Snowshoeing Again

April 2, 2021 § 1 Comment

An unusual thing happened this winter. It snowed! It didn’t just snow, but it snowed a lot. I live at the Jersey Shore, where I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t snow, because it does, but the Jersey Shore just isn’t a place where it snows a lot. At least not consistently. Occasionally there are storms that come, and dump, and the conditions are right, and a lot gets dumped, but those conditions are rare. This year, the snow gods aligned their energies, and the conditions were right. That isn’t necessarily enough though, because sometimes, when it snows a lot at the Jersey Shore, it doesn’t snow a lot where it’s better to have a lot of snow. Like in the mountains. That wasn’t the case this year. While the Jersey Shore got 10 inches of snow, High Point NJ got almost two feet! With two feet of snow, there are a lot of options on the winter sports table.

The day after the storm ended, and the roads were clear enough, I drove over to my local hiking park, Hartshorne Woods, and donned my micro spikes, and set off into the normal loop I do with Mike and Jed. The going wasn’t too bad. There was about 8 inches of snow, and only a few people had been on the trail, however that included one brave soul who took in Laurel Ridge on cross country skis. A cross country skier, I am not, but Laurel Ridge seems like a pretty challenging route on skis, but this skier was perhaps a very experienced one, and able to make a go of it, as the tracks looked to be fairly stable, and I didn’t see anything that looked like the person had suffered for their choice of route. There were no broken trees, or bloodied bushes, so control seemed to have been maintained.

When I intersected Grand Tour, I came upon snowshoe tracks, and I followed those around the inner loop. When I came to the juncture where I would normally have turned to ascend up to the service road, I continued to follow the snowshoe tracks, and then the only tracks in the snow where from the snowshoes, and from me. While I was walking along, it occurred to me that I haven’t been snowshoeing in almost 40 years, and maybe it might be nice to try it again. Later in the day, I had seen some images posted from Jed where he and Mireille had had a tremendous day of cross country skiing at High Point State Park in the Northwest corner of New Jersey. I looked online, and found a link to the Cross Country Ski Center that is run in the park, and found that they rent snowshoes, so I made the decision then and there, to drive up early Saturday morning, and give snowshoeing a chance again after 40 years.

Let’s say something about that. It isn’t that I didn’t like it forty years ago, and vowed never to strap a snowshoe to my feet ever again. No, it was more like, the opportunity to snowshoe just never really presented itself. I never really lived in good snowshoe country, and I wasn’t so much into driving long distance to get to a place, and there wasn’t really anyone in my circle of friends who were interested in that. I had friends that liked to ski, but when they skied, that was planning, and that was planning for a long week of skiing. That was fly somewhere to ski, ski all week, and then fly back. I know what you are thinking. I had a good job, paid well, yes, but I got married a year out of graduate school, so there was the wedding, and we bought a house, so there was the mortgage, and I already had two expensive hobbies, and Susan, my wife wasn’t a skier either, so the point here is, the opportunity to snowshoe just didn’t present itself.

Today, everything is different. I do have one friend who does own two pairs of snowshoes. He is of Canadian birth and he is one of my hiking friends but I decided I was going to go to High Point on my own, do my own thing and see if I would enjoy it. I didn’t want to burden Mike with my expectations for the day. I wanted to see what I could do, and if it all worked out, then maybe the snow would last a while, and we could come again together. So I kept my plans to myself, and verified that the XC Ski center opened at 8am on weekends, and it was best to get there early. Friday night arrived quickly, and I got everything I thought I would need together and laid it all out so it would be ready to go when I got up. I prepared some oats, soaked in Oat Milk, with maple syrup and blueberries for a meal, and I laid out my layers of clothing. Lightweight long johns, hiking pants, compression long sleeved top, overshirt, fleece shirt, 44 year old LL Bean Norwegian Wool sweater, a shell and some wool socks. I laid out both my new Merino Wool gloves, and the Merino Wool mittens I had ordered from Sweden for bike riding this winter. What is good for bike riding is good for snowshoeing! A wool hat, and a neck gaiter. I grabbed some snacks, and set out a thermos in the morning for hot water, and then I turned in to get some sleep. I would rise early, and make sure I got there around 7:30. I wanted to make sure I was an early bird, so I could get out on the trail before most of the main traffic arrived.

