The Thrills, Spills, and Icy Chills of Snowshoeing Near the Big Four Ice Caves

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Ripping a hole through my yoga pants was the biggest threat I’d face if I were to snowshoe at the Big Four Ice Caves this weekend. My yoga pants might never be the same, but I couldn’t leave this world without snowshoeing at least once. Besides, Nate said the “stunts” I’ve performed on my blog have been a little too “tame,” so snowshoeing would definitely spice things up.

“I’m in,” I told Nate on Friday.

Nate worked out the logistics and I got extra tips from my physical therapist, who loves the outdoors and grew up in Washington.

“It’s really easy,” he said. “Just wear boots. You can wear tennis shoes, but the snow will get in, so boots are better. You’ll also probably want to take high steps, lifting your knees up into the air.”

I nodded my head and mimicked his high stepping movements a few times and decided, “I got this.” He even told me I could rent equipment at the Steven’s Pass Nordic Center. To beat the crowds, I could get there either first thing in the morning or sometime in the afternoon.

Saturday morning, Nate called and found out that REI also rents out equipment, but not the REI near us. We’d have to go to downtown Seattle, which would add extra time to our snowshoeing adventure. We were anxious to get going, so Nate discovered that Play It Again Sports in Everett also rented out snowshoes. They had about seven pairs left and we could go to the Ice Caves, which were a little closer to where we live. Any further up into Steven’s Pass or up towards Leavenworth or Mount Baker, and we’d need chains on the tires. No thanks. Not today.

By 11:30 a.m., Nate, Alex, and I had gotten ourselves together enough to get over to Play It Again Sports in Everett. Back in Ohio, Play It Again Sports stores could have some good deals and interesting equipment, but I was never what you’d call “bowled over” by the baseball bat and catcher’s mitt draped over the grip bars of a treadmill the manager really tried to shine. However, this Play It Again Sports store had everything, including shiny, candy-colored skis, snowboards, and sparkly ski boots and poles. The attendants at the rental counter in the back were busy waxing skis, preparing them for the “real” adventure seekers. We were here to get snowshoes.

“So, have you done this before?” I asked the man at the counter. “This is our first time.”

He smiled. “Ok, so it’s really very easy. You just pull up on these straps and put your boot in. The back latch over the heel works like a belt buckle. The poles have rubber tips on them, so once you adjust your poles, you can take the tips off so they’ll stick in the snow. It’s easy,” he kept saying. Everyone says so. Therefore, I believe everyone.

At the cashier stand, we paid for our snowshoes: $25 a pair, plus tax for a three-day rental. Not bad! When we told the cashier we were going to snowshoe at the Ice Caves, she said, “Nice,” nodding her head like she totally approved. Did that mean we were cool? Could we hang with the sporty, adventure people? Or were we getting in over our heads?

I probably needed to do some more research. While I still had cell phone service for the first half of the trip to the Big Four, I searched for snowshoeing tips. In fact, who thought to snowshoe in the first place? According to the United States Snowshoe Association’s website, snowshoeing developed in Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. The people migrating from Central Asia to North America used “modified slabs of wood” as the first snowshoes. The United States Snowshoe Association’s website also states that, “until the 1970s, snowshoes were primarily for employment and survival, rather than recreation . . .” In other words, we’ve come a long way, baby. But, how does one remain “safe” in snowshoes? What dangers would I be facing? REI’s website had “expert advice for beginners.” Apparently, there are snowshoes for “flat terrain,” “rolling terrain,” and “mountain terrain.” I assumed we had the “flat terrain” snowshoes, based on REI’s description, which stated, “Designed for easy walking on flat to rolling terrain; ideal for families. Includes entry-level models that offer good value.”

“Hey, Nate. Do we have flat terrain, rolling terrain, or mountain terrain snowshoes?” I asked, just to make sure.

“I don’t know. I guess flat. We will only be on flat surfaces,” he replied.

I read on. There was advice about clothing and footwear. We were all bundled up. I was wearing yoga pants. Nate and Alex wore jeans and long underwear. We all had hats, winter coats, mittens, boots, and thick socks.

Next, I saw something about trail etiquette on the REI website.

“Hey, guys,” I said. “It says here that skiers always have the right of way. We’re not supposed to walk in their tracks. Apparently, it takes a long time for them to make those tracks.”

“You hear that, Alex?” Nate asked. “Leave the skiers alone.”

“Okay?” Alex responded. He wasn’t sure why or how he’d disturb a skier, but oh well.

Then, I read about different techniques for going uphill. There was a kind of kick-step method. Going downhill seemed to involve poles somehow. “Side hilling” involved some kind of balancing act. I was really confused.

“Will we be going up or down any hills?” I asked.

“No,” Nate said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Positive,” he said.

Good. I could move on. I then saw a special section marked “Getting yourself Back Up.” I decided I’d better read that section, just in case. It said, “It doesn’t happen a lot, but you can fall down snowshoeing.” I skimmed the rest of the paragraph for important points like “rolling your body” and “using your poles.” There were some other hazards listed and tips for using axe-picks, but I decided to skip those sections. Instead, I found the Washington Trail Association’s “Snowshoeing 101” website. The first line was encouraging: “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” You just had to take a wider step and watch out for avalanches.

“Will we be near avalanche threats?” I asked Nate.

“Only if we actually hike close to the Ice Caves. We probably won’t make it all the way back to the Ice Caves. They close the road and you just park on the street and hike as far as you want. That reminds me. I did read that you need to watch out for “snow bombs.” In other words, don’t stand under any trees that are heavy with snow. That snow could weigh 20 pounds or more,” Nate warned.

