Snowshoeing Take 2

With a late shift for work there was plenty of time for a snowshoe expedition, so Dee and I set out once again to tackle the snow. In contrast to our last outing, this time the temperatures were mild, the wind low and the sun was shining. Much nicer!

We chose the Waterfall Trail, which started out along the ski trails then ventured off through a valley and eventually rose up the hillsides. Some intrepid backcountry skiers had decided to ski the route, so it was easy to find our way alongside their tracks. With the sun beating down, we quickly shed layers, hats and gloves as we grew warm while trudging uphill. The blue sky made for a dramatic backdrop to the scenery, enhancing the experience.

As we neared the waterfall, we could hear it trickling down. It wasn't a big opening in the snow, but the water was definitely flowing. It left icy formations around the edges of the snowy hole and a pleasant sound in the otherwise silent forest.

Although the clouds began to gather and eventually the sky became completely overcast, we decided to extend our walk to do the Coyote Tooth trail. That one had not been used since the last snowfall, so we were relieved to find that it was very clearly marked. We did a lot of climbing, but whenever we reached openings in the trees we were rewarded by expansive views. It was fun to see the ski trails on the opposite hillside, as if on a map in front of us. Eventually we were able to see out over the whole valley. Had it not been snowing in the distance, the mountain views would have been stunning.

Our final descent was a series of switchbacks to make our way back down the steep hillside. The actual distance we had covered was disappointingly small, but it didn't come close to measuring the amount of effort we'd expended tromping around in the snow all morning. It felt good to see the car in the distance and complete our trek. Another successful snowshoeing adventure under our belts.


Sudden Change in Plans

It's not what we had planned at all. But life has a way of throwing us challenges and curve balls when we least suspect it. And our job is to do the right thing and make the best of it.

For me, our stay at Snow Mountain Ranch got off to a rocky start (pun intended!) when I brought along the flu and shingles bugs I'd been harboring for two weeks already. Energy zapped and battling the symptoms, I've had to scale back my normal instincts to hit the trails and spend as much time skiing as possible. It's not easy when surrounded by mountains and opportunities to ski and snowshoe. But my body tells me otherwise.

Then came the phone call. Rich's dad was in the hospital, and needed a family member to come be with him and see him through surgery and recuperation. Less than 24 hours later, Rich boarded a plane for Florida without booking a return flight. He's where he needs to be, and the YMCA was more than understanding about his sudden resignation and departure.

It feels strange to be here without Rich. Life goes on, and perhaps fortunately my work schedule has me busy for the next 4 straight days. I am surrounded by caring fellow volunteers who have quickly become our friends, and they are all looking out for me.

Just at the time we long to be connected and be able to talk, Rich and I are technology challenged. My phone has no service here, and Rich doesn't have internet at his Dad's house. Text messages are the best we can do, and arrange to talk via Skype when we can work it out. Between work schedule, hospital hours and the time difference, that's not always easy. In an age of instant communication, we feel the gap acutely.

The plan is to be reunited some time late next week – just in time for our return to Minnesota. It's doubtful we will linger on our trip home as originally planned. I expect instead we will be anxious to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Our memories of Snow Mountain Ranch may be a bit tarnished. But in no way is it the fault of the program. It lived up to all we expected and more, and there are many highlights we will remember fondly. And it's likely we will return. Hopefully next time things will go more according to plan.


Field Trip!

I’m still working on reconciling the idea of being a “senior.” That’s what we’re referred to here at Snow Mountain Ranch, the Senior Volunteers. But it does come with its perks, so I’m learning to overlook the senior bit. Today’s outing was one of those opportunities.

When we first arrived, we heard about the various activities and trips planned for the volunteers. The one that everyone was raving about was the annual trip to Glenwood Springs. The main attraction was the train ride through the mountains, following the Colorado River. It didn’t long for us to add our names to the list, and begin looking forward to the excursion.