Everything played out well the next morning. I awoke, and jumped out of bed. I donned the base layers I would need, and packed the rest in a bag to adorn before I hit the trail. I boiled water, poured that into my thermos, packed the via coffee packets and my snacks, grabbed everything else I needed, and departed. With no one on the road, and it being Saturday, I zoomed up there rather quickly and arrived at 7:20, well before 8am. Now here is where I made my mistake. I thought, and the location of the icon within google maps for the XC Ski center wasn’t clear, that the center was right there on Route 23. There is a decent sized building, and I just thought that was it, so I parked in the parking lot and ate my oatmeal. Sitting there I saw other vehicles arrive, but they pulled into the entrance on the other side of the highway, and from what I could see there was a line that had so far extended out to the highway, and there were no cars on my side in my lot. I reasoned then, that I was in error, and moved to other side of the street, where I didn’t have to wait long before the gate was promptly opened at 8am, and we all flooded in single file. As it turns out the ski center is about a mile within the park, and I followed all the cars to the main center lot, and aped my fellow sports enthusiasts who launched out of their vehicles and headed up the driveway towards a building that looked a lot like what you might think a ski center would actually look like. Using my stride, I moved quicker, and without seeming like someone who was trying to “Cut In”, I safely and non dickishly got the center ahead of the main swarm that I had been behind, and was 12th in line to be processed. The line moved pretty quickly, perhaps it would have been quicker had the electronic payment option been in operation, but cash worked. It was $16 for a full day of the shoes, and $20 for an access ticket, and since Cliff Bar was a sponsor, a free cliff bar or two. I then moved to the equipment window and was the first to request snowshoes, so I was guaranteed access to my size. What they gave me were some top end Tubbs. Tubbs is also a sponsor, and whether that is the reason they have really nice shoes or not, I do not know, but I looked those up at the end of the day, and of course, like everything else in these pandemic times, they were sold out and out-of-stock across the country. But on this day, I had a pair of 28″ and I took them back to my car to get the rest of my gear together. It was 18F, and not windy in amongst the trees, so I went with just my sweater, and stuffed my bag with my mittens, snacks, camera case, and other incidentals, and then headed back to the ski center where the loop starts. First with shoes, first on the trail, I set out on the Monument loop, a 4.4 mile loop that heads North along the Western ridge, and climbs to the higher Eastern ridge for the return.

This is the first Saturday after the storm, so even though the main loop trail starts with a snowshoe trench, the further along it I got, the less defined were the trench walls. A little bit about etiquette. Skis are allowed on the snowshoe trails, but snowshoes are not allowed on the ski trails. Skiers on the snowshoe trails are more experienced, and technically able to handle the steeper grades, however there is no expectation on the snowshoe trail to stay out of the ski tracks if there are any. If there are tracks and they are to the side of the trench, then they probably would remain undisturbed, but if a faster snowshoer wants to pass a slower snowshoer, then into the tracks you go. On the ski trails, there is no reason for snowshoers to be there altering the integrity of the tracks groomed specifically for the skiers. Etiquette. Anyhow, I eventually came to a side trail, and no one had been down it, so it was virgin snow, and if you have skiing friends that know powder, you are probably familiar with the orgasm that hits their eyes when they talk of virgin snow. Being the first. Well I was the first to break trail down this trail, which loses some elevation, and winds its way over to Steeny Kill Lake, where it then hugs the shoreline around to Route 23. When I arrived at the lake and emerged from the protection of the trees, I found that there was wind, and it was blowing right across the lake and into my face. It was pretty cold, and I couldn’t find any reason why I needed to walk all the way to Route 23 in that wind, so decided I did, to turn around and hike back. I should note that my turn around point was at an animal depression in the snow where it appeared that something fairly large had bedded down in that spot. No sign of struggle there was, and no sign of blood was there, so I can only conclude that something burrowed in, and spent some rest time there, and then arose, and wandered off. It wasn’t large, but it wasn’t small either.

Anyway, I retraced my steps all the way back to the Monument Trail, but before I got there I had been posting some images to a private chat group I had going with my friends Mike and Jed, and it wasn’t long before Mike posted a picture from High Point State Park with some words indicating he was somewhere on the Monument Loop. I figured that while I had started hiking before Mike, my excursion down to Steeny, allowed Mike to advance on the Monument loop beyond the point of my detour, and so when I returned to the main loop, I simply figured that I would catch up to him at some point.

I should note that the shadow patterns in the woods were quite remarkable that morning once the sun had cleared the ridge and bathed the woods floor with light. Before that occurred the woods had a blue feel to it, and when I was processing some of my images, the blue stood out, so I adjusted to subtract some blue and restore the true color. The trail meandered, and the further along I got, the less well defined the trench walls became in places. Maybe that was because the trail was a little wider, and maybe people didn’t want to walk in a trench, or maybe just enough people didn’t yet come this way that trench just hadn’t formed yet. In any case I was making pretty good time, and was enjoying the view. One thing the snow shows you, is where the animals roam. I crossed umpteen game trail crossings, mostly deer, but not always.

