It is said that they earliest record of snowshoes goes back to several thousands years ago. For me, growing up in Quebec, they were simply part of the winter package. The snowshoes I had back then were not the fancy, technical ones found today, but instead the classic Native American model, made of wood and rawhide. My grandparents had a cabin that was easily accessible by car during the summer, but during the snowy season, we had no choice but to leave the vehicle behind and snowshoe our way in. One of my most memorable moments from those years was a night when we arrived way past sunset and found ourselves carrying our luggage, ankle deep in white powder with the Northern Lights filling up the sky. Liquid blues, greens, and reds were dancing in a magical way.
The winter holidays were just around the corner, and with no snow coming, or on the ground, I was getting the jitters and felt it was perhaps time to organize a trip to the mountains. If the snow wasn’t coming, might as well go seek it out!! A couple calls and a couple days of preparations and we were on our way to Mt. Rainier, Washington. More precisely to Ashford, were we would hike the snowshoe/cross country ski trails maintained by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association.
The MTTA is a great initiative. Roads and trails used by the Forest Service in the summer are open to the general public for exploration in the winter. It is a win-win situation. The Forest Service makes use of its land year-round, and the outdoor community has access to places that would otherwise be too complicated to get to. Over the years, with the amazing collaboration of countless individuals, an extended and incredibly well maintained network of huts and trails came to be.
Our itinerary for our 4-day trip was to hike to the furthest hut, the Yurt, spend a couple nights there, then hike back by way of a different trail, to the High Hut for one night. With some luck we would see Mt.Rainier. After taking the train from Portland, we drove from Tacoma to Ashford. The weather was not particularly promising. Even though it was raining on the coast, which it always does, by the time we arrived to the village, at the foot of the mountain, unfortunately, it was still raining. With the cloud ceiling hiding the peaks, we were not able to see if it was snowing higher up. We had to believe the clerk at the gear store who tried to reassure us that there was indeed snow up there. After getting the map and information on how to get to the snow park, we watched the rain falling on the windshield hoping for the best.
Due to the rain, the road had cleared up and allowed us to drive up to Sno-Park A, @3,400ft. The scene was not the one we wanted. It was pouring down. Needless to say, we were not here to turn back. So we geared up and started our hike. Good thing there was at least 5 feet of snow at the top. Even with the rain, we should be able to get the white scenery. But for now, there was no need for snowshoes. About a mile up, we came across a couple who was coming back from the High Hut. Bad news – it was even raining there!!! Well, not much to do, but cover up and continue. Shortly after, the snow became too deep to continue by foot, so we put our snowshoes on. Wet and heavy, we trudged along, our next three hours quite dreary. Our sight aiming down, the landscape became a messy mix of snow, mud, pine needles and branches. Even though we were dressed for the weather, rain managed to find its way in. It wasn’t long before we were all soaked. It took us four hours to reach the Yurt. I can’t imagine pulling out a small tent after such conditions. The hut looked like paradise. Nestled in a small valley, surrounded by pines, and shadowed by Mt.Griffin, we rushed the last few hundred yards.
To call this camping is a major understatement. The hut was pure back-country luxury: propane fireplace, propane oven, lanterns, mattresses, and a kitchen ready for the biggest of feasts! Not that it wasn’t welcomed, but we could not put away the thought that it was way more than we had anticipated. We dropped our gear, got out of our wet clothes and got the fireplace running. With the rain still drilling the Yurt’s canopy, we warmed ourselves with dry clothes and hot tea.
It rained all night. In the morning, it was still raining. By noon, the temperature dropped slightly and the rain turned into slush. With some luck, the temperature would continue dropping and we would have real fresh snow by the end of the day. We attempted to venture our way up Mt.Griffin, but the conditions were simply not pleasant. So we stayed inside. We found a cranking radio that we had to power up every 15 minutes. I have to say, shame aside, that it was really funny being in the middle of the wood, and listening to NPR. Snow really started by the end of the afternoon. That night, we went to sleep dreaming of a white morning.
And so it was! The timing was perfect. On the ground was 5 inches of fresh snow. Our hike to High Hut was going to be magical! And it was! There is something incredible about being the first one to lay tracks on fresh snow, whether it be skiing down, cross country skiing, or snowshoeing. But the most amazing thing is to realize that you are not alone. What seemed like a quiet forest with only a few souls is transformed into a frenzy of tracks. Rabbits, mice, deer, birds, and many more, each leaving hundreds of prints. You realize that all this time, this place, that at times seems almost too quiet place, is filled with life. One of the biggest surprises of the day came from a particular set of tracks. For almost an hour and half, we followed a set of prints left behind by a couple of bobcats. Active at dawn and at dusk, bobcats will cover many miles every day, investigating their territory. This couple, which had recently paired up, would be mating in spring and later, would each go their separate ways. The female, would give birth sometime in April and raise her cubs alone. Mostly following the groomed trail, their tracks cut in the forest only to reemerge higher up. More than once, we came across urine marks and one time the bobcats had left their feces. It was like a glimpse into the life of a rarely encountered wild creature. You could see where they played, where they laid, where they rested. Most of the time they would follow each other almost too perfectly. Other times, one would wander out slightly and come back while the other kept a perfect line.
The landscape was beautiful. This was finally what we had come for. The sky cleared up and the contrast between the blue from above and green and white from below suddenly erased the last 30 more or less miserable hours. We stopped once for a quick lunch – hot chocolate, salami, brie cheese and apples. We certainly needed the energy since then we would go up 600ft in one mile.
Around the 4,500ft mark, the snow changed. Even the trees looked different. The snow was more … frosty. When we arrived at the High Hut, the scene was definitely not the same it had been at the Yurt. This was a cabin at the top of the mountain, exposed to the wind. Although much colder and buried in a whiteout, the rewards would come to be well worth it. Once again, the hut was pure luxury. Solar power supplied a battery, which generated the power necessary for LED bulbs inside. Propane oven and fireplace as we had found them at the Yurt. The face of the hut was made of 3 huge windows, which, on a bright day, would give full panoramic view of Mt.Rainier. We settled ourselves, made some tea and proceeded reading some left behind magazines from January 2009 and 2006. The sun went down without giving hope of unveiling Mt.Rainier. But late at night, magically, its peak pierced through and under a blanket of stars I was only allowed enough time to take one quick photo.
The next morning, we woke up to a total whiteout but within minutes, everything cleared up and out of nowhere, the most amazing sunrise rose. As if on cue, the fog lifted, and Mt.Rainier emerged triumphant. The sky filled itself with hues of pinks, oranges and blues. Rainier took an almost romantic pause, looking suddenly less threatening. For no more than five minutes, the world opened up and shined heaven. On the sixth minute, the fog took over and everything became nothing more than a vast white curtain. We looked at ourselves, feeling blessed, allowed to see the unseen.
As the morning proceeded, the fog came and went. Creating some really interesting play of light. Close trees were lit from one light, while the ones below received another kind of light. Looking at the photos now, it almost seems as if the two were manipulated through photoshop, but I can assure you they were not.
After breakfast, we geared up once again and headed down the mountain for our last hike. On the way down, we came across a couple in their 60’s, on their way for a quick snack at the High Hut. Three more ladies, this time in their 70’s, were also on their way up to spend the night at the hut. (You have to admire when people keep fit!!) Down at the snow park, the car was covered in snow, proof we had been gone for some time. We carefully drove down to Ashford and stopped at the Copper Creek Inn for a well-deserved juicy hamburger. Soooo good!