Wildlife, fine dining and snow, snow, snow

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Okay, okay. Enough with the snow already. I love snow, particularly the light, dry, powder that’s great to ski on and beautiful to watch swirling gently around and settling on the spruce trees.

During the last two and a half weeks, I’ve been snowed on in every conceivable circumstance: Taking a cross-country ski lesson, driving a dog sled and walking to dinner and the symphony. It hasn’t hampered any of those activities, but tomorrow I’m scheduled to meet the building inspector and the manager of ResortQuest (property management/rental agency) at the condo, which it seems I will be buying. That is unless the inspector finds something gross, like mold, or major foundation, electrical or plumbing problems. The little stuff, of course, is negotiable.

The roads between where my daughter, Betty, lives in Bozeman and Big Sky are reliably plowed and usually remain open, even during average winter storms. Still, I’m a little leery of driving the highway through Gallatin Canyon, even in the Durango, with a full-on snowstorm raging. We were driving up to Bridger Bowl on Sunday for her 4-year-old daughter Sutton’s ski lesson and we wimped out halfway up. The road was icy and traffic was scary, with hotshot skiers going hell bent for the Powder Eight races in progress at the Bowl. After passing several spinouts and cars stuck nose down off the shoulder, we bailed. At least in Big Sky I don’t really have to drive. Everything I need is well within walking distance, particularly since I bought a pair of YakTraks: a dandy little rubber and steel thingy that slips on over your shoes and keeps you from looking like a clumsy idiot sprawled out in the parking lot or doing a face plant in a snow bank.

The most fun I’ve had was the dogsled trip, which leaves from the new Moonlight Basin resort just a mile up the mountain from Big Sky’s ski resort. We were given waterproof overshoes to keep the snow out and a blanket for Sutton even though we thought we were adequately bundled up. The head musher delivered his instructional spiel about the dogs and how to handle the sled. When he asked which of us wanted to drive I raised my hand and got a look that said, “get real, old lady.” I didn’t tell them I’d once driven a four-up team of draft horses. We started out with Betty, Sutton and me in the sled and Josh, the wrangler, at the controls. When the dogs are hitched up they start barking like crazy and pulling at the sled, which is anchored to the truck that serves as their doggie limo. As soon as they’re released, they take off like a shot and everything gets quiet. “The only time you’ll see dogs barking while they’re running is in the movies,” our musher says. Betty, who trained dogs for the movies, stifles a laugh.

The sleds follow an abandoned logging trail through the forest overlooking spectacular mountains and part of the Madison Valley. About two and a half miles down the trail, we stop for hot cocoa and cookies. Here, Josh decides to let me drive and he takes my place in the sled, which is great, because from there he can tell me when to shift my weight left or right (always in the direction of the turn, unlike skiing) to keep the sled from skidding too far out. He also tells me when to put one foot on the rubber pad between the runners to slow down and when to put both feet on the brake for a full stop. The 12 Huskies sort of respond to “Whoa,” but continue to pull in their harness while stopped.

They really love to run. My confidence restored, I hold on for dear life, following instructions and absolutely loving it. I feel like the female musher in “Murder on the Ididarod Trail.” What a rush.

On the way home, we stop at the new Moonlight Basin Lodge. It is the most beautiful building on the mountain, with the best food and, a full-service deli for lunch and a magnificent dining room with a fabulous menu for dinner.

Speaking of food, we just had to try Buck’s T-4, the famous restaurant in the canyon just south of the Big Sky spur road that’s gotten rave reviews from national critics. They didn’t lie. I had almond -crusted walleye on a bed of risotto with vegetables. Betty had wild game: elk, deer and moose, I think; baked in a pastry. Sutton, being four, had a cheeseburger and fries. Yum.

As I’m writing this, the snow has stopped and skies are clearing. The magpies are flitting about and I’m hoping to see the rough-legged hawk and its mate, which have been hanging out in the cottonwoods by the creek. The female, larger than any red-tail hawk, is magnificent. It reminds me that Montana is all about wildlife. I’ve seen elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, golden eagles and several owls. The bears, of course, are taking their long winter nap and the wolves, if they’re smart, are hiding in Yellowstone awaiting a judge’s decision on their fate. I’m not even sure what’s right for the wolves; I just hope the judge is divinely guided in his decision.