Natural Observations-(Mis)adventures in winter hiking

Lyra heads up the creek–photo by Robin Song

Host and producer Robin Song tells the story of a misstep on snowshoe hike one afternoon. Text follows audio.


[audio:|titles=NatsObs20120212Adventures In Winter Hiking]


It was a sunny afternoon, with clouds moving in. I decided to snowshoe down to Birch Creek. I had been there often in summertime, taking Lyra and any dogs I was caretaking down to the water to cool off and play in the creek. It’s not an easy hike, and it becomes a study in patience, getting through all the wild rose bushes, devil’s club, tangles of fallen logs and branches, and avoiding wasp nests. I wanted to see if it was easier in the winter.  Lyra and I set out from the cabin at one p.m., heading north to the ridgeline above the creek.

The snow was so deep that going down the hillside looked daunting. I knew there were logs hidden under the snow, and the incline was very steep. I kept heading northwest, hoping to find a place with a gentler slope. I was paralleling a moose track, and I saw where the moose had taken the plunge over the side. Up ahead I could see the forest closing in and I knew my choices were to get into tangles of undergrowth in deep snow, or go over the side. I started down. I sat on the backs of the snowshoes, hoping to slide down. The first couple of feet of snow was light and fluffy and I sank in. Underneath was harder-packed snow, and under that- soft snow. My ski pole kept poking through and plunging down into what felt like bottomless snow. I couldn’t put much weight on the pole for balance. The snowshoes pushed up a berm of snow in front of me and I wound up on my back, pushing and wriggling, trying to get the snowshoes to slide. I finally had to stand back up and work my way down, zig-zagging and hoping for the best.

The terrain forms a series of four benches, with steep slopes between each one. It was a tough go, and I was grateful when we finally made it to the valley floor. We came out on the widest portion of the creek and Lyra ran along the ice, laying down and rolling in the couple of inches of snow on top of the ice. I took a short break, photographing Lyra, then we headed up the creek, staying on the ice. We got to the old beaver dam, discovering a bit of open water just south of the dam, so I turned around and we headed back down the creek.

I was looking for tracks of animals, and saw that a fox had passed through not long before. The moose hadn’t come all the way down to the valley. No sign of ptarmigan, mink or any other critters. The clouds had moved in when we reached the creek, and I felt a definite drop in temperature as we had decended into the valley. Traversing the creek became difficult when the snow-covered boulders were closer together. In those places I retreated to the shoreline, working through snow mounds covering heaps of logs and brush, just waiting to trap my snowshoes. The last time I went back to the creek, hoping for easier going, I came to a place where the ice was about four feet across between the banks. Lyra went out onto the ice, glad to be out of the deep snow.

I stepped off the shoreline onto the snowpack on top of the ice. Suddenly the snow gave way and I was plunged into icy water, which seeped into my boots. I couldn’t go back to the shore, for the snow had sheered off from the boulders along the bank and there was nothing for me to grap to pull myself out. My only choice was to kneel on the ice in front of me, hoping it would hold, and pull my snowshoes out of the water. My right foot came out of my boot, and that enabled me to reach down and pull out the boot and snowshoe. Then I wrestled my left leg, boot and snowshoe out of the hole. I scrambled up onto the ice and grabbed shoreline brances in front of me and struggled up the bank.

The snowshoes were now covered with slushy ice and collected snow with each step, making them very heavy. My legs and hips were already tired from the effort to get down the slopes. I knocked the ice off as best I could on every tree trunk I could find. I knew I was running against the clock, now. I needed to get back to the cabin before my feet froze. They were already going numb.

The return trip took everything I had. To get up each of the four slopes I had to take a step then push down the toe of the snowshoe to get it level enough to support my weight. The ski pole was useless, as it only plunged through the snow up to the top of its handle and I’d have to exert precious energy to wrestle it back out of the snow. I found my trail coming down the last slope and started up. The snow was loose and I couldn’t get purchase. Lyra was struggling as well, and I wound up pushing her up as high as I could reach until she found snow firm enough to support her as she pulled herself up the rest of the way to the ridge top. The ice encased the snowshoe buckles and I couldn’t get them open. I worked the heel strap down until I could finally get the snowshoes off. I threw them up the trail and stabbed my boot toes into the snow until I made a foothold and could take a step. I couldn’t feel my feet at all, by this time. It was like working with blocks of wood attached to my ankles. At the steepest part of the slope I found a young birch and was able to pull myself up using its branches and trunk. Kneeling next to the tree, strapping on the snowshoes again, I gave the trunk a grateful pat of thanks.

From there on I followed my outgoing tracks, Lyra well ahead of me. She would stop to check and when she saw me steadily advancing, she’d take off again. I shed the snowshoes in front of the porch steps and Lyra and I walked through the door at four o’clock. It had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to struggle back from where I had plunged into the water. Lyra ran around in the cabin, rolling on the carpet, then racing back to see what I was up to. I removed all my clothes, changing into dry ones. I discovered that I had also gotten the bottom of my jacket and my flannel shirt wet, in my struggles out of the water. My feet were bright red, which was a good sign. I had just enough hot water in the tea pot on the oil stove to make up two hot water bottles. I put one on my aching back and placed my feet on the other one, wrapped in a towel. It took a solid half an hour until the feeling returned. By that time, Lyra was fast asleep on the sofa beside me, her legs jerking, maybe re-living the hike.

So an afternoon’s snowshoe hike had turned into more of an adventure than I had planned. I knew the water wasn’t deep on that stretch of the creek, but it still had become alarming to have water come into my boots. I won’t be returning to the creek in the winter again. I was glad I went, nonetheless. The beauty and silence of the valley was worth the adventure. After a two-hour nap, Lyra was up and ready to go do it all again. Well, not this winter, my girl.

Feb. 6, 2012 Adventures In Winter Hiking


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *