Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Excursion Article Series 02.18.09: Cross-country Skiing on Jackson Lake, or How to Fall on a Completely Flat Surface

Caption: AmberLynn follows a snowmobile trail, stab, squeak, sliiiiiiding across the Jackson Lake.

Excursion: Cross-country skiing
Where: Jackson Lake
When: When the lake is frozen, otherwise it’s called water skiing
Difficulty: Easy
Length: As far as you want to go

With sweat drops freezing to my forehead, I listened to the hypnotic sounds of my skis and poles: stab, squeak, sliiiiiide. Stab, squeak, sliiiiide. It was the only sound I could hear on the tranquil surface of Jackson Lake.

Caption: Gotta love winter.

Sadly it wasn’t the only sound I heard all day. Before we got started, my 16-month old Kael decided to pitch a fit about getting out of the car. Long and loud sounds those were. I think the ruckus was because we awoke him out of his warm car seat and immediately placed him in a smaller, colder version in a ski trailer we had borrowed from some friends for the occasion. He squirmed so much his gloves kept falling off. We almost called it quits before we even left the parking lot.

Caption: Bram had to pretend she was downhilling on the flat lake.

The only other sounds we heard were snowmobiles motoring past to find the next great ice-fishing hole. The noise wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t mind too much because of the pleasant side effect. Each snowmobile left behind it an imperfect, albeit serviceable track for my wife and I to follow across the flat expanses of the frozen lake. Where the options were to break trail on skinny skis through a foot of slightly crusty snow or follow a trail heaped up in the center forcing our skis a foot apart, we welcomed the snowmobile tracks.

Caption: That's my girls. Outdoors just the way I like them.

The noise from the toddler finally died into a resigned snore as we started onto the lake, leaving only stab, squeak, sliiiiiide to fill the silence. We started from Colter Bay, heading down what in the summer are rounded rock “beaches.” I’m convinced if all sand were as large as those rocks, coastlines wouldn’t attract nearly as much tourism.

The expansive field of the icy lake appealed to us greatly as a destination for several reasons: 1) Neither of us had cross-country skied for years, and flat sounded beautiful. 2) The views on Jackson Lake are world class. 3) We could make our own trail in any direction from the parking lot. 4) We could go as far as we wanted to go and never feel like we hadn’t made it to a destination.

Caption: Gorgeous. And the mountains aren't half bad either.

Though it was nice to have the trailer to pull Kael, I found it offered more problems than solutions for the circumstances. First, the belt tethering me to the trailer had give in it, but the poles between the belt and the trailer were rigid. So whenever I found good forward thrust on the skis, the cart would pull back a little bit on the somewhat elastic belt, it acting as a rubber band for the entire cart. The trailer would quickly overtake my pace and push me forward, making me lose my balance several times and clatter to the surface of the lake in a graceless heap. Also, the trailer all balanced on one axle, essentially using my body for the second. So when I went down, so did the boy. Amazingly, he never woke up.

Caption: Taking a break from getting beat up by the trailer to check out my mountains.

When I did stay upright, after the trailer caught up to me it would rebound back and forth off my back and stomach, stealing my momentum two or three times on each forward motion. Also, because the stance of the cart, it was almost always breaking two trails to keep moving forward. My wife was easily able to outdistance me most of the time.

Cross-country skiing is one of those sports that is cardiovascular training at its finest. I don’t think there are too many better workouts if you keep a steady pace. Because of that, it is wise to wear layers when skiing, even if it is a flat and open expanse you are skiing across. By the time we really got moving, I was really sweating in the 14-degree weather even though I had shed my hat and gloves and was down to just a light jacket mostly unzipped.

The snow on the mountains is incredible, and highlights portions of the range you might not normally notice. Wide open views of the Teton Range combined with boat-like freedom on foot make cross-country skiing on Jackson Lake a perfect winter activity. So get off those groomed roads for a change and give it a chance.

