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Thursday, November 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ski Special

Nordic adventures: Keeping the groomed track, but leaving the crowds behind

Special to The Seattle Times

Your skinny skis deserved better than this.

What hope swelled in the camber of those cross-country boards when you first bought them a few years ago! Each time you went to the closet they practically sprang toward you, their curled tips wagging like pups' tails. "You and me, friend — let's leave the pack and the crowded trails behind," they seemed to exclaim.

And how did you repay such enthusiasm, such loyalty? By strapping your friends atop the Subaru a handful of Saturdays each winter, where you joined half of Seattle kicking numbing loops at Snoqualmie Pass.

When you're ready to break that circle, and make amends to your skis, the Northwest can help.

The Cascades, of course, are wide open for the experienced skier on Nordic touring gear — beefier stuff like ankle-height leather boots, metal-edged skis, climbing skins that help when skiing off groomed trails, climbing and turning. But that takes money, and often some familiarity with telemark technique.

Instead, and within a several-hours drive of Seattle, you also can find quiet and near-wilderness without leaving behind the groomed track or your standard cross-country gear. Several of these excursions include stays in backcountry cabins. Nothing reminds you that you've left the world behind like the smell of SmartWool drying over a wood-burning stove that's stuffed with dry pine.

So take some of these trips for a spin. You may forever lose the desire to go in circles at the Pass.

Rendezvous Huts

While everybody knows about north-central Washington's Methow Valley and its 120 miles of groomed skate and Nordic trails, fewer Methow visitors venture onto the 18 miles of more-challenging trails that climb 1,500 feet above the valley floor, below Rendezvous Mountain.

Scattered at the edge of these lonesome trails, about five miles apart, sit five wood-frame cabins. The huts sleep eight to 10 people. They're Spartan, but each is loaded with the necessities: a propane stove, utensils, sleeping pads and a hard-working wood stove for heat.

Each hut also has other attributes to recommend it: The Heifer Hut is set deep in the woods and is a welcome first night's stay for families and novice skiers. Dogs are also allowed at Heifer. Set among ponderosa pines, Gardner Hut may be the nicest cabin, both in construction and central location. Rendezvous has also been spruced up, and has great views into the toothy North Cascades. Distant Fawn Hut is for the strong-legged and has telemark skiing out the door. While you can reserve different huts for different nights it's better to choose one, settle in for a few days and kick-and-glide around your own little pine-and-snow kingdom.

Cost is $25 per person per night, or $150 for the entire hut. Having packs, food and wine hauled up by snowmobile costs $80 but is money well-spent. Info: www.methow.com/huts, 800-257-2452 or Methow Valley Central Reservation, 800-422-3048.

Scottish Lakes High Camp

Sitting at 5,000 feet just east of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Scottish Lakes High Camp is just two hours from Seattle but feels nowhere near the rabble. Just getting there in winter requires an eight-mile trip by snowcat or snowmobile.

The nine cabins of High Camp are simple — wood-frame huts or A-frames — but are stocked with cooking equipment, two-burner propane stoves, wood-burning stove and mattresses. (The cabins for couples have bed linens.) A snug wood-fired hot tub bubbles nearby, a sauna jellies tired muscles and a small but comfortable "day lodge" offers cocoa, board games and dog-eared paperbacks for others done skiing for the day.

Wrapping around the huts are 24 miles of marked trails, from beginner through advanced Nordic trails. (The easiest trails get groomed first — "groomed" meaning a staffer rising early and skiing the snowed-over tracks). Close-by are moderate slopes where skiers with touring skis or full-fledged backcountry gear can hone their telemark turns.

Advanced backcountry skiers can take a day tour into the neighboring Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Chiwaukum Mountains, the north-south-reaching band of 7,500-foot peaks that lie about a three-mile ski from camp.

Snowshoes, sleds, snowboards and other free loaner gear are available.

Cost is $40-$55 per person per night, based on number of cabin occupants. Transport round-trip up Coulter Creek Road is $45, but less than that if you want to ski part of the way back to your car. Info: www.scottishlakes.com or 425-844-2000.

Mount Tahoma Trails Association hut system

The Mount Tahoma system claims to be North America's largest no-fee, cross-country, hut-to-hut, ski-and-snowshoeing trail network. With three huts and a yurt on 100 miles of trails, it's hard to dispute that (though the $10 "registration fee" per skier sort of blurs the concept of "free").

The volunteer-run system lies on state, federal and Champion timberlands near the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. The views of Rainier on clear days, and particularly from the "high hut" at 4,760 feet, are outstanding.

Most of the huts are about four miles from the trailhead, in different directions. The easiest to access is the Copper Creek Hut, at an elevation of about 4,200 feet, which can sleep a dozen and has wood-burning and propane stoves, and plenty of pots and pans.

Others have some similar amenities, only sleep eight guests, but have other advantages such as nearby hills for telemark skiing. Some huts can be accessed by groomed trails or by more challenging, ungroomed trails. (Volunteers use snowcats or snowmobiles to groom, but only about 30 miles of the network are coifed for track skiing.)

Don't expect to be alone at night up here. This European-style hut system gains some of its charm by forcing you to get to know the people who are sharing the huts with you — though sleeping next to snoring strangers isn't everyone's idea of the perfect getaway.

Reservations are required and so is that $10 registration fee. A $25 deposit is returned if you show up. Details: www.skimtta.com or 360-569-2451.

Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures

People don't exactly think of solitude anymore when they think of Whistler, B.C. One place you can still find the Whistler of two decades ago is at 4-year-old Callaghan Lodge, a backcountry lodge that requires a 14-mile snowmobile ride to reach it. (Guests who want to ski in can take a short snowmobile ride, then ski for the last eight miles.)

The full-service lodge, which accommodates up to 16 people, sits at 4,500 feet among meadows and old yellow cedars of the upper Callaghan Valley. (Proponents of a Vancouver Winter Olympics want to hold the Nordic ski competitions in the lower valley, where snowmobiles now roam — heavily.) The peaks of the Coast Range wrap the lodge on three sides. Spread across 8,600 acres are about 20 miles of groomed Nordic trails. Backcountry skiing and snowshoeing are also possible. In the late spring, the lodge also grooms for skate skiing, and grooms even more Nordic track.

Packages — which include meals, and guide service if you're going ski-touring — start at $515 Canadian (about $325 U.S.) for a two-night stay. Details: www.callaghancountry.com or 604-938-0616.

North Cascades heli-skiing's Nordic day trips

For those who want a break from kicking and gliding around the Methow Valley's established trials, Mazama's longtime heli-ski outfit has a unique alternative: helicopter-aided Nordic skiing. For $175 per person (not including lunch) the company will fly Nordic skiers to about 6,000 feet on the north side of Goat Peak. The roughly 10-mile, all-day trip back to the valley floor begins with 1,500-vertical feet of old logging grounds where the guide (included) can teach skiers how to make telemark turns. (OK, so Nordic touring gear is recommended for this trip, but it can be rented at Winthrop Mountain Sports in Winthrop. Moreover, mastery of telemark technique isn't a requisite for this mellow trip.) Groups of at least four people are needed, so bring your own party if you definitely want the bird to fly. Details: 800-494-HELI or www.heli-ski.com.

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