Tag Archives: Snowshoeing

Escape the Urban: The Last Snow

27 Feb

When the season’s last full snowfall downs,

with wood obscured, white blanketing gown,

I strap shoes to boots. One final trip

to tromp and to stomp, to spy the lip

of secret spring beyond thicket lie,

hidden pond, to frozen shore twixt sky.

A circling path, route I know well.

A last frosty trek to sunken dell,

unique in winter’s tight icy grip,

a fading vision, in summer whip

swarms of gnats, sweltering stinging flies.

Misery at bog in hot steam lies.

Through heather and brambles on I shoe,

past fallen iced woody vines, a clue

that deep winter’s work is nearly done,

a pile like coiled rope, heaped and run

from canopy branch to branch no more,

now a warm fox den on forest floor.

I shoe past dense grove adorned and pale

not with bridal but fat maid’s white veil,

when unseen ice shelf shifts ‘neath my feet.

The sound of cracking plates, my heart beat

both loud in my ears from all surround,

I spring up, I flee to firmer ground.

Fresh liquid water where I last stood,

one more mark that the season’s change could

make this path open mere whether I

am yet done or not with chill, with sky

bitter blue, scurried tracks or softly

muffled, shrouded woods, still and haughty.

Past ash, maple and unlikely elm,

the songs of chickadees overwhelm

the loud crunch of snow beneath my boots,

growing chorus, earnest cry salutes

the steadily warming sun. Release,

fly above my head the vanguard geese

their noisy honk nature’s last sure sign

the freeze will break, the sun will now shine.

Last trek to furtive pond, view I earn,

lost to me til next winter’s return.

Escape the Urban: Part Time Naturalist

20 Feb

The holes in the trees are unmistakable. Deep rectangles, the size of my open hand, beaten from the skin of the tree down into the heartwood. The holes, lined up in a row down the trunk, were raw and fresh; a mess of bark, splinters and shredded wood littered the ground at the base of the tree on a fresh layer of snow. I had seen such evidence of Pileated Woodpeckers before, on previous trips to the Adirondacks, but those holes were old and worn. These were so new I searched the sky for the culprit, but had no luck. I trudged on down the path, snowshoed feet loud in my own ears as I broke through the cold crusted snow. Just before the trail turned round a bend, on a whim I stopped and looking one last time at the pecked over tree, gave a startled shout as I saw the huge bird back on his bug hunting perch. He leaped from the trunk, and with a series of irregular flaps, flew in front of me and over my head, proud red crest stark against the monochrome forest, fat body as big around as my thigh. My first Pileated did not disappoint. 

I spent the last week snowshoeing in the foothill backcountry west of the Adirondacks and south of the St. Lawrence River Valley, sometimes on a path, sometimes climbing an iced and rocky hillock to get a wider view. These softly rolling swells and swamps, glaciated ponds and snow-swept stunted trees, lazily drift and roll north for hundreds of miles until finally spent at Hudson Bay. The joys of spending such a long period of time outside in the winter are many. Observations seem as new and fresh and the last snow fall. The discoveries are dearer, the labor more tiring and thus rewarding. And the wildlife is easily silhouetted against a contrasting pale backdrop, if you know where are looking.

A week in the wild in winter will teach one how much the fallen and packed snow can change in a week. The effects of weather are always more pronounced when you persist outdoors, unsheltered from the elements by an insulated home. But showers and sun in the summer are slight variations compared to the impact of winter weather swings, where the ground underfoot and not just the warmth from above changes rapidly.

On the first day out we endured a typical mid-winter lake effect blast from unfrozen Ontario, over a foot of fresh powder that swept under your coat, into your eyes, and tangled your limbs. I sank thigh deep despite the snowshoes, and made little headway. I felt as though I wasn’t walking through the snow so much as fighting in a bizarre solo wrestling match. Tired and frustrated, I got half as far as I wished, and twice as exhausted in the process.

But from there the snow morphed and grew more tolerable. A warm up softened and compacted the drifts to half their size, and driving rain and sleet deposited a wet top layer. The next day saw a deep freeze plunge to negative four degrees Fahrenheit, turning the previous day’s rain into an icy crust and solidifying the lower snow core. Travel grew much easier, as I sunk only an inch or two with each snowshoe step, making excellent time, as if I didn’t have thirty inch cookie sheets strapped to my feet.

The forest and bogs morphed with the changing weather as well. After the initial dump of snow, the trees were downright sumptuous, heavily laden with white ripe fruit. But the wind and sleet completed an overnight harvest, leaving previously engorged limbs and branches pelted and worn.