“Why would I hike looking up?” I asked. “Who hikes looking up at the trees the whole time, making sure they’re not standing under 20 pounds of snow?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nate said.

So, I didn’t. And that’s all the research I did before I lost service in the mountains. I took a little nap and before I knew it, Nate had parked the car and we were stepping out onto a slushy, sloppy road converted into a parking lot. We saw other “snowshoers” and hikers. Some had poles. Some didn’t.

It took us a LONG time to put our snowshoes on. Actually, Nate ended up putting his own shoes on, then Alex’s, then mine. As we were putting on our shoes, we saw a park ranger with a group of other rangers and teens. They were gliding through the snow on their snowshoes. They looked happy and confident.

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A woman stopped them to ask questions.

“Do I need snowshoes to hike here?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” the ranger answered. “I’ve seen people hike in tennis shoes or just boots.”

“Will I be able to see the Ice Caves?”

“You could, but from here it’s 2 ½ miles just to the picnic area, which is still pretty spectacular. So, five miles round trip—just to see the mountains there. But it’s also very scenic along the way.”

He and the group of rangers told her to have a wonderful time and enjoy the sunny day. Then, it happened. One of the rangers in the group just fell. Straight down over her snowshoes. Face first—actually knees first, then her face. She looked embarrassed, but I didn’t laugh. That could have been me. She picked herself up and started to move on.

“Nate, I think I just saw something rare: a “snowshoer” who falls—smacks her face—right in the snow,” I said.

“Shh . . . She can still hear you, you know?”

“But it’s rare. The REI website said this hardly ever happens.”

“Let’s just start moving,” Nate said.

So, we did. Nate and Alex took off at a pretty fast clip. I was still walking slowly and gingerly—trying to get a feel for these things. I didn’t feel unsteady or wobbly. I really didn’t want to walk with the snowshoes too close to one another, so I widened my stance. Then, I remembered to use high steps, so I tried lifting my knees into the air as I walked, but I felt ridiculous. No one was doing that. There was no reason. The ground was pretty flat at this point. I continued walking in my snowshoes rather slowly for a good ½ mile. Then, I felt the straps dig into the top of my left foot. Nate helped me loosen the straps, but I still felt pain. The shoe was just not fitting my foot properly. Could I have put up with the pain and pushed through? Sure. Did I want to risk a stress fracture that way? No. So, Nate helped me remove the snowshoes because they were hurting my dainty princess feet.

I felt much freer in my winter boots and I could keep up with Nate and Alex now. We stopped to take pictures of sugar-coated pine trees, rushing streams and waterfalls, mountain peaks, and whimsical clouds of snow shaped like marshmallows.

Alex, by this time, had really taken off. He was way ahead of Nate and me. So, we watched our son move along effortlessly in the snow. We also watched him check out girls his age as they passed by. They checked him out too.

“Oh, my gosh! Did you see that?” I giddily whispered to Nate.

“I know! He’s checking out girls! This is hilarious!” he whispered back.

Honestly, we’re the worst parents, ever. Poor, Alex.

After a while we got quite a workout from the thick, slippery snow. Every time we stepped down, we slid a little. We stopped often to shed mittens, hats, and coats. We also had to get out of the way of snowmobilers who did not look like they were having much fun. They seemed to struggle to keep their blades in the snow. One man also toppled over dangerously close to some hikers in front of us. With our boots and snowshoes, we weren’t what you’d call “speedy.” We couldn’t just exactly run for cover with ease every time the snowmobilers came barreling down the trail. The good thing was, we could hear them several hundred feet away, so we could step off the trail and hide beneath trees that were probably carrying “snow bombs.” Oh well.

Once we reached the picnic area, Nate snapped one last picture before we decided to turn back. Then, it happened—again. Something “rare” according to the REI website. Nate fell while wearing snowshoes. He fell face first, his back arching like a banana. I remembered doing a similar move in ballet class when I was five. We would lie on our stomachs, arch back, grab our feet, and rock like a rocking chair—back and forth. Why we did that I don’t know, but that’s what Nate was doing. He also looked pissed.

“Use your poles,” I suggested.

“I know. I know to use my poles. I can get up,” he said.

Then, something rare happened again. This time, it happened to me and I wasn’t even wearing snowshoes at the time. I wasn’t even walking. The place where I was standing just suddenly gave way under the pressure of the right heel of my boot. I slid straight down on my back. One minute I was standing. The next minute I was looking up at the sky. Oh, the icy thrill of snow right down my yoga pants!

“You okay?” Nate asked.

I inspected the crotch of my yoga pants. No holes.

“I’m fine,” I said.

We waddled, slid, and slipped the rest of the way back to the car. Our legs were really tired by then. After 45 minutes, Nate was the first to see the gate through which we’d entered the trail. It made me think of some lyrics from Foals’ song, “Mountain at My Gates:” “I see a mountain at my gates. I see it more and more each day. What I give, it takes away…. Oh, gimme some time. Show me the foothold from which I can climb.”

And I guess that’s what we did. We found our places to step—our footholds—with or without grace, snowshoes, experience, or fear. We left our impressions there in the snow. And, with any luck, they’ll stay.

Your Turn:  What are your winter adventure sports tips or stories? Post here!

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2 thoughts on “The Thrills, Spills, and Icy Chills of Snowshoeing Near the Big Four Ice Caves

  1. Very cool Way to take advantage of the opportunities where you are now.

    By the way, I’ve experienced “snow bombs”. Hiking in Sequoia National Park. Wet snow slides off branches and it’s moving at a pretty good clip by the time it reaches the ground. I felt like I was in a snowball fight with the forest.

    Like

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