Snowshoeing Night & Day
The Isinglass parking lot only has one other car in it so soon before sunset. The engine is idling and the lights are on. Leaving. Good. I'll have these woods to myself. And all of this snow.
My snowshoes clatter onto some packed-down mess in the frozen dirt parking lot. They are clunky cheap things. I remember buying them three years ago – clearance at the Ace Hardware – and carrying them home. And here they are now, ready to be used for the first time.
Figuring out the clasps around my boots is easier than it looks. Just some clips and belt buckles. I take a few steps. The front of the snowshoe stays tight to my boot, the back falls down to the ground with every step. It's a little weird for a while. Imagine a boot with a loose heel. But this strange hack is helping the snow fall off the snowshoes. Brilliant.
I wrap my headlamp – off for now – around my red knit cap and step into the snow. The trails at Isinglass have been well-loved all weekend, I can tell, after that fluffy foot from last week's “bomb cyclone” snowstorm. There's established singletrack going off in every direction. Walking along it in the snowshoes is a breeze. The shoes plunge down gently, but I'm able to glide along with only a little muscle. I know if I were in just my boots I'd be knee-deep in trudgery, wet feet and pants and shredded legs.
I'm already having great fun. My mittened hands dangle and my steps are leisurely. The walk of the carefree.
I'm feeling daring as it gets dark and follow a singletrack onto a trail I'm not so familiar with. The Isinglass woods have three main trail loops that all intersect at odd places, and without knowing exactly where one is, the trails can all lead to the same place. Or to vastly different places. But the woods aren't too spread out and it is hard to get lost. I make it a point to stay off the Isinglass River Trail, which leads over a mile away to another parking area. Nope, just a quick walk down to the river and then back around for me tonight.
The sun is below the hills and only the glow on the horizon offers any guidance through the bare trees. I decide not to use the headlamp until absolutely necessary. I want to feel the place I am in. I want to be in it.
Soon I approach the Isinglass river and its swollen falls. It looks violent, crashing ice and water into a foaming pool, dark in the twilight. The pool is enclosed by snow and ice and the rocks I know are lurking underneath. I slide with the snowshoes down a steep bank to get to the riverside. I stay in the singletrack and refuse to step even a few inches out of it, not sure where the ground meets the rocks – and the gaps between them filled with ice and water and frozen mud. Amazing how solid the ice is over the river, just feet from the pommeling falls.
It's almost too dark to see now so I scurry back up the bank before I need to fiddle with my headlamp. The river frozen to my right, the west, the last light sinking down below it now. My headlamp makes the trail intimate and inviting. Secretive. There seem to be more tree branches in my face than I remember from any other time I've been here, but then again, I'm a foot higher than usual on the snow. With light and mitten, I swat the branches away.
In the full dark I start climbing a trail that goes up a scrappy ledge. It's not steep enough to slow me down on a normal day, but with the snowshoes I have to think quick about my footing. Turning them slightly out from each other seems to help with the sliding, so I try that. They also clash less and I find my groove. My light panting is the only sound in this nighttime place. That and the scraping of the snowshoes – plastic and metal – on the snow and rocks and tree roots that have escaped the winter blanket.
At the top I realize I'm sweating. But I feel pretty good and the ground is level again. The singletrack ahead of me looks pretty straight and pretty solid. It'll be an easy walk back to the parking lot. I want to be in total darkness, so I stop walking and take a deep, cold breath. I turn my headlamp off and let my eyes adjust. The sky is a shade lighter than black – the darkest purple. The moon isn't out tonight at all. The snow disappears.
That experiment lasts about a second. It's just too quiet out here. Just me and snowshoes. Not seeing that path is enough to get the headlamp back on real fast.
Back in the parking lot and the idling car is gone, thank goodness. Totally alone. A big truck blazes by on the main road, and I remember I'm only five minutes from home, not miles deep in the mountains.
The falls will continue blasting into the night and probably every night until early summer when it dries up. This deep freeze couldn't take its breath away.
Taking the snowshoes off is a lot harder than putting them on. It's not the clasps that still cling to my boots with desperation. Part of me wants to keep them on.
I've got my snowshoes in my left hand and Wilder's leash in my right. We jog across the road and dive into the snow. Ka-pow!
This side trail leading into the Isinglass woods is considerably less-traveled. It looks like one person may have snowshoed here a few days ago. The tracks are covered in snow drift and I barely spy some paw prints, as well. Wilder is nose-deep in the snow, so that confirms it. The lone snowshoe tracks follow the trail and there are large patches in the snow where the doggy doppelganger chose to explore. Wilder is checking out each one, covering the scents. We widen the trail.
I'm not technically “breaking trail” but moving in the deep snow is considerably more challenging than the jolly walk through last night's singletrack. Things are trickier when Wilder zips around me. His long leash gets under a snowshoe or around a tree branch. My mobility is limited in the snowshoes so I decide to let him run free, leash dangling. He's not interested in staying near me or listening – there was a dog here, duh, daddy, so many smells! – so I call him often. Daddy death stare keeps puppy nearby.
We find the singletrack where another trail curls by. It mysteriously ends a few yards down our trail, as if the person took off into the air from this spot. A runway of packed snow. I land on it and hitch myself into its route.
A boyish glee breaks out on Wilder's face and he takes off down the singletrack. Explosions of snow from his paws as he blitzes off. I grasp for his leash and barely snag it before catching my balance. The sun is out and it's a peaceful morning. Wilder's ready for the day. Me, not that kind of day.
We make a game out of his wild energy. “Go!” I yell and send him ahead of me. He makes it about twenty yards down the trail and I call him back. I dive out of the way before he cam knock me off my snowshoes.
We hike down the steep hill that I climbed the night before and I hold his leash short to prevent him from going sledding down the rough ledge. He pulls me so hard I am the one sledding. I think if I ever get around to learning how to ski, we will pick up skijoring, which looks as fun as it sounds.
At the bottom of the hill is the iced-over river, asleep. There's a calm pool (ice, today) beneath a steep bank dropoff and Wilder dives down. It's a favorite swimming spot of his in the summer and he knows where he is. He lands gently on ice and snow and I call him back, my daddy death stare a harsh whisper now. "Get back up here, crazy thing!" The mountain goat just scrapes up the hill with that impish puppy face and we play more “Go!” to shake out the crazy.
Off we go around the trail and I let him free again. Wilder prances and dashes through the snow. I put my hands in my pocket and whistle. Wilder hears me and looks back, not used to the sound. It keeps him close. Getting the hang of this snowshoeing thing. I occasionally jump off the singletrack and plunge through the deeper snow with ease, laughing and stomping.
It's satisfying, liberating. Effortlessly gliding across the snow. These same woods whose darkness I stood in last night, this same singletrack I lost when I cut power to my headlamp. It was right here in the sun and I'm jumping out of it and pounding out my own prints. I'm starting to see why the dog acts the way he does.