Blue Sky, Crisp Air and Mount St Helens: A Christmas Day on Snowshoes
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…Just like the ones I used to know…”
White Christmas is not my favorite holiday song. I’m more of a Silent Night kind of gal. I like the solitude of the song. But this year, with kids arriving on December 26, we decided we would go for the white stuff while exercising our snowshoes—and hearts, lungs and thighs—on Christmas Day.
Skiing, camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, fill in your favorite expedition, why is the first trip of the season always such a struggle to get off the ground? Where are the mittens? Are these the boots that go with the snowshoes? What are we going to eat? Did you fill the gas tank? And on and on. We were determined to get out before the crowds on Christmas morning. No need to even think about it. The minutiae of the first trip slowed us down. And the crowds seeking snow like us? We would see.
By noon, we had gathered snowshoes, poles, coats, socks and more socks, mittens and hats, extra mittens and hats, Christmas lunch, maps, chains, shovel, cell phones (for an area with no service), layers of fleece and day packs with some percentage of the “10 essentials.” And, of course, the critical Sno-Park Permit. But more about that later.
Listening to classical holiday music, we headed north on I-5 to Woodland and then east on SR-503 beyond Cougar with blue sky and crisp temperature. Actually beyond crisp as high winds whipped up white caps on Lake Merwin. I watched for widow-makers in the Doug firs towering above us as small branches blew across the highway. With the exception of pure white Mount St Helens looming over us to the north, there was no evidence of snow. But we kept the faith. We WOULD find snow.
SR-503 turned into Forest Road 90 at the Skamania County line. Turning north onto Forest Road 83 at the sign to Ape Caves and Marble Mountain, still no snow. Finally, as we started to climb, we found some of the white stuff. First frost, then it accumulated, packing the road with ice in shady spots.
Winding through Gifford Pinchot Forest, we reached our destination—the Marble Mountain Sno-Park—at about 2 pm. A warming house had a fire going but we didn’t linger—we were ready to hit the Pine Marten Trail.
There is something about heavy snow on green boughs that beats a livingroom Christmas tree every time. The laden branches were gorgeous. The Christmas crowds? With the nearly empty parking lot and the diverse animal tracks in the snow, we were obviously outnumbered by furry creatures.
The trail ranged from icy, steep ups and downs to flat, soft snow. We enjoyed the teeth on the bottom of our snowshoes as they kept us upright and gave thanks that we left our skis at home. After an hour we switched to the June Lake Trail—a climb up toward base of the Mount St. Helens.
No matter how gorgeous the scenery, into every relationship must come some strife. Ours came when I asked “You DID put the Sno-Park permit on the dashboard of the car, didn’t you?” I couldn’t hear the expletives as Gary realized the permit was in his vest pocket. Darn! I was pretty sure that the fine would cost more than we spent on our Christmas gifts.
I calmed down after stopping for lunch with a Michelin five-star restaurant view — the south side of Mount St. Helens. Our peanut butter and banana sandwiches wouldn’t win rave reviews but the thermos full of hot chocolate was well worth the weight in my backpack.
Our final stop before reversing our route was June Lake. That is where we found Blair, Emily and Banjo set up for a Christmas night of snow camping. With their full view of Mount St. Helens and the waterfall into June Lake, they had the best room with a view, albeit a little chilly, in Skamania County. And a clear sky with a bright half-moon and meteor showers promised entertainment. While I don’t pretend to understand snow camping, I have to admit that I was a little jealous.
Counting the three of them, we saw seven humans and one dog all afternoon. This was a place for solitude.
By the time we turned around, the sun was setting. We walked out of the dark woods into the moonlight singing “I’m being followed by a moon shadow.” Remember the Cat Stevens song?
“Are there any elk around here?” I asked as we drove back down the road. Less than a minute later, two ran in front of the car. Further down, a deer crossed the road. And then, with a fiery trajectory, a meteor flashed over the forest. No paper and ribbons were needed for those Christmas gifts. Though we didn’t ask Santa, or anyone else for them, they were just what we needed.
(Oh yes, we were ticketed for lack of a Sno-Park Permit. The fine was $52. The kind ladies at the Skamania County District Court said that I could send in a copy of our permit and $20 and they would call it good. Our marriage is good again, too. But next time, I’ll take control of the permit…)