Winter is when we rest our running bones, our hiking feet. Skiing is perhaps the best exercise there is and it is time for something different. We all pray for snow and wake to rain. It has been a mixed bag in this transition time. December, and I wear shorts as I run. We are steeped in rain, the sky winter-dark as we open the gate in the morning, an uncanny relationship to Southeast Alaska. If I close my eyes I am back under a tarp on a nameless island, kayaks tied to trees, the beach shrinking with the tide.
But I'm snuggled up against a mountain range instead, and we have been battered by wind, ceaseless howling of up to eighty miles an hour, scaring the animals and setting our nerves on edge. What can you do in this weather? The trails are dangerous, trees falling with muffled thumps. We wake up to detritus from the neighbors: garbage cans, pieces of roof.
When we hear the rumor of snow up high, it galvanizes us. We scramble to find our skis, put aside since May. We leave 4,000 feet in a driving rain. It does not look promising.
The mountain road is lashed by wind and rain. Rocks, some as big as cats, have tumbled down from the slopes above. We pass Target Springs and Headache Springs. Still no snow.
Finally at six thousand feet we reach snowline. This is as far from powder as you can get, not our usual snow. A warm storm sweeping in from California has ensured that the snow is the consistency of mashed potatoes. The meadows are awash in standing water. We stand, looking. We are not the only fools up here. An overly optimistic crew has toted snowmobiles up here and cranks them up. It will be slush riding for them.
Slush is better than nothing but the higher we get, the better the snow is. I'm reminded once again how the subtle gain of elevation can change everything. When I worked in the Florida swamp, mere inches determined what grew. The hardwood hammocks, bristling with oaks and gumbo limbo trees, were retreats that the small animals retreated to during the summer high water. Often we found their bones there; trapped by water, they died there.
Here we watch the snowline dip and rise on Chief Joseph Mountain, trees frosted just above us while we sit in the rain. Here it takes forever for winter to arrive and forever for it to leave. In between we have this elevational dance. Like I used to listen for tide reports, here I look for snowline reports. Five thousand feet, four thousand..where it falls makes a difference.
We sometimes talk about moving to Canada, or someplace with more consistent snow. It sounds good when we are in this transition zone, waiting for the snow to move down. Someplace with longer summers and better snow? Does such a place exist? For now we'll keep driving higher in elevation.