The best part about the trip was that Snow Mountain Ranch provided all the transportation and arrangements except the train ticket. All we had to do was show up in the lobby at 6:00am sharp and board their comfortable shuttle bus. From there it was a three hour drive through deep canyons and beautiful mountain country. We passed numerous downhill ski areas with plentiful runs, obstacles and terrain to test all skiers. And we were all grateful for a quick stop at a good coffee shop en route.

The biggest feature of the trip was the scenery, so we were very thankful to have good weather. The recent snowfalls and blowing winds would have brought down a curtain between us and the mountains, and thankfully that didn’t happen. By the time we reached Glenwood Springs, the skies had cleared to a deep blue that accentuated the mountains that surrounded the town.

IMG_3654We had about 2 1/2 hours in Glenwood Springs, which was plenty of time to scatter and explore the town. We checked out the main sights, which were the historic hotel and the hot springs. The springs feed two huge long pools, and even in the winter weather there were plenty of people “taking the waters.” At the farthest end, and the coolest, they even had lap lanes set up – had we been there longer, I would have wished for my swim suit. The day heated up quickly with the sunshine and lower elevation, and it felt positively balmy walking around town gradually shedding our gloves and extra layers.

IMG_3659At noon we all reconvened at the train station, where we boarded Amtrak’s California Zephyr. As soon as possible, we all headed up to the observation car, which was on the top level with windows in the ceiling in addition to the large side windows – we wanted the most view possible. The sun continued to shine, showing off the sights in the best light possible.


Although it was the reverse of our van ride, the route was only the same at the very start of the rail trip. We followed the Colorado River the whole IMG_0820way, and being cyclists, we were quite enamored with the bike trail that also paralleled the river nearly the whole way. Seeing it all from a train, where we were free to move around, switch sides of the car at will, chat with other travelers and travel at a smooth slow pace made it the optimal scenic tour.

IMG_3670 IMG_3671The scenery was actually quite varied. We started off traveling through a canyon surrounded by red rocks in stunning layered formations. Gradually the grade of the landscape lessened and we had broader views. At the lower elevations, the river was mostly open and flowing, and we even saw fly fishermen in the water. There was a lot less snow, and we passed a lot of scrub land as well as ranches.

As the elevation increased, the scenery became more dramatic once again. Soon we were perched on the edge of the river and passed through numerous short tunnels. Across the way, the rocky land became quite inhospitable, and the engineer narrating our journey pointed out treacherous old mule routes on narrow ledges on the mountainside. Although the skies clouded up, reducing our impulse to take pictures minus the dramatic colors, we could still see clearly off to the distance and the snowy peaks beyond. We navigated another beautiful canyon, the snow on the ground increased, and the river was increasingly ice covered.

The last stretch of the trip was a haven for wildlife. Although we’d seen numerous mule deer along the way with their huge ears, suddenly there were tracks all over the snow. We saw a large herd of elk, some complete with huge antlers. One group was intent on seeing moose, as they had on a recent trip, and sure enough – we saw two moose lounging in a field! Bald eagles were also in abundance.

With so much to see, the four hours on the train went by quickly. As soon as we stepped onto the platform, we could see our shuttle bus waiting for us – perfectly timed for our return to Snow Mountain Ranch. It was a great way to spend the day, and I reveled in the excuse to relax, rest and just watch the scenery go by. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a field trip. And this one was a real winner.

This is more like it!

Today was the best skiing yet.  This is what I came for!  With 4″ new snow overnight, and the groomers out setting new track on all the trails, the conditions were glorious.  Add to that mostly sunny skies and temperatures that ultimately reached 41 degrees – it just doesn’t get any better than that.  Even the wind had lessened in the morning when I first went out.

My favorite trail of the morning was one we skied on our first day here.  But the new snow not only softened the formerly crusty trail but draped the trees in snow and muffled all sound.  It was a long but beautiful climb up the mountainside, and a wonderful ride all the way back down.  It was the kind of day that made me want to stay out all day.  But lunch was calling to me.  As I headed back to the Nordic Center, the winds had picked up significantly (of course!), and they blew me all the way down the valley.  I never knew I could ski so fast!

