By Michael Lanza
As we slide uphill on skis, each of us carrying a full backpack, the three kids—two of them 14, one almost 12, but an advanced apprentice teenager—trail at least a tenth of a mile behind. If we parents slow down to let them catch up, they stop and tell us, “You can keep going.” So we do. Their audible, constant chatter and occasional screeches inform us that they remain within earshot—close enough that we’ll know if they need us, distant enough to not feel like we’re crowding their space with our oppressive adultness.
Yes, it has now come to this: They don’t want to ski with us anymore.
Six of us—my family plus half of another family, our friends the Serios—are skiing about two miles and several hundred feet uphill into Idaho’s Boise National Forest to spend three nights at the Banner Ridge yurt, one of six backcountry yurts managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. We’ll be joined tomorrow by the rest of the Serio family, who’ve been delayed a day by school exams and a nasty cold.
There’s really not much to do at the yurt, and that’s precisely why we’re going. There is, however, plenty of snow for skiing and sledding; the incredibly therapeutic effects of secluding ourselves from civilization in a vast, quiet forest stilled by winter; and a warm, if primitive shelter furnished with all we really need: bunks, solar and propane lights, a two-burner stove, and an outhouse.
The parents arrive at the yurt a little while ahead of the kids, without concern for them: We know they don’t need us to ensure they’ll get here. Our earliest family yurt trips, when these kids were little, entailed multi-hour expeditions just to deliver everyone and all of our stuff to the yurt. These days, the ski in to the yurt—and even more so, the ski out, which is mostly downhill—have become fast and anticlimactic, which makes things much easier, though providing less fodder for good stories.
Our kids can manage on their own now. In a way, these annual adventures are a metaphor for how they are growing up—and, I believe, our yurt trips have also helped shape the people our children are becoming.
Idaho Backcountry Yurts
We’ve made this annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, about a 90-minute drive from our homes, eight years in a row now—long enough that our kids can hardly remember not taking this adventure every year. It has become as routine and highly anticipated for them as their birthdays and Christmas.
We have skied these trails through ponderosa pine forest even when various obstacles reared up before us. These four kids ranged in age from seven to four that first year, and we went to the yurt farthest from the road, Elkhorn, as a snowstorm raged. It took us five hours to get everyone there, yet no one saw that day as anything but a grand adventure. Besides surmounting obstacles like snowstorms and the limited mobility of young children, we have even made this trip despite a bout with breast cancer and chemotherapy treatment for one among us. The adults have always regarded participation in this four-day respite from civilization as a gift to ourselves. The kids would simply never stand for its cancellation.
As darkness poises to overtake the world outside around 5:30 on our first evening, the kids sled on a nearby hillside, their laughter reaching us through the cold, still air. We adults sit inside—sprawl, actually, over the one futon sofa and two bunk beds—talking. That’s it. During a lull in the conversation, it occurs to me that, at that moment, I’m not doing anything, and I never not do anything.
This is why we come here, and it’s good.
Later that evening, my 14-year-old, Nate, and I head outside with our winter sleeping bags and insulated air mattresses. I prefer sleeping outside the yurt—under the stars, without a tent—instead of inside, where the night noises of several people sometimes keep me awake. Two years ago, Nate decided he wanted to join me sleeping outside. We usually bed down on the yurt’s deck or on the snow nearby.
Tonight, the first snowflakes start falling as Nate and I step outside. We had earlier packed out a level and firmly frozen snow platform to sleep on, beneath the boughs of some pine trees, hoping they will shield us from the snow we knew was in the forecast. (We didn’t carry a tent up and the snowpack proved too sugary and crusty to build a snow shelter.) Despite snowflakes occasionally hitting my face throughout the night, I sleep soundly; impenetrable quiet and darkness are amazingly effective sleep aids. Nate burrows so deeply inside his bag that no storm could disturb him.
But the snowfall intensifies during the night. When the cold wetness on my face wakes me around 5:30 a.m., I peek out through the little breathing hole I left in my bag’s hood and see a layer of white blanketing both of us.
“Nate,” I say. “We’re kind of getting covered.”
He wakes up and his face appears in the small opening of his bag. “Yea, I guess we are getting buried,” he calmly concurs. “But the inside of my bag isn’t getting wet.” He has no problem with staying out here; I gave him a bag with a waterproof shell, but mine doesn’t have one and will eventually soak through. I must retreat to the yurt if I want a dry bag tonight, and he decides to join me.
Inside the yurt, everyone’s asleep. Nate grabs an empty bunk and nods off instantly. I toss another log on the fire’s dimming coals and lay my pad on the floor, listening to mini-avalanches slide off the roof.
Boise Mountains Snowstorm
It dumps hard all the next day, several inches of wet, sticky snow. In early afternoon, while Vince Serio, his 14-year-old Lili, and my 11-year-old daughter Alex stay back at the yurt to guard our stash of chocolate from marauding bands of Nordic skiers, Nate, my wife, Penny, and I ski out into the storm back down to the road. We’re going to meet Vince’s wife, Cat, coming in with their other 14-year-old, Sofi, who was sick yesterday, and their 15-year-old German exchange student, Tabea. Their car pulls up to the trailhead 30 minutes later than expected, Cat having driven slowly through the storm. We greet them with hoots and cheers. When we ask Sofi how she feels today, she gives us an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Nate says, “We knew Sofi would never miss the yurt trip, even if she had a 100-degree fever.”
