Familiar Ground, With Snow

cooperwinter

Snowing so hard this morning that we almost turned back. But we didn’t. Unloaded the snowmobiles and headed up the Cooper River road through a foot of new powder. The mountains were socked in with fog and slanting snowfall. Every few minutes I used my gloved hand to wipe the slush from my helmet visor, and felt the cold needles pecking small patches of exposed skin around my neck. My chin went numb until I fiddled with the zipper on my parka to bring the collar up as far as it would go.

I’m not a motorized person, and only learned to ride a snowmobile because of my job. Usually I prefer muscle-powered sports. But what I have learned is that these noisy smelly machines can carry me to places I otherwise would not get to in the winter. Familiar beloved places, but with snow.

By the time we got to Cooper Pass, the snowfall had eased up, and a patch of blue sky appeared through the tattered clouds. The veil parted, and there was a view up Mineral Creek, the distinctive shape of Hibox Peak on the skyline. To the north, the rounded rocky mass of Three Queens. In my mind I pictured the Pacific Crest trail traversing from Park Lakes and the long descent to Spectacle Lake and Delate Meadows. I’ve been on that trail more than once, kicking rocks, cutting brush, and carrying a crosscut saw. Ridges and valleys now inaccessible to all but the craziest of humans, locked in winter’s grip.

Memories are woven into this landscape. Gazing across the valley toward Escondido Ridge, we can see where snags have fallen in the old burn. The slope is bare and white. This coming summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the wilderness fire that I watched for six weeks, patiently documenting its growth and behavior. Jon and I both were involved with that fire while it lived, and in subsequent years we led the trail crew in clearing the dead trees from the Pacific Crest Trail when decay and gravity did their work. Lots of trail crew memories. Not just of that place…on the way back we looked up Tired Creek toward Polallie Ridge and Waptus Pass. Stopped to examine Cone Mountain to see if we could detect any slide paths that might have reached the trail. And in the distance, shrouded by retreating snow clouds were the pointed peaks of Bear’s Breast, the landmark at the head of Waptus Lake. I felt a shiver of awe in my bones and a tug of connection to a special place where I hope to walk in a few months.

We turned off the main route and followed the road toward the Pete Lake trailhead. I stopped my machine on the bridge over the Cooper River to appreciate the view. As I pulled my camera from a pocket, I turned to see Jon doing the same thing. We grinned at each other from within our helmets and stepped forward to snap photos of trees reflecting in dark water. Been to this place a hundred times, and every time it’s different.

Glad we hadn’t turned back in the morning. A day spent outside in bracing mountain air refreshes the mind and renews the spirit. We talked to many people who were out recreating, and it seemed no one was having a bad day.

Home now, tired and windburned. Grateful for the experience of touching and seeing familiar ground.

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