DSCN0126DSCN0131 straightenedFor my afternoon ski, I decided to try out a pair of Atomic Skintec waxless classic skis.  I’ve been lusting after them for two years, wanting a pair but unwilling to swallow the high price tag.  Since volunteers can rent equipment for free, it was the perfect opportunity to take them out for a test run to see if I really liked them.

DSCN0134By that time, the wind had done quite a number of the trails.  Where I had pristine grooming in the morning, the classic tracks were often filled with new snow or drifted over entirely.  But when I could hide from the wind, I found fast firm tracks.  It was a great opportunity to give the skis a full workout.  Where the warm afternoon sun beat down on the snow, it was beginning to soften but we did notice one big difference out here.  The air is so dry that even warm soft snow is not as sticky as back home, instead holding that powdery feel at a much higher temperature.

And the verdict on the skis?  I loved them!  I don’t know if that is good news or bad.  I’m now left still wishing for a pair of my own, looking for a good sale and justification for the purchase…

When I envisioned our stay at Snow Mountain Ranch, this is the kind of day I expected.  Plenty of fresh snow, beautiful trails and multiple excursions out skiing in a day.  Yes, this is more like it.

Snowshoeing up the Mountainside

Neither of us would have gone on our own.  And it wouldn’t have been wise.  But when my co-worker and I put our heads together at lunch, we prodded each other into going snowshoeing.  Never mind the wind and blowing snow – we just had to get out and do something.

Hoping to escape the open valley, we drove up to higher ground and the starting point of the snowshoe trail up Nine Mile Mountain.  The wind was still howling, but we convinced ourselves it was better up there, strapped on our snowshoes and set out.

IMG_0694 croppedNow many times snowshoe trails are so well traveled that boots are enough, and in fact snowshoes are more of a hindrance than a help.  That was not the case for us.  The mountain was covered in deep fresh snow, with no prior evidence of a trail.  Fortunately, the route was well marked with tree markers when we went through woodsy bits and yellow posts when we were out in the open.  It made me wonder just how tall those posts needed to be to still be showing above the top of the snow.

It was a long slog up, but we were glad for the warmth it generated, and stopped frequently to turn and look at the view.  It was a gray and white world out there, but beautiful in its own way.  And despite the dark clouds, the snow was glaringly white all around us.


There is something wonderful about snowshoeing.  It’s not the same competitive sport that skiing is – at least for me.  It’s peaceful and quiet, with plenty of time to reflect.  Especially when treading on silent new snow.  We each forged ahead at our own pace, carefully keeping each other in sight and reconnecting after short intervals.IMG_0703

When we reached the top, there was nothing to tell us we’d made it except the absence of additional trail markers.  We had a marvelous view of the valley and the whole campus of Snow Mountain Ranch.  We could see the Winter Park downhill ski slopes off in the distance.  The world was at our feet.

We flew back down the mountain in half the time it took us to reach the top.  It was easier having a recent trail to follow, but even in the short time since we’d traveled IMG_0702up our footsteps were entirely erased by the wind in spots.

We finished with a sense of accomplishment.  With the brisk wind still fresh on our faces, we were glad we’d made the effort.  Despite the weather, we tackled the mountain.



It all started a couple nights ago. We’d gone to Happy Hour at a nearby XC resort with the other volunteers, and afterwards we stepped outside into a world of swirling snow.  It was a harrowing drive back with huge snowflakes flying at us, illuminated by our headlights.  The car was stifling inside with the defroster pouring out heat, still unable to keep up with the ice forming on the windshield.  It wasn’t a long drive but it sure felt that way, and we were greatly relieved when we crept down the entrance to Snow Mountain Ranch.

DSCN0119For the last two days the wind has been relentless. The new snow on the ground is easily whipped into deep drifts and obliterates the surrounding scenery. With gusts up to 40 mph yesterday it wasn’t a day for outdoor recreation. In fact, the wind shut down the entire Nordic ski trail system, wiping out the trails and tracks. The groomers will be a starting from scratch to recreate the trails and set new track.