Caption: I love the shadows on this one and how it almost, but not quite entirely black and white.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Excursion Article Series 02.04.09: Make like a bear and hibernate in a snow cave this winter

I can't say that it was uber comfortable with the snow hardening to ice underneath my back, but it kept me warmish in the freezing temperatures. There's no place like snow cave.

Excursion: Sleeping (I mean shifting restlessly) in a snow cave
Where: Anywhere there is more than four feet of snow with a base
Equipment needed: Tarp, sleeping bag (or two), warm waterproof clothing, a sleeping pad, short- and long-handled shovels, tent for backup sleeping arrangements, and headlamp
Difficulty: Moderate

Like bears, all of us humans have to go to sleep during the winter. Unlike bears, we wake up a little more than a handful of times. Also contrasting bears, we generally don’t sleep outside during the winter.

This makes it much more interesting when we do. And I don’t know that I’d call it “sleeping.” Despite the nearly faultless snow cave I built, I found myself in a cold-to-wet-to-hot-to-uncomfortable cycle throughout the night. Any sleep I did get was under my radar, as it never felt like I had been asleep whenever I awoke during the night. The snow I left for insulation underneath the tarp became stiff ice due to my radiating body heat sometime during the night, making my snow cave a little less friendly.

Anyway, my Boy Scout troop set up camp near Coal Creek on the west side of Teton Pass to try our hand at building serviceable snow caves. Just a couple hundred yards up we found a suitable creek crossing. A wide trunk piled with a three-foot layer of snow made a perfect bridge to an ideal camping spot. The shallow, half-frozen Coal Creek wound its way down the hill past our site. Large flat expanses next to the East-facing hills of Taylor Mountain in our chosen site were perfect for tent camping just in case we had to use them due to poor snow conditions. Conversely, the site boasted hills sheltered from the sun where the snow could accumulate in peace.

So while boys set up tents, us leaders went and started checking the hillside conditions. We quickly came to the conclusion that the base was solid enough and deep enough to build our modest sleeping quarters. For safety’s sake, it is good to build a mound of snow about four feet across hours before you carve it out. This makes your base stronger, gives you more snow to work with and makes your roof more domelike, helping to keep moisture off your sleeping bag in the middle of the night.

Because of limited time, I dug straight down until I hit the frozen ground about four feet down. While doing so, I carved an entrance out behind me which also facilitated digging later on. I took a gamble by piling the majority of the snow I was extracting on top of where my cave would be. Though I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to let it settle, I felt conditions would be forgiving of the extra weight, making a better snow cave with a deeper base in the end.

Once we approved the conditions, a line of scouts fanned out across the hillside and set to digging, some of them begging for help when they saw our caves were coming along faster. The basic idea is to dig from as high as you dare down to the appropriate depth. This technique makes it so the snow bridge above you doesn’t have to support as much weight. If you go too high, collapse is imminent. Same if you are digging too low. In fact, three of our caves did collapse before we could use them, making all but me opt for tents.

Brenner had to jump about five times on my roof to bust one foot through the roof of my excellently crafted shelter. I thought this was kind of funny with just one of his feet sticking down through it.

Here Jason and Brenner play in the remains of my sleeping quarters. I let them have the fun of trashing my makeshift room for the night.

If you have trouble knowing how close to the top of the snow you are, have someone on top shine a light down to help determine thickness. If you can see the light easily, the top is probably a little too close. When the snow has settled and you’re confident in your snow cave, make a ventilation shaft or two so you don’t suffocate.

Even though I was the only one that used my cave, digging by headlamp was one of the highlights of the campout. Another highlight was the fire pit. When we dug it, it was maybe a foot deep. As we stood around the fire telling scary stories, we realized it was getting farther away from us even though we weren’t moving. Time we were done with the fire it had dug itself a four-foot well and still hadn’t reached the ground.

Yep, that's Jason in there and the firepit is up to his shoulder.

Though it was a fun and memorable experience, I think I’ll leave hibernation to the bears. It’s just a little tiring for my tastes.

Nate flies off a stump the morning after snow caves. We managed to get a few runs in on some beautifully powdery slopes. It was worth all the discomforts of snow caves and then some.