What a great way to earn some exercise and enjoy the amazing scenery in this frozen paradise we call home.

- Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor for the Post Independent. He skis with all the grace of a black bear cub running downhill. He can be reached at cszewczyk@postindependent.com.


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 17, 2013 12:41AM Published Jan 17, 2013 12:37AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.