By Michael Lanza
The sun beats down warmly on us from a sky as fiercely and as flawlessly blue as a deep mountain lake. While we four adults ready our backpacks, the four kids already have their packs loaded and cross-country skis on and are dashing back and forth across the snow-covered parking lot—sled dogs straining at their harnesses to go. It’s the body language of enthusiasm and high expectations, and it infects us all like an aggressive virus.
Finally, the kids can’t wait any longer—the parents are just taking too long loading our packs and the gear sled with everything that eight people are going to eat, need, and want for the next four days. So we turn them loose to ski ahead of us. Watching them disappear up the trail into the ponderosa pine forest, listening to their loud chatter of cascading voices fade away, I realize that these three 12-year-olds and one nine-year-old setting out ahead of their parents is one of a few firsts on this sixth annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt with our friends the Serios.
This outing will also mark the first time in six straight years of taking this yurt trip in late December or mid-January that we see four bluebird days and no new snow; we have much more typically skied in or out through snowstorms. My daughter, Alex, who will turn 10 in a couple of months, carries a full backpack instead of a daypack for the very first time. (One rule I’ve always stuck to on backcountry trips with my kids: Let them ask to carry more weight—then you know they’re ready for it.) And my fit wife, Penny, has offered to drag the loaded sled—in addition to carrying a loaded backpack—to the yurt for the first time ever.
Our two families are skiing a bit over two miles and several hundred feet uphill into Idaho’s Boise National Forest, north of Idaho City, to spend three nights at the Skyline yurt, one of six backcountry yurts managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Heated very warmly by a woodstove, furnished with bunks, solar and propane lights, and a propane-powered kitchen area, the yurts are a pretty darn comfortable and popular way of spending multiple days in the backcountry in winter (or any time of year).
We reach the Skyline yurt in just over an hour—probably our fastest time going in on one of these family trips. When these kids were smaller, it took us as long as five hours or more to get our gang and our expedition-volume of gear and food to a yurt. The times they are a changin’.
But even more than all the firsts on this trip, I’m thinking about the one key ingredient that makes this a tradition we all eagerly anticipate every year—and I believe it’s not anything we bring, but the one thing that we don’t bring.
Eight people sharing a round, 20-foot-diameter yurt has the quality of a big sleepover. The small space is crammed with humans and human stuff. Our wet ski clothes hang from hooks everywhere. We stow packs, food, and boots in every nook and cranny between the woodstove, tiny kitchen area, and four bunks. For meals, we spread out between the bunks and the four chairs surrounding the one small table.
For our kids, these yurt trips are all about playing for hours outside in the snow and hanging out 24-7 with good friends. They sled for hours and build a snow shelter (which they call an igloo although it’s really more like a quinzhee). One evening, Vince shows the kids how to start a fire with one match, and they soon have four strong campfires going out behind the yurt, sparks drifting up into a black night and star-riddled sky.
For us adults, these yurt trips are all about cross-country skiing or snowshoeing as much as we want, savoring more leisure time for reading or playing with our kids than we typically get at home, and hanging out 24-7 with good friends enjoying good conversation.
Two days in a row, I head out for five hours on my skis. The first time, with Vince, we break trail through several inches of heavy snow on the ungroomed Twister Trail, which has views of the Boise Mountains that come close to justifying the silly amount of effort expended when we could have stuck to groomed trails. On the second day, by myself on skate skis, I cruise over fast, perfectly groomed corduroy, at one point following a trail of big paw prints for at least two miles on the Beaver Trail—clearly from a wolf. Incredibly, we see hardly any other people in four days.
Which leads me to my point about the appeal of this annual trip boiling down to the one element we leave at home: our electronic toys. Other than e-readers (for which we grant a waiver because they only replace heavier books and puzzle magazines), we remain completely unplugged at the yurt. There’s no giving in to the urge to check email or text someone, no phone-call interruptions, no video games. Give everyone a device and ear buds, and we would too readily give in to the temptation to isolate ourselves in our own personal electronic world—like we do at home, whether we like to admit it or not. Without those devices, our primary form of entertainment is human interaction. We talk, laugh, play games, exchange opinions on weighty topics, and hear our children expound on matters important to them in a way they rarely do at home.
In other words, we revert to the social animals that we naturally are. Multiple studies show that people are happier when they’re building and tapping into strong relationships with other people. But for whatever reasons, we sometimes need to physically distance ourselves from our electronics in order to free ourselves from them for a little while.
Our overly wired kids don’t realize it yet, but someday they will understand that beyond the snow and the slumber-party ambiance, the truly unique and special aspect of these yurt trips comes through the power of being unplugged.
On our last night, my 12-year-old, Nate, surprises me with a request: he wants to sleep outside with me. I bring a 0-degree sleeping bag and two insulated pads and sleep out under the stars on these yurt trips; I prefer the night sky, narcotic silence, and cold air on my face over the nocturnal noises made by several sleeping people inside the yurt. But given that the temperature drops into the teens or lower at night, no one else in either family has ever expressed an interest in joining me, until now.
There’s one issue: Nate, like everyone else, has a 20-degree bag, suited for sleeping inside a yurt, where the temp rarely dips below the 40s before someone (read: the other husband and dad, Vince) gets up to throw more logs in the woodstove. So I give Nate one of my pads and my fat down jacket for added insulation inside his bag, and he pulls on extra clothes. Then we bed down side-by-side on the yurt deck, cocooned warmly inside our bags.
Nate sleeps soundly until well after the dawn splashes across the deck at 7:40 a.m., waking me up. When I hear him shift and notice his eyes open a little while later, I tell him, “Congratulations on your first night of sleeping out in winter.” He smiles. Another first.
After lying there a bit longer, we go inside, where Nate talks up the splendors of winter camping so persuasively that one of the other 12-year-olds, Sofi, vows to join us next year.
All of these firsts send a message that parents receive with increasing frequency when their kids grow more independent: your time with them is finite. I do the math in my head regularly: six-and-a-half more years of family adventures before Nate goes off on his own, and two more years after that for Alex.
They’re growing up.
NOTE: See all of my stories about our annual family ski trips to these Boise National Forest backcountry yurts, which include more photos, a video, and trip-planning information.
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.