Crunch! My snowshoes broke through a hard crust and sank about six inches. I tentatively took another step and the same. I knew this was going to be another outdoors flummox. Stubbornly, I slogged ahead.
I completely misjudged the depth of snow in South Fork Valley. Since snow is getting as rare in Eagle River as meaningful action in U.S. Congress, I figured I would take my 28-inch long MSR snowshoes instead of my 31-inch Tubbs. Wrong! Departing the packed down, icy trail and heading cross country, I immediately began sinking into snow that surprisingly, was sometimes 12 inches deep.
I rarely see people wearing long snowshoes, such as the 56-inchers that I keep at the ready in my garage. It almost seems like it’s acceptable to sink in the snow as much as 6-8 inches, which I call “post-holing with snowshoes.”
But with a stubbornness that often outweighs my lack of tolerance for discomfort, I pressed onward. Had I gone back home and retrieved those old-school wooden snowshoes that are 10 inches wide, I’d barely have broken the crust.
Much of my learning in the outdoors has come from making miscalculations and mistakes.
Luckily, none of them have been life threatening–except the time I tried to float down one of the channels of the Knik River in a one-person raft with the chamber on one side entirely deflated. But that’s another story.
Just as airplane pilots acquire weather information on their destinations, outdoor recreationists need to gather as much intel as they can on where they’re going – especially in winter. Much of the time if I’m headed north, I’ll call a lodge that’s in the area and ask about conditions. Or, if I’m headed south to the Kenai Peninsula, I might telephone one of the rangers with Chugach National Forest.
With weather forecasts, I compare data with Weather Underground and the National Weather Service. In my estimation, the former always seems to be a bit more optimistic than the latter. With our proximity to the Gulf of Alaska and the vagaries of its changing patterns, both agencies seem to have some difficulty in providing accurate forecasts. But I think they’ve improved dramatically from 10 years ago.
The old “sticking your head out the door” to judge the weather just doesn’t fly.
There are even subtle differences between weather in Eagle River and Eklutna Valley. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the area around Eklutna Lake is in a rain shadow caused by the big 7,000-foot mountains to the south. The result: it’s somewhat drier than other areas.
When planning a trip south near Girdwood, or Whittier, one needs to look at area forecasts from there, which can be drastically different from Eagle River and Anchorage.
But fully preparing, of course, requires the right gear.
I’ve left my face mask, or balaclava, at home many times because the wind wasn’t blowing when I left the house, and wind wasn’t in the forecast. A nearly frostbitten nose on several occasions has convinced me to just leave the balaclava in my pack during winter outings.
In colder weather, which we haven’t had much of this winter, one needs to keep water bottles from freezing by using a neoprene insulated holder. On a long hike/snowshoe trip several winters ago I developed severe leg cramps from dehydration because my water bottles froze and I couldn’t drink.
We’ve talked about clothing and food extensively in this space, and mentioned the use of chemical warmers for keeping extremities warm. We’ve also discussed traction aids, such as Kahtoola microspikes and crampons.
But we haven’t discussed the use of emergency communication devices, such as Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Satellite Messengers as well as Satellite Telephones: mainly because I don’t use them. But they are certainly worth looking into for folks who plan to get far off the beaten track. Here’s a link to REI’s site: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/personal-locator-beacons.html
As I’ve said many times before, the best tool available when heading outdoors is common sense.
When you’re post-holing in the snow and progressing less than half a mile in more than an hour, (and it goes without saying, not having much fun), judge your time accordingly, cognizant of the daylight. Perhaps carry a headlamp. Or, do the amazingly smart thing that is often very hard to do: Turn around.
Accepting that you won’t always reach your objective and that you should turn around is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
Frank E. Baker is an ECHO team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. He welcomes comments and column suggestions.