It was quiet even with the few falling snowflakes playing their part in a sea of snow. No wind, no tracks in front of us. It was if nature was shouting, “This is real, not neon signs, smartphones, spiked high heels, footballs, all reconstituted from my gifts.”
It’s a shame to break the silence with the swishing sounds of cross-country skis, but it’s cold and the winter sun waits for no one. An hour later, we’re back on the Mount Baker Highway, considering a snowshoe hike next time.
The highway is your access from I-5, 58 miles to the end of the road. The last snow-free section, however, is 2.7 miles from the end.
No matter what your non-motorized winter sport (yes, including dogsledding and hiking), the Mount Baker area offers you places to play with easy access, sometimes in sight of an active volcano.
Sno-Parks are good jumping off spots. Snowshoe trails, cross-country ski tracks and skate ski lanes are set at the Salmon Ridge Sno-Park (2,000-foot elevation) at mile 47 by the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club. Take the time to stop and talk to the club’s ambassadors from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays in January.
Ski and snowshoe trail maps are available, and you can even buy a Sno-Park pass to park there and other Sno-Parks. Volunteers are happy to talk about technique and ski types, and you can try out snowshoes. There may be short tours, but there’s no need to sign up.
Snowshoe programs are offered at Glacier through the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The 10 a.m. weekend walk lasts two to three hours, not including driving to the walk location. Snowshoes and poles are provided. Reservations are required.
The shutdown of the federal government will delay confirmation of the dates.
The ranger-guided walk features snowshoe and winter safety basics, winter ecology, recreational opportunities and the cultural history of the North Fork Nooksack drainage.
The avalanche awareness walk includes a Northwest Avalanche Center specialist who will discuss safety along the way. Each walk has a maximum group size of 15. Both walks have a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $10 for those ages 16 and younger.
For more information, call Magenta Widner at 360-599-9572 after the shutdown.
One benefit to snowshoeing is that it’s slow-going, allowing time to look for animal tracks.
“You’ll most likely see some, usually delicate paw prints of small mammals, such as mice, less than the size of a penny, or vole tunnels,” said wildlife biologist Phyllis Reed of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
“What you see depends on your elevation,” she said, but might include snowshoe hare or coyote tracks.
Non-hibernating mammals are roaming farther afield to find food in winter.
“The deepness of the snow disperses foraging,” Reed said.
If you’re curious about what animal made the tracks, take pictures and bring them to the nearest ranger station or compare them at home with a book on tracks. Put something next to the track to help tell size and distance between the tracks.
Mount Baker Ski Area is known for its average annual snowfall (663 inches) and downhill skiing, but there’s room for other pursuits (sledding and tubing are not allowed within the ski area) outside the boundaries. (Think 663 is a lot? Winter of 1998-99, Mount Baker set a record for the most snowfall measured in the United States in a single season: 1,140 inches.)
A spectacular snowshoe/ski outing leads to Artist Point, but it comes with a serious caveat. On Christmas Day, the avalanche report was that conditions were dangerous, natural avalanches were possible and human-triggered ones were likely.
If that’s the case, choose another trip with your head (after checking out conditions before you leave home) and not your heart (desire and bravado won’t cut it here). According to the Northwest Avalanche Center, seven people were killed in avalanches in this state during the 2017-18 season.
Saying that, it’s a beautiful excursion, a 4-mile roundtrip venture with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The trailhead is at the last parking area (no permits required) open on Highway 524.
Congratulations if you make it (terrific views of Shuksan, Baker and other peaks); but if you don’t, enjoy the views and the exercise along the way. Snowshoeing requires more energy than hiking, so turn around before you’re exhausted, or if your skills don’t match the terrain. And take into consideration the long switchback before Artist Point.
Just outside the ski area boundary are opportunities for sledding and tubing. There’s a snow bowl, reached by driving between the lower and upper ski lodges. Take the loop past the upper lodge and park on the downhill side of the bowl. Or sled near the (hopefully) frozen Highwood or Picture lakes. If they’re frozen over, you can sled right onto the lake.
Or you can park in the upper lot and follow people with sleds or tubes.
Now it’s time to talk safety. Odds are, you didn’t wake up this morning knowing the avalanche prediction or current road conditions at your destination. Check those first, let someone know your destination, take the traditional 10 essentials (check the internet) plus plenty of extra food to replace the calories you’re burning, and more water than you think you need.
Then make the most of your outing on the slopes of an active volcano. Now that’s real.
From a distance, Mount Baker often appears to have a pink glow during the spring and summer. Called watermelon snow, it’s caused by several types of algae at high elevations during spring and summer.
Where do they go during the winter and how do they survive?
The non-technical version is that snow covers the algae and they become dormant. In the spring, several factors, including light levels and meltwater, stimulate germination and the cells release smaller flagellate cells that head toward the surface.
Biological processes kick into action, snow melts and eventually the watermelon snow is so widespread that it appears, from a distance, to cover the upper part of the mountain, although it’s in broad swaths and pockets.