Ice Adventure Skiing on the River Provides Thrills, Chills and Blisters | wild montana

I was trying to convince my fellow Nordic skiers that things weren’t so bad after we covered the first mile with our skis and poles.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, I underestimated the amount of snow in the mountains, thinking that by early March the snowpack would be quite healthy. After rounding each corner of the trail, I hoped the snow would push in, only to be disappointed with the rocky road continuing.

Walking in Nordic boots is no small feat. They have a hard, inflexible plastic bottom. The toes have a space covered by a metal shank that holds the boot to the binding. These boots aren’t made for walking, Nancy, but that’s exactly what we did.

(Pardon the oblique reference to Nancy Sinatra’s famous hit, “These boots were made for walking.” I love the line that goes, “One of these days these boots are going to step on you,” followed by some basic chords, then sounding trumpets for emphasis.)

As usual, I was unwilling to go back and admit that I was wrong, despite the difficulties. Then a light went on in my brain, a dim light bulb that none of us could even read. My eureka moment was giving up the piste to ski on the ice along the river!

People also read…


Knowing that my fellow skiers would be reluctant to risk diving into icy water, I bravely walked through brush, climbed over downed trees and stumbled onto a rocky shoreline to test my theory. Looking over the gap in the ice, through which the river gurgled menacingly, I could see that the opposite shore looked perfect for skiing. If only there was a bridge.

Still undeterred, I put on my bindings and slid down the snow-covered ice that led to a shallow backwater. It was exciting to ski next to small stretches of open water. Excited, I rounded the bend and headed for the ice edge of the river. Looking upstream, it looked like we had a navigable route along the fast ice. I hurried back to make sure my fellow skiers didn’t pass my detour and waved them off.

The Stillwater River flows through icy, snow-covered banks looking down the valley.

Brett French


They didn’t share my enthusiasm for shore ice skiing at first, for obvious reasons. So, I reassured them that it was not only better than walking, but also fun, dangerously exciting, and that I would go first to make sure they stayed dry and safe.

It’s hard to beat river ice for a flat surface. It’s like skiing down a road until it’s no longer flat. The ice will freeze and thaw, sometimes breaking up into upright icebergs or falling into weak spots. In slow water, however, there are sometimes tempting snow bridges on the opposite side.

Seeing one, I carefully slipped in to test its strength, jumping up and down the middle to make sure it would hold us. Being the heaviest in our group, I assured my group that they would be safe. Tepidly, they crossed the small snowy expanse in my wake. I held my breath, hoping the ice would hold. Phew! Safely, we all crossed.

Cheerfully marked out, I skied further uphill, encountering a jumble of snow like something out of the Arctic – pushed boulders and fairly deep holes all covered in snow. Again I took the lead and crossed a bump, the river just a foot and a half lower, disappearing under the raised bridge. A misstep here or a lost edge could have plunged any of us into the water. My heartbeat accelerated. The tension mounted, but we all got through safely.

(Note to readers: This column is in no way an endorsement of risk-taking outdoors. Nor is it a suggestion that you should attempt this activity. Please always be safe.)

first timer

It was an unusual introduction to cross-country skiing for this beginner skier to accompany Brett French on an outing that unfortunately included a lot of hiking to get to the snow.

Brett French

last hill

Again we navigated upstream, rounding turns, past falls and rocks until we reached a small waterfall and had to disembark. We hadn’t gone far, maybe half a mile, but it was the most fun I’ve had on cross country skis in years. I felt like a kid with the excitement and the challenge. The cold air felt intoxicating despite the freezing temperature. For the first time since winter set in, I felt vibrant again, in awe of the wild world around us – the snow-capped cliffs, the mountaintop disappearing into wispy clouds.

Hoping that just around the bend we would find more exhilarating skiing, we took off our skis, grabbed a snack, and started trudging back up the rocky trail. After reaching the top of the hill, we found enough snow on the trail to put our skis on, but it wasn’t long before the rocks won and we had to go back down. The grade got steeper, my resolve weakened, and I decided I had punished my crew enough. We stopped to rest and hydrate.

Thinking maybe I could stop at the bottom of the hill without straightening the turn, I put my skis down, locked in a binding, then the other ski took off downhill, me clumsily chasing it with just one ski at the feet. My partners found it hilarious, practically crying they were laughing so hard at my goofy antics. The moment I caught the ski, I thought its escape was a warning that maybe I should get off rather than risk not stopping. Finally, I used common sense.

rocky road

Snow-covered rocks provide a black and white contrast in this view of the canyon.

Brett French


Despite our success upstream, there were still some concerns about retracing our course on the ice of the river, especially after I got out to set up and fell into an air pocket all the way to the knee. Convincingly, I found that with skis on, our weight was better distributed to avoid such problems. Eh eh !

So we came back, me again delighted with my proximity to the running water as I slid. If only that could have extended to the car. Imagine, I told them, what it must have been like to live in the Missouri River Breaks 100 years ago, where farmers hitched a sleigh to horses to get to town more easily through the frozen waterway.

About a mile from the trailhead we reached the end of the ice and had to hike again. Our feet hurt from walking, so getting out seemed even harder.

Back in the car, I tried to encourage my fellow skiers to experience a unique adventure. It wasn’t the trip we had planned, but in time, I thought, they’ll realize it was a fun outing. Especially once the blisters have healed.

About George Dailey

Check Also

13 mistakes to avoid when booking a ski holiday

Touring or hiking, skinning or alpine skiing: whatever its nickname, its popularity has exploded, as …