When I woke up this morning, all I could see from my window was white. Since it was my day off, I’d signed up for a snowshoe hike. It didn’t look like the kind of weather I wanted to venture out in, and I was saved the embarrassment of wimping out on the event by having the organizer cancel it. Apparently he agreed with my assessment of the weather.

Despite that grim start to the day, the sun has come out. It’s quit a tease, making it look nice outside and tempting to reconsider some outdoor activity. But the wind continues to howl and snow blows horizontally outside the window. One look at the distant mountaintops reveals what could be coming our way – more snow and clouds. For now, I’ll continue to hang out by the fire in the lodge.

According to volunteers who have been coming here for years this weather is unusual. It does get plenty windy here, but these strong winds for such a long duration are not the norm. So we can hope that they will subside. It’s been a challenging winter everywhere this year. I guess here in the mountain valley that means wind and whiteouts.

XC Skiing Mountain Style

The bulk of my cross-country skiing experience has been in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s UP.  I have to say, I think we have some great trails and beautiful settings in our neck of the woods.  So I was very curious to see just how different it would be to ski out in the Rocky Mountains.

Snow Mountain Ranch is nestled in an expansive valley up in the mountains above Denver.  They boast 100 kilometers of ski trails right on campus, and a world-class Nordic Center.  It didn’t take me long to begin exploring.   I think what surprised me most was that many of the trails are out in the open in the base of the valley.  Used to skiing on heavily wooded trails, it’s a different feeling being so exposed.  Unfortunately, the openness is largely due to the advances of the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has decimated the trees in this area of the Rockies, leaving wide open patches everywhere.  Sadly, it is a native bug normally held in check by cold winters, but milder weather over the last decade has allowed it to flourish and kill most of the pine trees.

After the devastatingly cold winter in Duluth this year and record-breaking string of sub-zero weather, it feels like spring out here with temperatures reaching the 40s during the day.  I have piles of warm ski clothes I don’t need – not that I’m complaining!  But with the temperature swings come high winds, and they blow without mercy down the empty valley.  Skiing on the flats feels akin to skiing uphill against the resistance of the wind.  The wind does a number on the trails, scraping any new snow off the top and creating drifts in unexpected areas.  Fortunately, they do groom frequently, and given the chance, I follow the most recently groomed trails.

DSCN0111But the openness does have its compensation in the form of amazing scenery.  Everywhere I look I see mountains, many of them snow covered beauties off in the distance.  The views are spectacular,   particularly when the sun shines and radiates off the snowy mountain tops.  That’s definitely a scene we don’t see out in Minnesota.DSCN0113DSCN0115




Personally, my favorite trails are still those in the woods.  By definition, leaving the valley means a long ascent up the mountainside, but even by a Minnesotan’s standards the grade is reasonably gradual.  Normally I would expect to fly up those hills, skating at a good clip, but at 8,705 feet above sea level the altitude puts a definitive check on my aerobic capacity.  Once at the top, I enjoy winding through both pine and deciduous forests and ultimately making my way back down again.


Perhaps I’m biased, but I have to say that I don’t think Colorado has that much over Minnesota in its XC ski trails.  But to be fair, I’ve only sampled one trail system so far.  And there is a lot to be said for the sunny mild days and towering mountain scenery.  Maybe I should call it a draw.  And ski for another three weeks, just to verify my first impressions of mountain skiing.

Our new home away from home

We had a short drive to get to Snow Mountain Ranch today, coming from Loveland, Colorado.  With no snow in sight, and the car thermometer recording 60 degrees as we traveled through Denver, I admit to having qualms about all this.  Could it really be all that different up there in the mountains?  It didn’t look like it as we began our ascent into the hills.

photo 2Fortunately, the higher we went the more the temperature dropped and the snow mounted. We saw snowboarders and back-country skiers on the roadside.  I began to breathe more easily again.  Although it was a balmy 40 degrees when we reached Snow Mountain Ranch, the high snowbanks were reassuring.

We were given a quick tour of the extensive grounds and facilities at the center, leaving us  eager to explore it all.  It didn’t take long to settle into our room.  While small and bare bones, it has a marvelous view of the mountains and is conveniently connected to the main lodge.

