December 13, 2014

Snowshoeing at Clark

Clark Reservation is the closest park to my house, and as a result, long ago became my default spot for quick and easy local outdoor adventures.  Despite this, I'd never taken Frankie hiking there in the winter, simply because of the rugged, rocky terrain.  I just didn't want to risk it on unsteady little feet.  But Frankie is 4 years old now, and it seemed like he would be up to the task.  Still, when Erin and I planned the hike in advance, we carefully selected a route that avoided the cliffs and deep rock crevices we frequent in good weather.  Two feet of snow fell in the days prior, so we decided to snowshoe instead.  

And that's what we did... except it turned into a somewhat bigger adventure than we'd planned.  The chosen route, a loop perhaps 1.2 miles long, ended up taking close to 4 hours.  We all had appropriate gear and made it back to tell the tale with no lasting damage, but there were definitely some lessons learned.  [Hint: bring more snacks, and not just for Frankie.]

Everything started out reasonably well.  I got all three of us strapped in our snowshoes (Erin is pregnant enough so she can't readily access her feet/bindings).  We set out down the Dry Lake Trail, promising Frankie that he could play on the playground when we got back.  The trail was already broken out, making the whole notion seem quite reasonable.  And it was spectacularly gorgeous in the woods!  The heavy wet snow coated every branch, every twig.  It was magical.

Winter wonderland
Progress was slow, due to the antics of one small boy who couldn't resist flinging himself into the deep snow every few steps, but such things are to be expected, at least initially, anyway.  I will admit to some irritation on my part when the novelty of pretending to fall hadn't worn off after a few hours, but luckily Auntie was there to help keep things positive.  I had some little candies in my backpack that Frankie had got while visiting his grandmother at Thanksgiving, a mix of runts and jelly beans and such.  We doled those out as rewards for finding and progressing to the next "clue" (trail marker).  That helped with forward momentum for a while.

The real problem came when we got to the end of the Big Buck Trail.  We had already determined that we would take the shorter segment of the Mildred Faust Trail back, shaving some distance from our return route.  However, the snow was wet and heavy, and had completely crushed the buckthorn and other shrubby vegetation in this area, making an impenetrable wall of snow and thorns that obscured the trail as far forward as we could see.  We investigated the woods on both side but could find no passable way to bushwhack around. You'll poke your eye out

To complicate things, the trail we had originally selected as our return route was not broken out.  The hikers before us had turned right on the Long Trail, which as the name suggests, heads further and further away from the parking area.  We knew this was not a viable option for our little party.  The return route we'd planned follows an old service road, and is level, the easiest trail in the park.  We decided to move forward, breaking trail, rather than returning via the hillier route we'd come.

Venturing forward into unbroken snow was the crux of our mistake.  The snow was deep.  Frankie, understandably, quickly became frustrated as he floundered.  We experimented with different strategies.  I thought if we went single file (me first, then Erin, then Frankie) we would beat the snow down enough for him, but it just wasn't enough.  He was still struggling.  Did I mention the snow was DEEP?  We found the most success with Erin in the lead, and Frankie walking in her tracks, with me walking next to him (in unbroken snow) holding his hand.  We promised a rest at the next bench, and that helped.  From there I swung my backpack to the front and gave Frankie a piggyback ride.  This was exhausting for all of us, as the boy is 40 pounds naked, the poor pregnant lady was still breaking trail, and we had to crash through several extremely thorny sections.

When we finally fought back to the main stem of the Mildred Faust Trail, I had to put Frankie back down again.  I broke out the animal crackers and we slowly inched forward.  We were ridiculously relieved to find a single set of boots tracks to follow.  Somewhere in this area we found a tree with a sad face painted on it, and honestly, it felt a little too close to reality.

This about summed it up.
Eventually we reaction the junction with the connecting spur to the Dry Lake Trail, and from there, the trail was once again broken out.  It was amazing!  Not breaking trail felt like floating, like we were just flying along the smooth and obstacle-free trail.  We were all hungry and tired though, and the smallest among us utterly desperate to arrive at the playground, so even this short, easy section back to the parking lot dragged longer than expected.

Finally, we made it out of the woods, and after dropping the snowshoes in the car, headed for the playground.  Poor Frankie!!  It was such a bitter disappointment.  No one had set foot there since the storm, and the snow reached his waist.  He waded valiantly to the excavator, but the scoop was frozen in the snow.  This was a crushing blow.  I carried him to the slide and tossed him on, but even with the momentum from the high speed launch, he just lodged in the snow, and no amount of squirming and rocking could propel him downward.  The mushrooms and fallen logs and play structures and animals were virtually invisible in the landscape of white lumps.  We gave up and carried him back to the car among furious protests.

I felt so bad.  My poor little boy!  This is not how I want our outdoor adventures to end up.  I want him to enjoy himself, to have fun, to look forward to our hikes and explorations, to appreciate the beauty in nature.  I was so worried this experience would be traumatic, that we'd ruined the woods for him forever.  Imagine my relief when he asked to go back to Clark just a few short days later.  Hurray!  Now we just have to see what he says the next time I suggest snowshoeing....    

Frankie leading the way down the Dry Lake Trail
Cruising right along!
The dry lake.
At the first bench, looking for a snack already.
I'm stepping off the trail so Frankie can resume point.
Erin surrounded by snowy trees.
Frankie was thrilled with this "room" he found.
Sticks are always fun.
Frankie always wants to go down the Switchback Trail.
Knocking snow on himself.
A snow tunnel on the Big Buck Trail.
Resting on the bench along the unbroken section of the Mildred Faust Trail.
Our counter-clockwise route is highlighted in pink.

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