Friday, January 29, 2016

SNOWSHOE SERENADE

 Alas! Alas! Life is full of disappointments; as one reaches one ridge there is always another and a higher one beyond which blocks the view.--- Fridtjof Nansen

There is a quiet hush in the trees. A reverberation coming through the pines of snow being crunched and breaths of cold mountain air being drawn. The slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains glisten a splendid wintry white luster. My wife, Debbie and I had hoped to get all the way up to Loon Lake. It's one of my favorite spots west of Lake Tahoe, but found the roads clogged with snow and impassable even with a four-wheeled-drive. We had to settled for parking along the Wentworth Springs Road miles past Stumpy Meadows Reservoir in the Eldorado National Forest.

My senses awaken after the sleepy truck trip into the mountains. The fresh cool air,  touches my face and pours into my lungs, giving me, that great feeling of just being alive. Winter is the Sierra seems to do that. Naturalist John Muir must of had that same exhilaration when he wrote,  "It is on the mountain tops, when they are laden with loose, dry snow and swept by a gale from the north, that the most magnificent storm scenery is displayed. The peaks along the axis of the Range are then decorated with resplendent banners, some of them more than a mile long, shining, streaming, waving with solemn exuberant enthusiasm as if celebrating some surpassingly glorious event." 

At the road we strap our modern-day snowshoes to our boots. Gone are the days of old wooden tennis racket looking contraptions trekking through the snow. Today's snowshoes are lighter and tougher,  built with strong aluminum frames, durable material for flotation, and bindings that support all types of boots. Sleek in design most snowshoes are between 25-36 inches long with your weight determining the length your need. And it's as simple as walking. Most can go from beginner to practically an expert in a few steps.

We move quickly down the snowed-in forest road in out of the shadows of the mountain pines. Our shoes maybe be modern, but our method of travel is ancient. Experts say, that snowshoeing is thought to have originated about 6,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest known inventions by humans. In his book Snowshoeing, Gene Prater, wrote, "Without the snowshoe/ski, aboriginal people would not have been able to expand over, and occupy, the northern hemisphere." He stated that trappers, hunters and later pioneers found that their snowshoes were indispensable in settling the continent. "During the great westward expansion period," he wrote, "Snowshoes were equally as important as the ax and flintlock rifle in the zones where snow lay deep throughout the winter season."

In his story Burning Daylight, Jack London, recants a tale of what it was like snowshoeing in the Yukon Territory during the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1893.  While our hike through the forest is an enjoyable wintry excursion, London takes its allure away with his stark description of the plodding through the drifts.  
They plodded days upon days and without end over the soft, unpacked snow. It was hard, monotonous work, with none of the joy and blood-stir that went with flying over hard surface. Now one man to the fore in the snowshoes, and now the other, it was a case of stubborn, unmitigated plod. A yard of powdery snow had to be pressed down, and the wide-webbed shoe, under a man's weight, sank a full dozen inches into the soft surface. Snowshoe work, under such conditions, called for the use of muscles other than those used in ordinary walking. From step to step the rising foot could not come up and forward on a slant. It had to be raised perpendicularly. When the snowshoe was pressed into the snow, its nose was confronted by a vertical wall of snow twelve inches high. If the foot, in rising, slanted forward the slightest bit, the nose of the shoe penetrated the obstructing wall and tipped downward till the heel of the shoe struck the man's leg behind. Thus up, straight up, twelve inches, each foot must be raised every time and all the time, ere the forward swing from the knee could begin.
We find serenity in the trees. In the shadows, there is chill in the air while in the sunlight sustaining warmth. It's an even trail leading down into a valley. Across the basin we can see the remains of what a forest fire left behind, while in another spot we cross a treeless bone yard of its aftermath. The white of the snow concealing its disfigurement. As the sun begins to set through the blackened sticks of the forest are ablaze again in a smoldering winter haze.

It is easy to find our trail back to the truck. Instead of breadcrumbs we had left giant footprints in the snow. We sense an urgency on the way back not wanting to get stuck on the roads chocked with snow in the dark. In the fading light winding through the trees and rock in the crunching snow, I can relate to the feeling Muir had when when he wrote, “Long, blue, spiky-edged shadows crept out across the snow-fields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed like devout worshippers waiting to be blessed.”

It's a nice bit of tranquility, till a London like harshness interrupts when Debbie reminds me, "People die out here all the time,  we better get moving."