DSCN0094 DSCN0095With a free afternoon, we did the only sensible thing – head for the ski trails!  We started at the Nordic Center to get our ski passes and met the first of many friendly fellow volunteers.  They went out of their way to make us feel welcome. This was starting to feel really good.

We planned a short reconnaissance ski, checking out the trails, snow conditions and terrain for the first time.  Rich and I skied together, not pushing ourselves and just enjoying the newness of it all.  We have three full weeks to explore all 100k of trails after all.  We did find that the altitude took its toll – I was quickly winded on the uphill climbs and confess to having to stop to rest along the way.  Hopefully our bodies will acclimate before long.

It’s all still so new to us, but we’re already convinced we’re going to like it here.  Good thing as this is our home away from home for the next three weeks.

The Latest Adventure

Just four and a half months since we cycled to the end of our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, we are on our way to another new vacation experience. This time we have loaded up our cross-country skis and are headed for the Rockies. Although we won't be self-propelled between destinations this trip, we will be “self-supported” during our stay.

Snow Mountain Ranch Nordic Center

With retirement comes plenty of free time, and an incentive to conserve funds. So when we heard about the volunteer opportunitites at Snow Mountain Ranch, a Nordic Ski Center run by the YMCA of the Rockies in Colorado, we didn't hesitate a moment before filling out the application. When the call came to say we were “hired” we were thrilled. We've never skied in the Rockies before, and are unlikely to spend the big bucks to go there, so it was the perfect solution.

It's a sweet gig indeed. For three weeks we will work as volunteers for 28 hours a week, in exchange for room and board, and access to 100 kilometers of mountain ski trails. They are putting Rich to work in IT, doing a PC upgrade on all their computers. I chose a more leisurely pursuit – working in the craft shop, helping others with their projects. The remainder of the time we are free to enjoy the amenities of the center, most notably the ski trails. For a couple of XC skiing enthusiasts, what could be better?

We have it on good authority that they treat their volunteers well, as they are the life blood of the operation. And in fact most of them return year after year. Some stay the entire winter, but newcomers like us are encouraged to try it out on a shorter term basis. I'm sure they will be checking us out as much as we are them. The staff accomodations are reported to be 60's style motel rooms – right up our alley having spent night after night in budget motels on our cycling trip. And someone else will be doing the cooking – sounds good to me.

We check in tomorrow afternoon. Let the adventure begin!


We detour for Northern Lights

Do you have any idea what it is like to be married to an Aurora Hunter? Here's a hint. When the predictions for a Northern Lights display ran high, Rich suddenly changed our route to Denver to stay far enough north to see the display, should it materialze. Never mind that it added 80 miles to our trip. The mere possibility of seeing the aurora was worth it, in his mind. He's the driver, so I went along with the plan.

Our new route took us through South Dakota. To be honest, it looked a whole lot like Nebraska to me – flat and devoid of trees. Not a whole lot to see. Instead I set my sights on the reading material I'd brought along, and got caught up on umpteen issues of Time Magazine.

The lack of scenery was such that when Rich suggested we take a quick detour to see the Corn Palace, it actually sounded like a reasonable idea. Never mind that it was merely the exterior that was made of corn, they actually did some pretty cool things creating murals out of corn cobs. It's amazing what can be interesting when faced with mile after mile of undulating land.

Kadoka SD is our home for the night. The Club 27 Steakhouse was the best joint in town for dinner, and we felt as though we'd stumbled on the hot spot for miles around. Valentine's Day seemed to bring out all the town folk, and the place was hopping. Valentine decorations, dinner specials and folks dressed in red all signified a special night, and Rich tried to gain credit for taking me out for a Valentine's dinner. We enjoyed the preponderance of cowboy hats, flannel shirts and the locals all greeting one another.

Unfortunately, the clouds have rolled in so the likelihood of seeing any Northern Lights – even if they appear – are slim. But we did see a pink sunset, and a huge full moon rise at the same time on opposite sides of the sky. That was pretty cool, and may just be our excitement for the evening. Detour or not.