The discoveries I most treasure in the snow, however, are animal tracks: wide rabbit feet, raccoon and coyote lines. On day four I spotted not the tracks of a porcupine but the whole beast, downright pudgy for so late in the winter season, waddling across the path in front of me with barely a nod of recognition. After a new snow fall, with the slate wiped clean, the number and frequency of tracks grows day by day. It is a joy to spot them. They are temporary oracles, transient and impermanent. There is no chance they will be fossilized and preserved, as in wet sand or mud. Rather, they won’t even make it to the spring, covered with the evening snow or faded in an afternoon thaw. There are no other tracks like these, this set of unique prints along my route, a pattern never to be repeated. What are they? I place an impression of my wide foot next to them and compare, but I lack the skill to make a definite identification. In the seldom visited backcountry I am transiting, away from roads or popular parks, I am likely the only human who will ever see these particular tracks. If I don’t record them, with a photo or a word or a deliberate memory, they will be anonymously laid and then irrevocably lost. It is a serendipitous gift that carries a certain solemn duty.

The last morning dawned clear and cold, but late February sun can be powerful when given the chance, and soon I was overheated under my downy coat. I made a comical figure, stripped to my shirtsleeves, gauntlet gloves, and gaiters, steam rising from my back in the brilliant blinding sunshine. And there, as if on cue, chickadees and junco’s filled the still air with spring songs, celebrating that I would not need my snowshoes much longer.

Escape the Urban: The Rimed Mere

6 Feb

Last week I wrote about a glorious trip to Ellicottville, king of WNY winter sport. In a perfect world, I go every week and enjoy top tier facilities and venue. In the real world, however, I don’t have the time or money to go regularly, and you are probably missing one or the other of those essentials as well. So the key to maintaining an active lifestyle, where you keep the outdoors as a master cog in your machine, is to use the assets close at hand.

That means the hand me down gear you have in the closet, and a nearby park. You don’t need a $500 trip to Eastern Mountain Sports to get started. I have an old pair of Karhu 210cm skis with traditional telemark boots, a 30 year old gift from my frugal father-in-law. They aren’t top of the line, but they keep me active. And when looking for nature to toil in, there is more than Delaware Park (though it is a great choice, and the closest for plenty). In South Buffalo, head to Tift. In Cheektowaga and Lancaster, go to Reinstein Woods. Clarence and Amherst have trails along Ellicott Creek, and Rail to Trail lines, like the Peanut. The southtowns have a multitude of trails, like the Chautauqua Rail Trail. In WNY we’re blessed with open space close. Me, I go to Buckhorn.

I know the four mile trail, out and back, along the Niagara River – across Wood’s Creek, under the North Grand Island Bridge and out on the jetty in the heart of the mighty re-confluence – almost by heart now. It’s not a new exploration, or forging new ground; the path is well tread, and even the faces of the fellow hikers are becoming familiar. But there is comfort in that familiarity, as well as a certain satisfaction – even delight – in seeing the land change through the seasons, and finding small nuanced discoveries behind trees and brush you thought you knew.

Some are wishing for spring; you may be among them. Not I. This winter has been cold and snowy, and not nearly long enough yet. I haven’t seen my grass in almost two months, and the lack of a substantial mid-winter thaw means the skiing and snowshoeing trails have not had to reboot and start their bases over from scratch. Buckhorn is no exception. Thank you to the intrepid skier before me that laid the parallel tracks in the fluffy white just off the path – as it was my first time this season back on skis, I appreciated the safe refresher. But once I regained my footing and got in the groove, I abandoned the safe deep tracks for the wide open hard pack. The deep slick base had me skating after the first mile, and I picked up great speed on the smooth surface glazed in the brilliant sun.

My spectacular ski ended at the swirling Niagara, Navy Island to my left, industry to my right, the full falls plume dizzingly ahead. A route I knew well, and still a refreshing trek along ice encrusted swamps to a flash frozen river, a scene new to me if not to nature.

Escape the Urban: Ellicottville in White

30 Jan

The man behind the counter at the equipment rental shop looked at me like I was crazy. Bald and craggy, long grizzled walrus whiskers of blond and grey, he peered at me with squinting eyes beneath a bushy brow. I asked again.

“Is there a way to snowshoe from here up to the top, to the ridgeline trail over to Spruce Lake,” I said.

“Well, I suppose you could walk from here to the top. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. You can always snowshoe around the golf course . . .”

He stops short. My face obviously reveals that I didn’t drive to the hills of the Southern Tier to go snowshoe on the back nine.

“If you want to walk the ridgeline, most people just take the ski lift up.” At this my wife perks up immediately. I look at the stretched, surprisingly steep hill and wooded bowl just outside the door of the shop and imagine trudging each inch of elevation, snowshoes sinking into soft powder, manually conquering the 600 feet and earning the peak view and rumbling appetite for lunch that would follow. My wife, on the other hand, was hoping to take the three minute lift up, so she could actually enjoy the outing, and not curse my name, whilst out of breath, every step for the next three hours. As most married men can predict, I was doomed to lose again.