That evening, some of us fill the yurt with singing while others (read: some teenagers) roll their eyes dramatically. By shortly after 9 p.m., everyone’s ready for sleep; a backcountry yurt in the long nights of early winter is a great place to catch up on the sleep deprivation of civilization.
The storm has passed. Nate and I lay our pads and bags on the deck. It’s a clear night, the sky machine-gunned with stars. Nate points out a bright, red spot of light and speculates that it’s Mars. We gaze up at the flickering overhead glow until our eyelids start flickering. I slumber until 6:30 a.m.—I rarely sleep that late at home—and lay in my warm bag for another hour as daylight creeps across the snow-blanketed pine trees. Eventually, dawn splashes fiery red across the dappled clouds. Standing on the deck, at 6,500 feet, I have a long view across the valley of the South Fork of the Payette River, 3,000 feet below, and the Sawtooth Mountains beyond.
I step inside the yurt; the outside thermometer reads 17° F. The genius of “winter camping” right outside a yurt is that walls, a roof, and a warm woodstove are just a few steps away.
Later on our third morning, Nate and I click into our backcountry skis and shuffle over to the top of a 500-foot slope within sight of the yurt. The heavy snow that fell yesterday has lost some moisture during the cold, dry night. We ski a couple of laps on that slope in powder. Climbing back uphill after the second run, Nate says, “It’s just great being out here in the mountains, with these views.” There’s a boy after my own heart.
Around mid-afternoon, Penny and I head out for a two-hour ski tour on the Elkhorn Loop and Beaver Trail, where I have seen wolf tracks in the snow on previous family yurt trips, but rarely see other people. As we turn around to double back, it starts snowing hard again, thickening the white coats on the ponderosa pines and bringing an early dusk to the mountains.
By evening, unfortunately, the snow changes to rain. Vince and the kids make a valiant attempt at their annual “survival” fire-building contest, but it’s just too wet out there. They return to the yurt soggy but burbling with stories about their determined efforts to coax fire, in a steady downpour, from wet wood piled on snow. Then we hold our traditional, last-night-of-the-yurt-trip Talent Show, where everyone performs at least one skit—most of the kids like to perform multiple acts—an event which continually demonstrates that talent is not a prerequisite for laughter.
Our kids dwell for the moment in that precarious space between childhood and the awkward, social clamoring of teenagers in high school, those steppingstone years to adulthood that seem so long and intense when you’re in them, and so fleeting once they’ve passed. They still bring stuffed animals to the yurt. They still love sledding: Upon crashing in repeated, face-planting train wrecks in the snow, they explode in the uncontrollable laughter of innocence, when whatever crazy thing you do is unspeakably hilarious. But next year, or the year after—who knows?
We sense the rapid ticking of passing time. Our kids are quickly becoming capable young people, helping with the yurt chores (with minor grumbling), no longer so completely dependent on us as they were just a few short years ago. Just four more yurt trips will pass before three of them head off to college. They will become adults shaped at least a little bit by these annual excursions: people who grew up understanding that carrying a backpack while skiing to a yurt a few miles into the mountains to spend four days living primitively is not only normal behavior, but a tradition to anticipate with excitement every year. These memories will help inform their mature perspective.
Heavy rain drums on the roof through the night. For the first time in three years, Nate and I sleep inside.
But the sun comes out again by late on our final morning, as we’re packing up to leave another memorable yurt trip behind—with everyone, including the kids, saying it seemed like this one went too fast. Cat departs first because she’s on snowshoes and will take longer to descend to the cars. The kids load their packs and are out the door next. I get finish loading the sled and head out pulling it. Vince and Penny will bring up the rear after making sure the yurt is cleaned up and its woodpile refilled.
A few minutes down the trail, I see Nate waiting patiently to ski back to the car with me. We point our skis straight downhill and pick up speed through the heavy snow. But with the sled slowing me down, he gradually pulls ahead, accelerating toward the future, which looks very promising from my perspective.
Note: See all of my stories about our annual family yurt trips, including “Snowstorms, Skinny Skis, Yurts, and a Family Tradition,” “Key Ingredient to Family Yurt Trip: What’s Missing,” and “Five Kids, Four Days, No Wifi, Only Trees, Snow, and a Yurt.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone capable of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing two or three miles and several hundred feet uphill on groomed trails, including families with young children. Some members of the group must be capable of carrying a heavy pack, because you have to bring in all of your food and some other supplies, including propane canisters for the cooking stove and lanterns.
Make It Happen
Season The yurts are available for rent year-round. The skiing season generally runs from December through April, and the peak snow-free season from June into October. Trails are muddy in spring.
The Itinerary There are 50 miles of marked trails linking the yurts, 20 miles of which are usually groomed once a week, on Thursday or Friday.
Getting There The yurts are reached from four parking areas along ID 21 between Idaho City and Lowman, about 90 minutes from Boise, depending on road conditions. To go to Banner Ridge yurt, start from the Banner Ridge Park ’n’ Ski lot, 23.5 miles north of Idaho City, just past highway mile marker 61. An Idaho Park N’ Ski permit is required to park in these lots from Nov. 15 to April 30. They can be purchased at locations in Boise and Idaho City; see the Idaho Parks and Recreation website (below).
The Yurts In the winter season (Nov. 1 through April 30), the backcountry yurts rent for $85 per night, Monday through Thursday, and $100 per night, Friday through Sunday, with a maximum of nine people. Three people can sleep on the floor; bring sleeping pads. The yurts are popular; make your reservation nine months in advance of your trip’s start date.
Map Print out copies of the trail maps at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.
Contact Idaho Parks and Recreation Department, (208) 334-4199, parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.