The Chewuch River Loop is an easy going snowmobile trail which is infrequently traveled and so made for great skiing. Because of the tracks they leave behind and loud, smelly nature, snowmobiles are your friend if they were in the area, but aren’t now. The weather was perfect but there weren’t any large views because the trip was in a forested river valley along a snow covered (most of the time) forest road. Notable events included finding a moose antler (aka “moose paddle”), learning why you shouldn’t light a canister stove in a closed vestibule, and encountering horseback riders in the snow.
Saturday (January 16, 2021)
Lydia and I arrived at The Eightmile Sno Park without having settled on which of the routes we’d discussed, we were actually going to ski. The discussion dragged out a little as neither of us really wanted to leave the warm car but eventually we settled on doing a loop from the Eightmile Sno Park, counter-clockwise starting by skiing the road we’d just driven in on. This would get the bad skiing out of the way first as hopefully the rest would be the “Groomed Snowmobile Trail” which the WA State Parks map promised.
As cross country skiers, we have a love-hate relationship with snowmobiles. They’re loud, smelly, and hog the trail. However, their treads and skis groom the snow and make for a much better XC ski experience than when breaking new trail. Our hope was that this route would be less popular, but still popular enough.
We got out of the car around 10am and things started well enough. The toilet at the Sno Park was open. The herd of snowmobiles which were idling when we’d arrived took off up a different trail. While there wasn’t the groomed trail south along the road as the map implied, the road initially had enough snow that I didn’t feel like I was damaging my skis.
Unfortunately, the plows had down their work well. While that had made driving in easier, it made skiing less fun.
There was a thin layer of ice which usually kept the skis from making direct contact with the asphalt. When we turned east to cross the Chewuch River though, the road had been sanded which made for a feeling like skiing on sandpaper. I’m surprised my ski bases aren’t worse off. It also made for a loud sound like a zipper.
This road skiing lasted until the Boulder Creek Sno Park where a shoulder of the road had been left covered in snow and a clear snowmobile track was present. We took this shoulder which disappeared shortly at a one-lane bridge over a drainage coming in from the east. There was a little snow on the road as the road returned to the bottom of the river valley.
We were now well into the section where the the groomed snowmobile track was supposed to have picked up. The road skiing was hard on Lydia’s knee, still sore from the road walk on our previous adventure. We decided to go for another 20 minutes and if conditions didn’t improve, we’d abandon the endeavor and ski the 4-5mi back to the car instead of sticking it out for another ~18mi over two days. About 15 minutes later, the plowed road turned west toward the river. I was ready to turn around early since it seemed obvious that this wasn’t going to get any better when I realized that the plowed road wasn’t the main road. It turned onto private property. Another road continued straight, through a fence, but was snowed under with signs of a single snowmobile’s passage. That was our route.
The snowmobile track was soft underfoot, each kick (and yes, we could glide now, if only a little) sinking in subtly like walking on a deep carpet. The sun was shining. It was blissful after the miles of skiing on barely covered asphalt.
We ate lunch a little later sitting on the bank of the Chewuch with a view up the river back to the Eightmile Sno Park on the other side where we’d started. To avoid sinking in to the deeper snow where we ate lunch, I tried to get off my skis and onto my backpack and from there flop over to my foam sleeping pad. I’d only brought running gaiters which didn’t have a strap underneath and didn’t want snow up my pants or trapped under the gaiters melting into my shoes. Unfortunately, when reversing this sequence of acrobatics after eating, I slipped when trying to go from backpack to skis and so fell in anyways. Oh well.
The going continued to be pleasant. The skiing was easy. The light was soft for the few more hours we had it (sundown around 4:30pm). Lydia guessed that the trees we were passing were Ponderosas. My botanical knowledge allows me to differentiate between a tree, bush, and grass.
We hadn’t seen anyone for a few hours and the snowmobiles we’d seen at that time had been loud enough to give us plenty of warning. About half an hour before sundown, I spotted two snowshoers without packs rounding the next bend toward us. I interrupted Lydia with this development which turned out to be a good thing because she was just about to loudly proclaim how loud we could be that evening with no one around.
The snowshoers were a middle aged couple who owned a cabin up the road, near a spur where we’d intended to camp. They said no one else was in the area and people wouldn’t mind if we set up a tent. They were quite friendly and it seemed like they might have invited us to their cabin if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. They were responsible for the lone snowmobile track which had eased our passage thus far. The unfortunate implication of this was that the track might not go for our entire route.
Lydia and I continued and just before sunset the snowmobile track turned left on a spur road just as the plowed road had turned left earlier in the trip. The land was slightly sloped so we continued a short distance to the top of a gentle rise, breaking a shallow trail through a 1/8″-1/4″ thick crust of icy snow over several inches of loose powder. As we only went a short distance, this was fun as the crust made the sound of breaking glass when shattered by a ski in motion. My skis would sometimes get stuck under the crust and scrape on the bottom side before busting through. It was a little difficult to find a flat spot to camp because the crust had filled in holes and bumps but once broken, the powder would compress to match the undulations of the forest floor. I’m used to tents which are set up with trekking poles and guy lines making them difficult to move. It was very convenient to be able to pick up Lydia’s tent with it’s internal tent poles and reposition it around obstacles as we found them.
As a new winter camper, I took part particular pleasure in sticking our skis into the snow as tent stakes the way tents look in photos from intense expeditions. With the snow so powdery under the crust, conventional stakes could not bear much tension even after compacting the snow and waiting 15 minutes for them to solidify.
