It is a gray Saturday morning and the clouds are high, matte, featureless. The air temperature is 39 degrees Fahrenheit. We agree to meet at Alex’s North Seattle house in the crepuscular post-dawn, eight o’ clock sharp or nearly so. Fifty-odd miles to the east, along Interstate 90, snow is falling—lightly, intermittently—on Alpental, premier ski resort at Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades, three thousand feet above sea level. We are driving there, parking, and then going for a walk: its lodge serves as our base camp for the day. From Alpental is another four miles on foot through boreal forest and alpine meadow. Snow Lake is our ultimate destination; snowshoes, our mode of transport. We load our gear and our bodies—we being a quintet, ranging in height from around five-foot-seven to six-foot-five—into a Toyota 4Runner and set off for the mountains.
I have never snowshoed before. One time, I skied—but it was cross-country, not downhill, and not once have I stepped foot on a snowboard. I can almost guarantee that a ski-lift would both confound and terrify me, were I ever to attempt to board one. It might easily never happen. Winter is generally not a season in which I find myself seeking outside recreation—mostly I prefer to stay indoors, as warmly as possible, enjoying such retiring pastimes as reading, sleeping and eating. The near-certainty of being cold and/or wet for hours on end is, for me, perhaps the strongest deterrent. But snowshoeing seems manageable, more my speed. It is slow-paced, with a supremely gradual learning curve—literally a step-by-step process. It is, in essence, snow-hiking at a saunter. At any rate, I am giving it a go. In the Alpental parking lot I outfit myself in a panoply of borrowed gear: waterproof pants, gaiters, gloves, hat, ski poles. The snowshoes themselves are rented from REI. I strap them on and take some exploratory steps. “How do they feel?” Leah asks me. We are standing in a line along the trail, chilled and eager to get moving. My feet, in the shoes, have trebled in surface area. “They feel…cumbersome,” I say, envisioning twisted ankles and wrenched knees. “But they’re nice and light.” We start up the trail, one paddled foot after the other, ski poles lancing the embanked snow.
The air is around 25 degrees, calm. Lowering clouds occasionally permit glimpses of the sun, zinc-white and effulgent, illuminating the landscape in shades of gray and silver. For a while our path follows the upper south fork of the Snoqualmie River, its gurgle buffered by snow-laden stands of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir. Besides the cries of skiers from nearby slopes, it is absolutely quiet in the vale. Snow flurries about in a desultory fashion, slowing and altogether stopping at times. It is piled four to five feet high along the trail. I grab fistfuls of it to pop into my mouth: it is powdery, dry, not conducive to coalescing. “How does it taste?” Owen asks, the driver of the 4Runner and the giant of our group. I nod and try to speak around the snow on my tongue. “Tthhhgood,” I manage, drooling a little from numbed lips. “Ithhcold.” Later he asks me again, after we had gained maybe eight hundred feet in elevation. The drifts are thicker, more compact. Again the snow is in my mouth, rendering speech nigh-unintelligible. “Ithhbetter—ithhwetter, I thhhink.”
We reach a knoll above Snow Lake and stop for lunch. It is the apex of the trail, 4,400 feet above sea level, and the snow here approaches six or seven feet in depth. Trees around us are flocked, encrusted, bent into frosted candy canes. Below us, Snow Lake appears precisely as one might expect it: a lake filled with snow, a flat treeless meadow in the cirque of the mountains.
Hiking back along the river, we see tracks of snowshoe hare: lines of paired footfalls, dainty forepaws preceding elongate hindpaws by almost two feet—that is, twenty-four inches at a lope. They wind from tree well to tree well, concatenating the forest. There is a felid track also, possibly a bobcat’s. Gray jays swoop down for moths fluttering on the snow; a lone raven soars overhead. We pass an algid waterfall tumbling down the rockface, bearded with ice. I slow almost imperceptibly, glancing at the almost-icefall, idly wondering whether the flow would remain liquid all winter or eventually freeze solid. It is, in my eyes, simply one bit player in a saga of discovery. The others linger at the rockface, apparently taking it in. I am told afterward that my appreciation of the waterfall is insufficient, my lack of reverence baffling. I am stung by this accusation. “It’s not that I don’t care about the waterfall…I saw it and I…” I trail off. I want to say that I try to commit images, scenes, conversations to memory; that it is often through writing that my thoughts and feelings find their most complete manifestation, but I do not.
I am a delayed-reaction kind of person, I think. Possibly this is why snowshoeing appeals to me: slow and easy-going, affording plenty of time for reflection, it is a winter sport I can warm to.