Off the Trails: Snow-walkers

Snow-walkers

Snow was falling, snow on snow, as the song goes, and another four inches fell on the thick snow blankets already on the ground. Splendid! We strapped on our snowshoes and took off. No adventures in the high country, but the Dredge Lakes area offered plenty to see.

There was still a little open water in some of the ponds and channels, despite several days of freezing and single-digit temperatures. So it was Watch Your Step, if we crossed the dicey spots.

A few folks had preceded us in most places and the going was quite easy. A skier had skimmed over the flooded part of the Moose Lake trail toward Mendenhall Lake, and the ice on this designated ‘winter trail’ also held up for us, plonking along. Turning onto the untracked Old River Trail, we found lots of snow-laden, drooping alders across the trail, leaving room only for a very small bear or a porcupine to pass through easily. So, knock the snow off some of those branches, step over others without snagging your snowshoes, and try to bend through without loading your neck with snow... it’s the ‘alder crawl’! Delightfully, there were times when the only sounds were the crunch of the ‘shoes and the tik tik of snowflakes on my cap.

A couple of days later, we had the brilliant idea of starting near the visitor center and dropping onto the upper Old River Channel at the first opportunity. Now we were breaking our own trail. Much of the way was good going, except for a few open-water shallows, which proved passable, and more alder arches to crawl through. Hares and porcupines had been busy, crossing the open spaces and finding cover again among the trees. The big beaver empoundment was marked by some critters that crossed the wide open space and others that had ventured out only to retreat quickly.

Under the nice thick blanket of snow, the surface of the ice on the pond was mushy, so now our ‘shoes began to pick up loads of slush, which rapidly turned to ice. The ice built up under the ‘shoes despite a pre-walk coating of glide wax. So pretty soon we were trudging along on elevator ‘shoes, with about five inches of ice globbed onto the cleats. Well! Lifting several pounds of extra weight on each foot took its toll, and our pace slackened. Hacking off those clumps of hard ice was difficult ­— a hatchet would have been useful! — and the ice quickly built up again.

Then down the lake beach to the lake’s outlet, still breaking our own trail, with a couple of short side excursions to check some beaver lodges. Ice continued to clump up on the ‘shoes, making hard work. Along the river, there are a couple of spots where it is best to duck up into the woods for a little way, before dropping back down to the river edge. By now, this is getting old, all that clambering over and under the sagging branches. Then one more stretch of open beach and another alder crawl back up to the dike by Moose Lake. Now it’s a piece of cake, on well-packed trail back to the bridge, with just a few drooping branches to dodge.

In addition to the numerous hare and porcupine tracks, we found signs of many other critters too. A shrew had scuttled briefly out into the open and right back, ducking into a hole only a shrew could fit into. Nearby was a bigger hole with signs of traffic in and out; one clear footprint let us guess that an ermine used this place. A deer had wandered out of the woods onto the river beach, and a mink visited a pond. Squirrels hadn’t done much travelling on the ground, but here and there a vole had made a beautiful trackway in and out of cover. Ravens had landed and taken off, leaving marks of wingtips etched in the snow. Before the last snow, a coyote (or wolf perhaps) had crossed a pond; its tracks were now just dimples in the snow, but the pattern suggested a running carnivore. Lots of activity, and for most of this walk, few signs of humans.

Sunlight on the mountains, with wind-whipped snow streaming off the peaks. All the trees and shrubs and tussocks draped in many inches of gorgeous snow. Back home, the aching feet and weary muscles were resuscitated by cups of tea and a pile of cookies. Once again, we claim that this is one of the best backyards in the world!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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