Lydia had gotten in to the tent first so I could use her skis as the back stakes and only have to flounder around knee deep snow of the tent’s vestibule after using my skis as the front stakes. Since I was occupying the vestibule anyways, I figured I’d melt water for drinking since our plan was to cook in the vestibule. I zippered the flap shut, sat down in the tent’s door (having a sunken vestibule makes getting in and out of a winter tent much easier than a summer one), connected a gas can to the stove (carefully placed on a foam pad so the snow wouldn’t cool it and reduce the pressure), and then tried to light the stove. Melting snow was taking a while so I started a second stove. The gas pressure in the first died down and so I used the flame from the second stove to heat the gas can for the first (just enough to melt the ice – gas cans cool themselves to below freezing). Thus, I survived my first bad idea involving gas and fire.
Re-lighting the stove took several attempts. My lighter had trouble catching. Then suddenly, WHOOSH. I’d had the gas line open while trying to light the stove but the vestibule door shut. The air-gas mixture must have been perfect all I saw was a flash and felt a strong heat hit me with a soft thud then dissipate. Closing my eyes must have been an unconscious reaction otherwise they might have been burned but they were immediately open again trying to figure out if any of the lingering flames were the tent itself on fire. If the tent were on fire, I needed to forget fire fighting and get out of the tent and get Lydia to do the same. After a second or two’s assessment, the tent itself didn’t seem to be on fire so I righted the stoves (a liter of almost melted water was lost), trying to move quickly. I remember batting some small flame with my gloved hand and it went out. Then, I realized that one of the fingers of my glove still had a candle sized flame that hadn’t gone out when I’d batted out the other flame, so I yanked the glove off and threw it out under the edge of the vestibule into the snow. Situation in hand, I set the pots on to melt more snow.
Over a dinner of rehydrated rice and mushrooms, Lydia told me that the right side of my face smelled burned but not the left side. Whenever I rubbed it, little flakes would fall out of my beard. My eyebrows were still attached, though a few strands felt fused. I’d blown myself up, just like in the cartoons.
Sunday (January 17, 2020)
I’d brought a dry bag and kept my boots and fuel can in it at the bottom of my sleeping bag which made it easy to get going in the morning. I’m not used to splitting a tent with someone and when I’m by myself, my stuff and I tend to expand to fill all available space. I was pleasantly surprised that Lydia and I didn’t seem to get in each other’s way while packing up and making breakfast. The only hard part was getting the short distance back to the road on the icy snow where the scales of our skis didn’t catch. The trick seemed to be redefining skiing as an upper-body exercise since planted poles didn’t slip. Also, balance is hard with a loaded pack.
We were now on a section of road which had not seen a snow mobile recently and so were breaking through the same crust I described yesterday. The joy of pretending I was a bull in a china shop, breaking glass with each step, quickly wore off. The going wasn’t hard, it was just slow and loud. Even a one sentence observation required stopping and then waiting for the other person to stop before speaking.
After about half a mile or so, some snowmobiles passed us going the other direction. Odoriferous though they might have been, the skiing became much easier as the trail was now broken. Shortly thereafter, we came to a place where an open stream was crossing the road. Fortunately, it was shallow enough and ski boots sufficiently waterproof that our feet stayed dry.
After skiing a little farther, we came on a sign warning us about the hazard we’d just crossed. I’m used to water on roadway in the spring runoff. It was unexpected in the winter and made me wonder how often that part of the road is dry.
The entire morning, there had been a set of tracks in the snow which I’d assumed were boots from someone walking. They’d been walking a long ways. It turns out that I’m not very observant because they were probably moose tracks. At some point, I noticed Lydia had stopped a bit back and was waving a moose antler. I had skied right by it. Lydia had been watching for a moose the entire trip and while I believe they live in the area, I so rarely see large, rare fauna, particularly in the same areas where I see hunters, that I wasn’t expecting anything. Maybe I rarely see megafauna because I’m not really looking.
A little farther along, a forest road forked east and was covered in snowmobile tracks. This herd of snowmobiles had left most of the road ski-able, not just a single track, almost as though a groomer had come through. This wider track carried us over the bridge at the north end of our loop and onto the sunnier road on the west side. Notable was that the moose tracks were deeper than the snowmobile tracks, at least until they dove over the edge of the road down to the river.
We ate lunch at one of the few views of the mountains above us. I managed the skis to pad to pack transition a little better this time.
The big event of the afternoon was when we encountered two horse riders. I typically think of horses as needing a solid surface, but they only seemed to be sinking in to just above the tops of their hooves. One of the horses was skittish around skiers and so its rider got off and talked with us for several minutes to let the horse calm down before it would move past. A little while later, the riders passed us, headed back south this time. They were galloping but the skittish horse stopped hard and bucked, dislodging the rider, though the rider never lost hold of the reins. “It’s times like these you’re glad for the snow” the not-now-a-rider said getting back up. We talked again for a few minutes before they were able to pass and take off galloping again.
As we entered the later miles of the trip, there were signs. Signs for camp grounds and day use areas. Signs for roads and signs for speed limits. There was even an interpretive sign confirming Lydia’s supposition about the trees being Ponderosas. There had been some mounds of neatly stacked tree branches we’d seen the day before. Perhaps they were left behind as burn piles by forest crews waiting for conditions under which a burn might be more controllable.
The final stretch was along a farm whose fields were covered in lumpy but untouched snow under a hill of ragged rock where the snow looked like frosting on Frosted Flakes.
And finally, we were back to Eightmile Sno Park. The toilets were still open and any trip where you don’t have to use a blue bag is a good trip in my book.