On the trail: Appreciating the utility of snowshoes -- by not wearing them

·5 min read

Jan. 22—The best way to appreciate snowshoes is to leave them in the car.

Best, of course, is not always synonymous with smartest.

In this particular episode, in fact, the words were much closer to antonyms.

The second Sunday of 2022 — the 9th day of the year, to be more precise — came on sunny and cold. This was the pleasant part of the month, before the temperature inversion, a not uncommon phenomenon hereabouts in January, left some of our region's valleys to marinate in a dank miasma.

My wife Lisa and I, with our kids, Olivia and Max, drove the 17 miles or so up the Powder River along Highway 7 to Phillips Reservoir.

Olivia, who's 14, indulges Lisa's and my affinity for hiking in all seasons with various degrees of acceptance.

But she's unequivocal in describing her favorite sort of route.

Flat.

The word is inevitable in every pre-trip conversation, most often in the form of a question: "Is it flat?"

Our part of the globe, of course, is quite often decidedly not flat.

But among the nearby options, the shoreline trails at Phillips come nearest to satisfying Olivia's chief criterion.

Fortunately the short road leading from Highway 7 to the boat ramp on the north side of the reservoir, near Mason Dam, is plowed, affording access for people hoping to pull some rainbow trout or yellow perch through a hole in the ice.

Or, in our case, people interested in floundering through the snow.

That wasn't my goal, of course.

Our four pairs of snowshoes were scattered helter-skelter in their customary place, the back of our Toyota FJ Cruiser. They spend most of the winter there, dripping meltwater onto the thick rubber floormat.

As we parked, Olivia asked whether we were going to put on the snowshoes.

Although her disdain for strapping on a couple square feet of plastic to her boots isn't as palpable as her feelings about steep trails or roads, suffice it to say that her ideal hike does not involve snowshoes.

I noticed, as I looked at the slope where the shoreline trail winds between the ponderosa pines, that there was sufficient snow for snowshoes.

But neither was it especially deep.

I was in that fateful moment rendered insensible by a combination of two powerful forces — naive optimism and the desire to grant the wishes of a teenager.

Individually, either of these can potentially lead to blunders.

Combine them and it's certain.

I agreed that we could have a go without snowshoes.

I convinced myself that, after several days of dry weather, the snow that fell the first week of the new year likely would have solidified somewhat. I mustered quite an internal argument in favor of this proposition, based on the idea that because the trail mainly follows south-facing slopes, the snow would have melted a bit each afternoon in the weak winter sunshine, and then refrozen each night, facilitating the firming process that would render snowshoes, if not superfluous than at least not mandatory.

As we strode away to the west, toward Union Creek Campground, this concept didn't seem wholly fantastical.

The snow was indeed compacted in places, so much so that my boots barely breached the icy surface.

But snow is treacherous. It can't be trusted.

We hadn't hiked more than a couple tenths of a mile before we started occasionally to plunge into snow up to mid-calf (or nearer the knee in Max's case; at 10, he's both the youngest and shortest member of our quartet).

But this wallowing didn't even have the dubious advantage of being consistent, and thus predictable.

The vagaries of terrain and trees and exposure to sunlight had conspired to create a sort of minefield effect. Sometimes we would take a dozen steps without sinking in. Then we would hit a patch of softer snow and slog for several paces. More often, though, there was no regularity, no rhythm. One boot would stay on top while the other thrust through clear to the frozen ground, creating an unfortunate and awkward stance that my aging hips don't cotton to at all.

I understand the obvious question here.

Why didn't we just go back and get the snowshoes?

I have no answer — not a cogent one, anyway.

All I can offer by way of explanation is the same pathetic plea that people tend to give when they put themselves in a position over which they had total control.

By the time it got annoying it just seemed too onerous to turn around.

Olivia, who is savvy enough to not complain in such a situation, in fact declared the hike a success.

She also offered the clever, albeit obnoxious to her parents, suggestion that since we didn't wear snowshoes we got more exercise.

I couldn't deny this claim on purely cardiovascular grounds.

But I pointed out that had we worn snowshoes we could have gone considerably farther, getting even better views of the spectacular winter scenery and ultimately burning a comparable number of calories.

On the way back we detoured down to the reservoir. It's a much longer detour than usual, since the drought dropped Phillips to its lowest level since it first filled in 1968.

The ice, based on the remnants of a few ice-fishing holes, was several inches thick.

I thought, as I inevitably do on the rare occasions when I'm standing on a frozen body of water, of the scenes in "Grumpy Old Men" of the temporary towns of ice fishing shanties that spring up each winter in the frigid Great Lakes region.

Our ice-fishing culture isn't quite so formal, but Phillips is a fine spot to pursue the pastime.

As we trudged back along a well-trodden path to the parking lot, Lisa and I agreed that it was a beautiful place to spend a couple hours of a January day.

And that we would never do it again.

Not without snowshoes.

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