I caught up to a group that I had seen in the distance, and they heard me coming when I got closer, the father stopping to call ahead that a locomotive was coming through and to step aside. I cleared them easily with some enthusiastic “Good Morning”s and “Great Day for Snowshoes” and then I was out of their collective sights. There was at least one point on the Western ridge when the Delaware came into view as it wandered its crooked path between Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Delaware is a pretty major river, and is in fact the only major river in the United States that is completely free to run its course. There are no dams along. There had been a dam project in the works, and the land had been all acquired for it, but opposition was high, and eventually the opposition won out, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area was born. Now, let’s be clear, there are dams on some of the feeder streams in the Catskills, but when it comes to the main branch of the river, nothing but flowing water.

As the trail turned a little Northeast, it started to descend and was approaching the intersection with the northernmost extension of the ski trail, and that is where I found Mike taking a little break. From there we walked together and chatted about the beauty of the woods and the snow. How it was a real treat to have so much snow that snowshoeing was so accessible. Mike owns two pairs of snowshoes, and he brought the modern metal framed Tubbs, which were a much older design than the Tubbs I was renting. I guess like everything, there are always improvements that can be made. For example, Mike’s bindings were all webbing straps with buckles, and my bindings were the BOA dial managed bindings with a rubber stretch rear strap. Very convenient to put on and to take off.

We reached the halfway point, which is the intersection with the ski trail, and from there an interesting thing occurred. The snowshoe tracks ended. Now, its possible that others had completed the loop in the week prior, but drifting snows had filled in their tracks, and there was no evidence of it any longer. The other thing, is from this juncture, the loop starts a long sustained climb to the higher Eastern ridge, and so I think that many people who are beginners look at that, and simply turn around and walk back. That would explain why the Western section of the loop is so well defined.

We set off up the grade, me leading, and Mike following. It wasn’t all that steep, but it was prolonged. At times there openings that revealed the open valley to the NE. In addition, as we gained more purchase on the higher ridge, we found the wind had picked up all morning, and there were pretty significant gusts blowing across the trail. There were some fairly significant drifts to hike through where the snow depth approached 3 feet. I made this judgement based on how far my hiking pole sunk into the drift with the somewhat limited baskets I had. I should note also, that the trail on this ridge is almost on the spine of the ridge. To the West, it was level for some 10-20 yards, before descending, however to the East, the actual top of the ridge rose another 10-15 feet where if the effort is made, you are rewarded with a 210 degree unobstructed view that includes Vernon Valley, and the Walkill Preserve. It’s a fantastic view, however climbing that 10-15 feet in snowshoes in deep drift is not an easy task, and it took a lot of effort for me to achieve that. The issue was mainly, that for every step forward, I slid half a step back, and sometimes, the entire step, so I had to angle up against the grain of the climb, negotiating through the small trees. I did eventually make it, and my reward was astounding. Of course, had I simply finished out the hike, access to the same view was achieved without effort once the monument parking lot was reached, so Mike enjoyed the same view without all the work I had to put see it only ten minutes prior. Once we emerged into the parking lot, then all protection from the wind vanished, and it was a brisk, very cold wind, and so we didn’t linger long enjoying the view, and moved quickly to get across the expanse of the lot, and back into the cover of the trees. When I say “Monument”, I mean the monument at the highest point in New Jersey, and that is the monument in “Monument Trail”. From there the trail descends back into the cover of the trees, and loops over to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail (AT), and then the loop finishes along a stretch of Lake Marcia. There wasn’t any indication that anyone had ventured along the AT at all, and we left that snow undisturbed and finished out the loop.

We reached the intersection with all the main ski trails, where we found all the skiers who came out to enjoy some pandemic relief in the woods. Judging by some of the folks, I think for many, this was their first time on skis, The more experienced people looked like they were more experienced, and did their best to avoid the newbies. We climbed back up to the ski center, and de-shoed. I returned my shoes, and we returned to the lot where are vehicles were parked. With a chair in my trunk, I chose to relax a bit, have a seat, and utilize the hot water in my thermos, and had a couple cups of Starbucks Via coffee. Mike hung out for about another two minutes, and then we said our goodbyes and departed.

I felt like this experiment was a huge success, and I was already thinking about my next snowshoeing trip. Here at High Point, the AT cuts through, and to the South of Route 23, there is a longer loop option that is outside the park, so doesn’t require ticket, but it would be easier to do if I had my own shoes. So, when I got home, and checked the REI site, I found then that a lot of shoes were out of stock, however there was a set from Yukon Charlie that looked like it was sufficient, and my general rule of thumb is that REI doesn’t sell crap, so an order was placed. They arrived a couple days later, and I planned then on my second adventure. That may be another story, but this story is over, with a giant smile achieved for all the effort.

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