Pines and Powder: Students spend winter in Sawtooths

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

Jesse Buhler’s telemark skis slid over the shimmering snow as he hiked up a hill in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Snow and ice clung to The College of Idaho senior’s beard as he paused near a whitebark pine to take in the striking view of the Sawtooth Valley.

The 10,000-foot peaks of Heyburn, Braxon, Horstmann, Williams and Thompson back-dropped the valley amidst deep-blue skies. The steely, jagged giants embody the Sawtooth namesake well. This January, old man winter had buried the mountains and surrounding valley in feet of snow. Residents of Stanley hadn’t seen this much snow since the 1980s. Others reckon the 70s. Either way, it was a welcome sight.

“There’s three things we hate in Stanley: no snow, rain and March,” said Ben Forsgren, owner of Lower Stanley Motel.

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Capturing the imaginations of all who stumble across it—including Ernest Hemingway—the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is a 756,000-acre outdoor playground. It’s home to world class fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, nature trails, mountain biking, hunting, rafting, boating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing and…well, you get the idea.

Every two years, it’s also home to The College of Idaho’s Winter Wilderness Experience. This year, seven students joined C of I Professors Megan Dixon and Scott Knickerbocker for a month-long stay in Stanley at Beckwith’s Lodge. The unique experience combines environmental studies and ecology with creative writing and telemark skiing.

This sunny-skied afternoon, the Yotes enjoyed the latter. Puffs of snow sprayed with the ebb and flow of each powder turn, as well as each powder fall. Either way, smiles and laughter abounded.

“I’ve never skied before,” said junior history major Anabel Keller. “Skiing now is so much fun, even though I fall on my face all the time. You eat the snow and become one for a little bit.”

With the deep snow rendering their skis invisible, students looked ghostly as they glided over the hillside, letting out joyous Coyote howls. Once at the bottom, they put skins on their skis to hike back up for another run—no chairlifts is the tradeoff for fresh powder tracks.

“The students are getting to know [Stanley], not just intellectually, but emotionally and physically too—it all comes together,” Knickerbocker said. “When we’re skinning up the slope and skiing down, students are getting to know the Sawtooth Valley at a pretty intimate level.”

Twenty-six Snow Days

As the sun slips shyly behind the peaks, the Sawtooths are painted in cool blues, pinks and purples. On the valley floor, the Salmon River churns as ice creeps ever further over its surface. Patches of exposed water, combined with eyelash-freezing temperatures, creates a mystical and eerie fog as night approaches. The herd of elk wintering near Valley Creek don’t seem to mind.

After a mentally and physically taxing day, a hot tub session is needed to unwind. After a hearty dinner, students cozy up on a couch to reflect and journal on the day’s events.

On a typical morning, the first person up lights the wood-burning stove as temperatures outside hover around -30 degrees. Wood crackles inside the stove as bacon and eggs sizzle in the kitchen. Coffee drips into the pot. Moose and deer heads intently look down from the log walls as Yotes gather round a long wooden table for class. In their pajamas, they discuss subjects such as the reintroduction of wolves, or how wilderness and recreation areas are formed. Students also explore the power of literature in describing nature and the personification of cold, such as in Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.”

Afternoon class is held among the pines and powder. While most college students hope for a snow day during winter term, these Yotes experience 26 snow days in a row. They learn how to telemark ski in the beautiful Idaho backcountry, and also have lessons on avalanche education and snow science.

“It’s probably one of the best experiences you can get,” Keller said. “Going out and doing what you’re reading about or touching the tree that you just learned the ecology of and why it’s so important to the ecosystem is so different than just reading about it.”

After all, that’s the whole goal of the College’s focus on place-based learning.

“What we’re after [with the Winter Wilderness Experience] is an experience that students could not have in a classroom,” Dixon said. “What we like to see happen is that the physical experience, the intellectual experience and the social experience all come together through the learning that they do.”

Through the Storm

Most students have never seen a winter as intense as in the Sawtooth Valley, where many feet of snow is a normal occurrence. New experiences include having eyelashes freeze together, worrying about avalanches, and still feeling cold despite five layers of clothing.

“It’s been cool to see an extreme winter in Stanley,” Buhler said. “When we first came in, the passes were all good. Then we had that day where it was 48 below, and the passes were all closed. It was pretty cool to think that we’re stuck here, so let’s make the best of it.”

Fellow senior Amanda Didio took on that same attitude one day as a snow storm hit. Returning from a trip to a local ranch (the students had to ski in and out two miles in the snow), a winter storm started to increase in intensity. Snow swirled and whirled around her, rendering visibility to just a few feet. The wind bit at her face. Her feet hurt. In that moment, Didio decided to embrace the experience and took off her hood to “let the snow storm be a snow storm.”

“I just felt really, really lucky to be here,” Didio said. “Getting to see the raw power of the Idaho mountains has been really eye-opening. I’ve always known that Idaho is a really beautiful and inspirational state, but I never really understood just how powerful it can be. It’s made me more affectionate to my homeland.”

Building a Tribe

From seniors to sophomores, history majors to biology majors, the seven students who came up to Stanley each had their own motives and goals. For some, six days per week of backcountry skiing was too hard to pass up. Others wanted to experience a true Idaho winter (boy, did they pick the perfect year to come). And still others wanted a break from the day-to-day grind of life, using their isolation in the Rocky Mountains as a time for reflection.

“It’s a lifestyle almost lost in time,” said Patrick Leeson, who came from his native Northern Ireland to study abroad at the C of I. “Coming here, it’s like a window into the past—there is ranching and backcountry skiing, things that haven’t changed for a hundred-odd years. I really appreciate that.”

While each student brought a unique personality, something interesting happened to these strangers during their month-long cabin stay. Day by day, they drew closer together. They learned to rely upon and trust each other in the backcountry. Walls of insecurity came down as they shared journal entries, poems and songs. They traded stories and laughs, enjoying camaraderie without the distractions of technology. Late night discussions included such quotes as “My love of Snoop Dog runs deep.”

“That’s one of my favorite parts of the program,” Knickerbocker said. “Every time we do this, we get a very diverse group of students and this year is no exception. All the students are very different from each other, yet they get along very well. And that is always inspiring to me. I think by the end of the month, we become a little tribe here, a little clan.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit