Ask a film aficionado who starred in the 1940 classic “Northwest Passage” and the stock response will be Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and Robert Young. However, the true movie buff will come back with a little-known piece of trivia: McCall, Idaho. For, as unlikely as it may seem, McCall and its Payette Lake were production locations for the cinematic tale of the Raid on St. Francis (Quebec), a mid-18th-century battle during the French and Indian War. The irony here is twofold: not only is McCall nowhere near the Northwest Passage, but the film’s title refers to a plotline in a planned second film, which was never made.
What is not ironic is that the stunning beauty of McCall and environs translated beautifully into lush Technicolor—so well, in fact, the film was nominated for a 1941 Academy Award in cinematography. For McCall in the summertime, with its Payette Lake, rich forests and life paced by little more than water lapping on the lake’s shore, is reminiscent of another place and time: Lake Tahoe, perhaps, 40 years ago. It has all of the beauty and twice the charm.
Less celebrated but an equally enchanting experience is McCall in the wintertime. Certainly, the Boise area offers a wealth of winter activities, but McCall provides a quite different and refreshing take on winter. Imagine ice-skating on a 5,300-acre “pond” surrounded by ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. For those displaced Minnesotans, the ice-fishing opportunities are plentiful. And snowmobilers—whether beginner or “high-marker”—will find 544 miles of groomed trails and vast open bowls of powder snow available throughout the county.
This is all above and beyond the action at two ski resorts—Brundage Mountain (which offers cat skiing) and Tamarack Resort, 10 and 22 miles from town, respectively. Both resorts offer groomed Nordic trails as well as well as lift-accessed trails.
Nordic skiers can enjoy an extensive trail system at the Bear Basin Nordic Center, just a few miles northwest of town, as well as at Ponderosa State Park, a 1000-acre park nestled between the two legs of the A-shaped Payette Lake. There skiers will find 19 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails and over 5 kilometers of snowshoeing trails. And just south of town is Jug Mountain Ranch (JMR). Well known for its golf course, the development has been expanding its winter activities as well. JMR boasts trails for fat biking and Nordic skiing.
Still another option is to skip all of the activities and go straight to the two geothermal springs in the area: Burgdorf (accessible by snowmobile only) and Gold Fork hot springs. The road to Gold Fork is plowed in the winter.
Perhaps the highlight of the winter season, however, is the annual McCall Winter Carnival, held this year Jan. 25 through Feb. 3, that draws nearly 60,000 people.
Throughout the week there are parades—a children’s torchlight and a Mardi Gras parade—live music, bike races, hockey games, curling events and the ever-popular Monster Dog Pull competition. The headline event, though, is the Idaho State Ice Sculpting Championships. Artists come from all over the Northwest to create enormous yet intricate ice sculptures. These are not your average Frosty the Snowman creations with corncob pipe and button nose. They are, rather, something to behold: giant unicorns, Sphinxes, cupcakes and cartoon characters. Not to worry, however, there is a “locals” category that caters to the icy works of families, businesses and otherwise aspiring sculptors.
One of the true historic gems of McCall is the Shore Lodge, which overlooks Payette Lake. Established in 1948, the lodge has long been a weekend refuge for Boiseans. In 2008, Joe Scott, grandson of Joe Albertson of the Albertsons grocery chain, and his partners purchased the lodge and the nearby Whitetail Club, a gated community and golf course. Since that time, the Shore Lodge has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation of its 77 suites, three restaurants and spa. Much of the décor, which includes floor-to-ceiling windows, large pine logs, polished marble and river rock, serves to incorporate the natural beauty of the area, as well as reflect McCall’s history in the mining and logging industries. The property also boasts a boutique spa with indoor and outdoor saltwater immersion pools, as well as a 5,000-square-foot, three-suite lake cottage available for guests.
As one might expect in a town that caters to a large tourism business, the eatery scene in McCall is lively. Some of the notable spots include Bistro 45 (which has great grilled panini, steamed mussels and an extensive wine collection), Rupert’s and Steamers, the latter two of which would be considered more in the fine dining category. Perhaps what one wouldn’t expect in a mountain town is an excellent sushi restaurant. But The Sushi Bar is just that, with a wide selection of microbrews, sake, and novel sake cocktails.
For those looking for a morning hangout, the Fogglifter Café, Mountain Java, and Payette Dreams Coffee House are all inviting spots that serve great coffees and breakfasts.
While the film “Northwest Passage” might be a little outdated in its stereotypical and arguably racist portrayal of Native Americans, the McCall scenery in Technicolor is true to life today. McCall and Payette Lake are as breathtaking as they were when filmed over 75 years ago. And, safe to say, the lodging and dining are now top rate.
If you go, just don’t expect to find an easy passage to the Pacific Ocean, or to the Atlantic, for that matter.
SUMMER IN MCCALL
For those looking for a taste of summer lake living, McCall is a special place. The lake is clear and cold (though it warms in August) and full of great coves for water skiing, wake surfing, jet skiing and—a kid favorite—tubing. In the early morning and evening time, an excursion out on a paddleboard is not only peaceful and relaxing but great exercise. The area also offers some lovely and challenging golf courses. Of particular note are the courses at Jug Mountain Ranch and the Whitetail Club. McCall Golf Club in town is also fun to play and very reasonable. Looking for a more aerobic experience? The hiking and biking options in the area are plentiful. Ponderosa State Park, Bear Basin Nordic Center and Jug Mountain offer miles and miles of well-maintained trails. And, last but not least, there is the whitewater. The Payette Rivers nearby—main, north and south forks—provide rafting and kayaking options for experts as well as beginners.