Winter Wilds: Reflections on Winter Hiking

Nature // March 15, 2018

By Carol Beam

I can understand the first impulse: No. No way. Not happening. No thanks.

That’s how lots of people react to the invitation to hike in the dead of winter. Sure, it’s going to be kind of challenging when you first get going. But once you’re moving and warming up, you get to see the park in its glory. Leaves are down and the views go on from one side of the valley to the other. The air tastes sweet.

On recent wintry trail shift, my partner and I had to watch our footing more than usual. Snow, ice, mud, they all can cause trouble. But paying attention to the terrain, tuning in to how we’re stepping and how we’re balancing are skills. By using them the skills get better.

There’s a stillness and quietness in the snowy woods. Birds aren’t calling this time of year. Troops of kids are off sledding or throwing snowballs somewhere else. They’re not on the trails. What you hear is your breath and the crunch of your footsteps.

And then there are the wild footsteps! After several sub-zero days, when you figure the creek might just be solid, we spotted a few places along the creek where people trekked out onto the ice. The very idea of it makes my innards clench. Who would do such a thing? Who would take a chance of falling through in this quiet time in the park, with no one around but the deer? What kind of wild people are hanging around our park????

Then I thought back to me in my 20s. A bunch of us drove up to Lake Minnewaska in New Paltz, NY. The area is a state park now, but back then it was a big old wooden hotel with incredible trails for cross-country skiing. They charged per person to get onto the property if you weren’t a guest of the hotel, so we sent a driver up the hill with all the skis and three of us figured we would cut through the woods and meet her in the parking lot. Oh, right, there was this big old waterfall in the way. But it had been cold. The waterfall was all icicles and the basin below it was covered with a good layer of snow. We saw there were footsteps going from one side of the basin to the other. How dangerous could this be? I looked at those footsteps for a while, sizing up my courage.

I swear I held my breath the whole way, but we got across and had a great day. Now I picture my 20-something self at the edge of the frozen waterfall and I feel my blood rushing to my feet. My heart is actually still thumping as I write.

Older and wiser now, I’ll stick to the trails, thank you.