“I guess we’ll do that,” I relent, my wife grinning from ear to ear as she tugs on my arm. “How much is a lift ticket?”

Only $12 for cross-country skiers and snowshoers it turns out, and worth every penny.

Despite the number of times I have been to Ellicottville, passing through on my way to hiking in Allegheny or biking a rail trail, somehow I have always missed it at the height of its mid-winter white mantled glory. My grave mistake has finally been corrected, as my wife and I spent a couple days taking in a gem of Western New York. Ellicottville and the surrounding slopes are not just “nice for Buffalo.” They are nationally known as a top destination, the most skied resort in New York state, and the reputation is only growing. The NY Times calls E-ville the Aspen of the East. . . in a good way, how Aspen used to be. National Geographic Adventurer lists it as one of the top 100 adventure towns in the country, for its mountain biking and summer activities, not to mention the winter sports. The village of 600 welcomes 500,000 visitors a year – the vast majority of licence plates I spotted were Ohio and Ontario, not New York.

My wife and I took advantage of cheaper mid-week rates at the Tamarack Club to ditch the kids with the grandparents (thanks Mom and Dad!) and explore this winter wonderland. And while the elevation is objectively a bit lacking, and so it may not technically qualify, Ellicottville certainly does have that Mountain Town vibe going for it.  If your quads are burning from too much skiing, you can easily bum around the village for an afternoon – multiple ski and bike shops along the dense historic main drag, a local winery tasting room, and top notch restaurants (steaks and HOT Thai scallops at The Silver Fox, African peanut soup and Belgium mussels at the Ellicottville Brewing Company).  

The Tamarack Club itself is less than two years old, and while the basic room is nothing to write home about, the resort overall has plenty to offer besides its location at the base of two ski lifts. An indoor/outdoor pool and two outdoor whirlpools were too tempting to ignore – is there a more refreshing experience than running through the falling snow in your swimsuit to hop in a streaming, frothing tub? No complaints either about Falling Waters Spa, where my wife and I both got some therapeutic work done. The beer and food selection at John Harvard’s Brew House was eclectic and surprisingly local (3 taps for Ellicotville Brewing Company, two for Southern Tier, two for their own concoctions), especially for a micro-chain. But the creme de la creme was, of course, getting out in the white.

It never stopped snowing, two days straight – sometimes a regular fall of steady tiny flakes, sometimes giant fluffy cottonballs that float around like Forrest Gumps’ feather and seem to never quite land – a pleasant, gentle snow that refreshes streetscapes and slopes. Our first task, before the spa and the hot tub and the beer at John Harvard’s, was to tackle the mountain, counter-culturally, by snowshoe.

From the back door at the Tamarack Club it’s a quick walk to the Holiday Valley equipment rental office, home of of my bearded, dubious trail guide. From there, its a quick jaunt to Cindy’s, the ski lift we would ride up to the snowshoe and Nordic ski trail along the ridge. The loop from Cindy’s, to Spruce Lake, and back to the 4400′ (linear) Mardi Gras for a ride down was less than four miles. But snowshoeing burns calories faster than just hiking, and most planners use a 3:1 (soft powder) or 2:1 (packed) guide for planning an outing. We started in virgin powder, five and six feet deep, on the back side of the hill, until we found and broke out into the correct, well marked path. Its a steady climb from there to Mardi Gras, and then on to Spruce Lake.

The snow was thick in the trees, and hung in clumps that would break free and scatter as the wind blew. Occasionally the whole of the valley would break into view, a silent snowglobe, far edge shrouded and faded in a flurried curtain. Despite the hundreds of downhill skiers below us, the ridgeline was silent except for the ice-induced creaking of the trees, the chirp of chickadees, and the soft pant of my breath. Serene.

Map courtesy WNYMBA.org

Eventually the dense, young stands of maple gave way to older pine, forming huge dark Moria-like halls, shading us from the falling snow and tamping the grey omni-directional light of an overcast winter day. Onward the upward we tramped, and a multitude of smaller backcountry trails crisscrossed our comparative superhighway, on the way to Spruce Lake. The WNY Mountain Bicycling Association (WNYMBA) has laid, marked, charted, and maintained dozens of miles of singletrack in the surrounding state forest, and it doubles as waist deep snowshoeing opportunities in the winter. Next time, perhaps, when I am alone or with one of my bro’s. Paired with my wife, though, the hot tub and a bottle of wine were more tempting than getting lost in rugged glacier formations. A quick stop at the alpine lake’s frozen shore, and the Mardi Gras chairlift called my name.

E-ville is only an hour a way, and I bet I can drop the kids off of school and get four or five hours of cross-country in before I need to pick them up again. I’m thinking the trails at HoliMont next – my skis are waiting for me, propped up by the door.