Taking cross-country skiers on a summer backpacking trip seemed like a good idea to Rick Kapala, so he organized 16 members of his junior ski team into an expedition and took them on a 110-mile jaunt across the Frank Church Wilderness.
Ten days later, with sore feet, increased physical and mental endurance, a new admiration for the Idaho wilderness and a greater appreciation for the comforts of home, the group returned to the Wood River Valley.
"Like my mom cooking me dinner is just a wonderful thing," said 15-year-old Julia Bowman, reflecting upon the group's journey through Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness.
Kapala, coach of the Sun Valley Cross Country Ski Team, said there were multiple reasons for taking members of his junior team on the journey, but the primary purpose was to help them gain the physical and mental endurance needed for cross-country racing.
"On a trip like this, you are pretty much at some point forced to live with just your thoughts," Kapala said. "Cross-country skiing isn't like football, where the action only lasts a minute or so and then there's a break. It's a long haul and skiers have to learn to be calm and focused for it."
The group of 16 skiers and five coaches set out for the cross country hike on June 30 at Crags Trailhead on the east side of the Bighorn Crags Mountain Range some 20 miles west of Salmon. Heading west, the expedition crossed the mountain range and descended to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
They continued west and then north into Chamberlain Basin, where an airplane brought them food supplies on the sixth day of the trip. Still heading north, they descended to the Main Salmon, crossing the river at Lantz Bar via jet boat.
Then came a 5,500-feet vertical climb out of the river drainage and a descent into the headwater area of the upper Selway River. Following the Selway, the expedition finished the trek on July 9 at Macgruder Ranger Station, some 40 miles west of Darby, Mont.
Bowman, a 3-year ski team member and a student at Wood River High School, said she developed "really sore feet" during the 110-mile jaunt, but by carefully treating them at each day's end was able to finish the journey.
She said the trip helped strengthen her back and legs, which will help her ski better. While on the journey, Bowman said the thing she missed most was not being able to put on clean clothes each day.
She said the greatest excitement of the trip was when Kapala dodged an angry rattlesnake and hurt his knee. Luckily, the injury wasn't severe enough to prevent him from finishing the trip.
Kapala explained that the Middle Fork and Main Salmon valleys are lousy with rattlesnakes.
Coming down a narrow trail, "the snake was literally coiled and rattling right in front of me," he said. "I jumped back and bumped into one of the kids and fell off to the side of the trail. I landed awkwardly; it was not a huge injury, but on a trip like this any injury can be serious.
"A good expedition is nobody getting hurt and we have to evacuate them out," Kapala said. "The kids were really great about not risking injury, and then I'm the one who ends up getting hurt."
Another exciting moment was when a startled black bear stampeded in front of some of the kids.
"We just came around a corner and a black bear hadn't heard us," said 15-year-old Scott Phelan, a 5-year ski team member and a student at WRHS.
Phelan said the trip helped him gain physical and mental endurance, and he gained a greater appreciation for the comforts of home. On a trip like this, "the simple easy stuff becomes a lot harder -- even going to the bathroom," he said.
Fifteen-year-old Courtney Hamilton said she missed ice cream, but enjoyed the journey.
"The experience of being out that far -- it was really just cool to get back and explain that you've been to that area," said Courtney, a 3-year ski team member and a student at Community School. "I think it's really cool to do at 15 what a lot of people have never done."
Sam Farnham, 15, a 7-year team member and a student at Community School, said he noticed the absence of the constant noise of civilization while on the journey. Memorable to him is "not hearing any electrical things for a few days."
One of the things he enjoyed most was getting to drink cold soda pop when the airplane brought supplies halfway through the trek.
Other ski team members who participated in the expedition were: Makayla Cappel, Chelsea Vanderpool, Connor Brown, Max Durtschi, Marissa Dreyer, Sean Dunke, Scott Krankkala, John Leavell, Keller Gibson, Mali Noyes, Reid Pletcher and Travis Job.
In addition to Kapala, coaches who accompanied the kids on the expedition were Abi Holt, Rob Landis, Bridget Kapala and Hannes Thum.
Kapala said some of the kids that made the trek have already competed nationally in Nordic ski events, and some of them are likely future Olympians.