Renting a Forest Service cabin in the winter is a great way to find good snow and plenty of adventure. And the adventure typically starts as soon as you turn off the pavement.
Cranked at maximum setting, the windshield wipers strained to throw snow. It was dumping madly and piling on the road. We made our own ruts for 45 miles as we drove north, passing only a country store where we stopped for pastries. I joked the owners would be the ones the sheriff interviewed since they would be the last to see us alive. Everyone laughed except Dave, whose knuckles were white as the road. He didn’t want to take his truck in the first place. We busted through a berm, and snow blew over us. We went blind for three seconds. We kept moving. If we stopped, we would never get started again.
Our goal was to make it to an unplowed road just south of the Canadian border, smack dab in nowhere America. For us, it was a guy’s weekend at a U.S. Forest Service cabin. It was closed in the summer because the grizzlies here are dense and need not be bothered by the likes of us. But for the moment, it was ours to cook, to drink, and to relax in. Just as soon as we skied 12 miles to get to it.
We got to the road just as a snowmobile was coming out. I wanted to kiss them. They had packed down two feet of fresh powder just in time for us to ski all the way to the cabin. They were pulling a sled with supplies, further rolling out the white carpet. They had been at the cabin for three days. We were only going in for one night, but our packs with sleeping bags, emergency gear, dry clothes, stove fuel, tequila, and Triple Sec were a bit overloaded for one night’s revelry.
We were loading up and clicking into our bindings when Chris discovered the unthinkable. The day before, his wife had found a great deal on skis, boots and bindings at a ski swap. Unfortunately, neither one of them realized the boots weren’t compatible with the bindings. It was a bitter blow. We already knew we’d be skiing a few miles by headlamp, but now Chris and Dave were about to make the long drive back to civilization for a last minute ski rental. It was still snowing hard, and the drifts in the road were growing. Gary and I promised to have dinner ready by the time they made it back.
We skied past clear-cuts, meadows, and creeks, encountering no one, stopping only long enough to get chilled. When Gary and I got to the cabin, embers still glowed in the stove. We unpacked, claimed our bunks and set to making icicle margaritas, wondering if we should save any for Chris and Dave. The cabin had most of the comforts of home: propane stove, a small fridge and bunk beds. There was no running water, but plenty of snow. A frigid seat in the outhouse was less-than-inviting, but it beat nothing. We each settled into a chair by the fire, wondering what the conversation, if any, was like between Chris and Dave on the long and rutted drive back to town.
Rent Your Own Forest Service Cabin
There are hundreds of cabins across the West and Alaska. An average-sized cabin will sleep 4-6 and rates range from $35-$100, the majority of which pays for upkeep of the cabin, many of which date back 80 years or more. In the early 1930s, Roosevelt’s New Deal put young men to work. Droves of unemployed able-bodied workers headed west to fight fire, blaze trails and build Forest Service cabins and fire lookouts. The cabins were used by rangers as their headquarters, according to Margaret Gorski, a program leader for Region 1 of the Forest Service. To her, staying in one of these cabins is a way to relive Montana’s past. “I think that one of the most unique experiences we have in Montana is renting one of these cabins. It gives you an idea of what it was like to be a ranger in the 1900s. You really have to want something primitive. There isn’t any maid service out there.”
Try a Fire Lookout Rental
For the hardier winter adventurer, the Forest Service also makes available fire lookouts. Built for obvious reasons mainly by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, lookout materials were hauled in strictly by mules and even the pack crates were used in construction of the lookout, says Sydney Bacon, an archaeologist on the Lolo National Forest in western Montana. But Bacon warns lookouts aren’t for the faint of heart. “Some lookouts tend to feel a little rickety,” she says.
The Journey is the Destination
For many cabins and lookouts, the renting is the easy part. It’s the getting there that can provide the adventure. Like our foray into the great white north, roads can be an obstacle. Whiteouts, impenetrable snow drifts, and muddy roads will get your car and even snowmobile stuck. It’s always a good idea to call the ranger district on which your rental cabin or lookout sits to get road updates, says Bacon. And be sure to pack like you’re staying overnight in the backcountry, complete with warm sleeping bags, survival gear, and plenty of warm, extra clothes. Most cabins have wood stove heat and some cooking ware, though stoves are typically optional. It’s best to bring personal eating items like utensils. A good way to make the most out of your time there is to cook up stew or chili beforehand, then freeze it so all you have to do is heat it up on the pot-belly stove. Few cabins have running water, electricity and indoor plumbing. Be sure to pack toilet paper for the outhouse and your headlamp, though most cabins have propane or oil lanterns. The website, www.recreation.gov, has detailed descriptions on cabin locations and amenities.
Because cabins tend to be warm and cozy, you might have some extra guests, only to discover them after the lights go out. It starts with the tick of tiny toenails on a sauce pan, then maybe the faint ripping of fabric as a packrat nibbles at the salty straps of your pack. Critters come with the territory. The best thing you can do is keep a clean camp, keep food sealed and even hang it from the rafters in mesh bags. Be sure to hang any sweaty items from the rafters, too. Aside from the occasional hole in the long johns, cabin rodents are typically benign except for their potential to carry hantavirus, which is carried in their urine. The virus can cause flu-like symptoms and in some cases, death. Your best protection is to call the ranger district beforehand and get a rodent update.
At our cabin, we had no rodent issues and no one died, though at the time, we did wonder about Chris and Dave. On our fourth game of cribbage, Gary and I heard the tell-tale stomping of boots on the porch, a good five hours after dark. They were alive, having skied the entire way in the dark and in silence. Eventually, good cheer was restored thanks to some warm chili and our new friend Jose Cuervo.