McCALL, Idaho — The run was called “Hotshot," and the light powder snow shooting off the tails of my skis made me feel like one.
April Russell and Cory Whitney, both of nearby McCall, were leading me through 5 inches of freshly fallen snow at Brundage Mountain, a lovely family ski resort in southwestern Idaho.
From just below the 7,600-foot summit of the Lakeview Chair, a spectacular panorama spread before us. The mile-high town of McCall, its population less than 3,000, stretched for a couple of miles along the south shore of Payette Lake. Beyond, to the south, snow blanketed the farmlands of the Long Valley.
“The Lakeview Chair opened in 2007," Russell told me. “It only serves four named trails — Kickback, Springboard, Dropline and this one. But in typical McCall style, it serves about 36 unnamed runs."
As if to demonstrate, my companions swerved off the main course and led me through a grove of widely spaced pines into a hidden powder stash. We rode the untracked blanket of white for the balance of the 800 vertical feet to the bottom of the lift.
A day earlier, snow conditions would have made a similar foray more challenging. As more than a week had passed since the previous storm, the slopes were closely groomed, hard-packed “corduroy" that begged for sharpened edges. The overnight snowfall, however, had added the dimension that draws grateful powder hounds north 107 miles from Boise, Idaho’s thriving state capital. Annual snowfall here, after all, regularly exceeds 300 inches.
The call of McCall
My visit to Idaho coincided with the start of the 10-day McCall Winter Carnival, an annual event since 1924. (Today is the final day.)
More than 30 intricate ice sculptures, carefully lit for night viewing, were being completed for the Idaho Snow Sculpting Championships.
They stood in front of hotels, restaurants, markets, schools, banks and other establishments.
Friday night’s opening children’s torchlight parade and fireworks display were followed at noon Saturday by a 90-minute Mardi Gras procession through the center of town. During the week that followed, events included snowshoe golf, an ice-fishing derby, a snowman-building contest, sled-dog pulls and a “polar plunge" into the Payette Lake’s frigid waters. There was plenty of live music, eating and drinking.
Much of the activity was focused along Idaho State Highway 55, which links McCall with Boise as well as with U.S. Highway 95 at New Meadows, a hamlet 12 miles west. The highway makes an abrupt 90-degree turn in the heart of McCall to trace the south shore of the lake — 6.2 miles long and about 300 feet deep.
Despite its depth, Payette Lake, which was carved by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, freezes over through the winter months. Its highlight is Ponderosa State Park, which occupies a 1,000-acre peninsula just two miles from downtown McCall. This separates the main body of the lake from its East Arm, like a mitten from its thumb, and in winter is a popular place for nordic skiing; a system of well-maintained trails for classic and skate skiing include a loop that welcomes well-behaved dogs.
In summer, the park has boat launches and miles of trails for hikers and bikers. Old-growth pine, fir and spruce trees shelter scores of campsites. And back in town, jet skis, water-ski boats and pontoon boats are available for rent at Mile High Marina. The marina is flanked by Legacy Park, whose white-sand beach extends more than 500 feet to the grounds of the town’s landmark building, Hotel McCall.
This 19-room bed-and-breakfast inn was built in 1904 by town father Tom McCall (no relation to the late Oregon governor of the same name). Idaho’s McCall helped establish a logging industry that provided an economic foundation for this community until the last mill closed in 1977.
The hotel anchors the Highway 55 dogleg at the heart of town. The highway heads west as Lake Street, which is lined for a couple of blocks with restaurants and retail outlets, as well as the spectacular Manchester Ice & Event Centre.
A half-mile west of the rink, the North Fork Payette River, a Snake River tributary, pours out of the lake. The Shore Lodge, McCall’s finest hotel, occupies the lakeshore just across the Payette River bridge. This was where I stayed for three nights.
I have rarely felt more welcome at a hotel than I did at this 77-room inn. From the valets to the receptionists, the restaurant staff to the housekeepers, every individual with whom I crossed paths was helpful and friendly, even warm.
Built in 1948 and fully renovated in recent years, the Shore Lodge offers contemporary gourmet dinners in The Narrows dining room, breakfasts and lunches in the Lake Grill. Its amenities include a full-service spa, The Cove; a private marina with boat rentals and sailing lessons; an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub beside a private beach; tennis, racquetball and basketball courts; a 24-hour fitness center; a fleet of cruiser bikes; and an 18-hole golf course, the Whitetail Club, open from May to October.
For winter visitors, the Shore Lodge features a gear valet and tuning room, as well as complimentary shuttle service to Brundage Mountain. Dogs and children are welcome, too. In fact, McCall’s only movie theater is within the lodge. And in summer, there’s a kids’ day camp here.
