The beauty of winter, from big to small (photo gallery)
Every year, even though I try, I worry that it won't snow. That I'm going to spend the next four months stuck in the purgatory of grey, wet 40-degree days I grew up in in the Puget Sound, or the half-winter conditions of a continuous four inches of chunky-rain accumulation that forces me to leave my mountain bike hanging in the shed. But, every year without fail, relief comes as the snow begins to pile up in the mountains and around my town 30 miles east of Snoqualmie Pass.
While I enjoy getting outside in every season, there is nothing like the transition into winter. I can't help but smile when my kids see the first snowflake; they are equally excited every year. And we live in a place that gets snow every year. While they run around the house searching desperately under the flip flops for their hats and gloves, I have to smile and do a little middle-aged-Mom, happy dance. (Of course, for their own protection, I don't let them see me do this.)
I welcome the quiet that comes with the insulation of snow, the way the ground reveals its typically hidden story about the critters that have been moving around. Even though I know there is wildlife in the forest, it's just so cool to see proof in their tracks across the snow. From the tiniest deer mouse, to jaw-dropping moose tracks, each encounter tells a bit of a story. I can witness posthumously a weasel being pursued by a coyote or my favorite scene of snowshoe hare tracks just vanishing; with nothing left but the sweeping tracks of large wings across the snow.
Snowshoeing is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the season. The snow elevating you into the forest is unique and a bit eerie. A 10-foot rise gives a peek at unique lichens, mosses and fungus, bird nests, excavations and food sources. You may, if luck is on your side, catch a flash of a marten, mink or flying squirrel.
If mega-fauna is your thing, bring a warm beverage, you'll have to find a comfy spot and be very patient. The place you sit may be hovering over a winter den. Animals that truly hibernate in the Cascades are sleeping soundly, relying on the storage of their summer feast. Marmots, a common mountain encounter for summer hikers, are soundly out for the winter. When I see them in the late summer, I want to encourage them “stop that whistling! Get busy! Winter is coming.”
Most days when I'm on our guided snowshoe hikes at Snoqualmie Pass, I notice small black specks on the snow and gathering in the animal tracks. Look closer and you'll see hundreds of them all moving about and some jumping impressive distances. They look to be the size of a flea, each speck is about that size, but a snow flea it is not. These fine little critters are called springtails due to their means of locomotion. They have a tail called a furcula that tucks under their body. When they wish to move they use that tail and spring away. They come out of the trees to feed on the microorganisms found in the snow and to complete their mating ritual.
I lead five interpretive snowshoe programs out of the Snoqualmie Pass Visitor Center, all with the humble goal of helping people get out on the snow safely and explore the lesser known winter environment.
As the guide of our popular Kids in the Snow program, I love to hear the chatter of children discovering the wonderful snowy environment while testing their skills on snowshoes for the first time. It's priceless to witness children discovering how the snow feels on their faces, hands and sometimes even down their necks. Kids on the walk get a chance to identify tracks, make some of their own and try and catch those springtales.
I cannot, though I try, to get those rosy-cheeked kids to stop eating snow. It's difficult to explain how much more than just snow they are stuffing in their mouths with every handful. But at the end of a cold, wet day on the snow I feel like I've accomplished something tangible, something of value.
Go play in the snow
The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website has an extensive list of winter recreation areas:
• Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing
• Downhill skiing and snowboarding
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