Skating on ice and snow
Outside of the lodge and the mountain, I was most drawn to the Manchester Ice & Event Centre. Opened in 2003, the Manchester could be the envy of many a small town, not to mention a city like Bend, a winter-sports town without an ice arena. Built with private-foundation funding for $6.2 million, it occupies a full city block. It has a professional-size hockey rink, grandstand seating for 650, skating rentals and year-round public skating hours and an extensive schedule of hockey competition.
On the night of my arrival in McCall, I joined my friend Mike Glover at the rink. Glover, a former director of the Bend Chamber of Commerce who now lives in McCall, was there to applaud townspeople competing in a co-ed hockey league.
“This is a fantastic facility," Glover said. “It’s given our youth hockey team, the Idaho Junior Steelheads, an opportunity to regularly compete against teams from Seattle, Salt Lake and other large cities. Our kids are in a first-place runaway in the Western States Hockey League. They’ve only lost once in 33 games this season."
Teams from Boise State University and the University of Idaho had two matches on the first weekend of the winter carnival. A week later (concluding last night), a professional ice show called “The Magic of Broadway" took center ice.
I also found time, during my McCall visit, for a little cross-country activity — not at Ponderosa State Park, but at Jug Mountain Ranch, nine miles south of town near Lake Fork in the heart of Long Valley. A residential community not unlike Central Oregon’s Black Butte Ranch, Jug Mountain is a winter wonderland. The ranch boasts 25 kilometers of groomed nordic trails and snowshoe routes — all of them open to dogs — rolling over a golf course and up mountain slopes.
Extending about 35 miles from north to south, five miles from east to west, Long Valley was settled by Finnish homesteaders in the 1880s. A tiny Finnish church, built in 1917 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, is a landmark to that era. At the valley’s heart, 29 miles south of McCall, the tiny Valley County seat of Cascade sits near the north end of manmade Lake Cascade.
Overlooking Long Valley to the west is Tamarack Resort, hailed as the first major new U.S. ski resort in two decades when it opened in 2004. International tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf were among celebrity investors who intended to build a luxury hotel. But they withdrew when the ownership group defaulted on a $250 million loan from a consortium led by Credit Suisse. Tamarack has been in foreclosure since February 2008, according to Idaho Resort Realty and the “First Tracks!!" online ski magazine.
After the ski hill closed for the 2009-2010 season, Tamarack homeowners anted up enough money to maintain the ski runs and operate four lifts, which access 2,800 vertical feet of terrain. Handsome mountain homes still line the lanes that climb the 7,700-foot mountain. But the resort’s future remains uncertain.
Brundage, however, is going strong. Established as a ski resort in 1961, it is southern Idaho’s second leading winter-sports destination after Sun Valley. From McCall, the drive to the mountain is a mere eight miles — half of it on Highway 55, the remaining four miles on winding Goose Lake Road. (In normal winter driving conditions, it takes about 20 minutes.)
Owned by the DeBoer family, descendants of Idaho pioneers, it has avoided corporate intervention partly by staying small. Even after more than a half-century in business, Brundage has just five chairlifts. Its 1,500 acres of mostly intermediate terrain are less than half those of Mt. Bachelor.
But an additional 17,000 acres of Payette National Forest backcountry are accessed by guided snow-cat tours (priced at $249 per head). And the resort has plans to add another lift to the apex of adjacent 7,803-foot Sargent’s Mountain. That would open many more expert runs and increase the area’s vertical from 1,800 feet to nearly 2,000.
Views from the 7,640-foot summit of the Bluebird Express quad chair are memorable.
They span almost 360 degrees — northeast to the Salmon River Mountains, west to the Seven Devils Range, above Hells Canyon, and Oregon’s spectacular Wallowa Mountains.
As my friends gave me the locals’ mountain tour, from Alpine (my favorite run) to Engen to 45th Parallel, Russell pointed into a wooded ravine she called “Stupid Boy." No, it doesn’t appear on the trail maps.
“A few years ago," she related, “a snowboarder headed down through the trees to the bottom of the gully, only to discover that once he got there, he couldn’t find his way out. When his friends reported him missing, the ski patrol finally found him. The gully became known as ‘Stupid Boy.’
“The following summer, a veteran area employee came in and cut down many of the dead trees in the gully. He carved a trail out, so that many people now ski through the trees there. I’ve been down there myself.
“But we still call it ‘Stupid Boy.’"
After several hours of powder, my companions and I retired to Smoky’s Bar & Grill in the newly expanded base lodge, where I enjoyed a bowl of Cajun jambalaya and a frosty mug of Udaho golden ale from McCall’s Salmon River Brewery.
Then there was time for a few more runs before I returned to my overnight lodging.
Brundage, by the way, is not the nearest ski area to McCall. That honor falls to the Little Ski Hill, just three miles from town on Highway 55. Established in 1937, a year after Sun Valley, it has a single T-bar serving a 400-foot hill. And it’s lit for night skiing.