“Make the first day of the year represent what you hope for in 2019” Instagram chirped at me at 5:00 in the morning as I prepared for a Skyline Lake snowshoe. Fair enough, I thought, as I pulled on my base layer, yoga pants and cursed myself for planning an early-morning route the morning after New Year’s Eve. If sleepiness, discomfort and a mild hangover were my goals for 2019, mission accomplished. Plus I was getting ready to snowshoe in Washington, one of the less glamorous outdoor activities with a less than ideal forecast. Was this the 2019 of my dreams?
Snowshoeing often receives a bad reputation. It is more difficult than hiking and less rewarding than skiing. For many, it is a means to an end in the winter, bridging the three hiking seasons in Washington. But there are elements of snowshoeing that I deeply enjoy. When the snow obscures all paths, snowshoeing allows you to find your own way. I find myself using maps and navigation skills far more often, and relish the engagement it requires. Yes, it takes twice as long to go the same distance as the summer, but I love being outside, is the extra time really a problem?
If my 2019 is represented by snowshoeing on new year’s day, then I am pretty stoked. Snowshoeing Skyline Lake included prioritizing outdoor time, going that extra half mile at the end to find something new, and getting to know myself better outdoors. Sounds like a pretty great way to start a new year to me!
Skyline Lake Snowshoe
Given that the holidays were over, school was still on break and there were multiple good weather and good-avalanche days, I tried to make it outside for as many snowshoes as possible during winter break (including Source Lake and Wenatchee Crest). Meg and I were excited to ring in the new year with an early-morning snowshoe, hangovers be damned! For a little variety, we picked Lake 22, only to have the avalanche forecast drop the morning before we head out and were left scrambling for a backup route. In the end, I went with one of my favorites, Skyline Lake. It is short and sweet, though plenty steep and it still feels like you are getting a bit of a workout. It was my third visit, but Meg’s first, so we jumped in the car and headed towards Stevens Pass.
We struck out at three different grocery stores on our way there, given that it was early on New Year’s day, but eventually found an open Safeway willing to sell us cheese. Then a quick jaunt up to Steven’s Pass, hoping that it wouldn’t be too crowded on a holiday. The parking lot is shared with the Steven’s Pass Ski Resort, and was fairly busy, but there were far fewer people heading up to the lake.
We strapped our snowshoes on, though the trail was so compacted that boots likely would have been fine. Then the climb began in earnest: I threw the heel-risers up on my snowshoes and started the upward progression. We were frequently passed by skiers wearing skins, but we took our time enjoying the views over to the ski area.
After several switchbacks we reached the turn-off for the lake but opted instead to continue on to the viewpoint on the ridge. It is only a little detour but provides a completely different view than the view on the way up. In fact, it was so stunning that Meg dropped to her knees in awe. After soaking in the views for a few minutes, we turned back down the trail to the lake.
The lake was snow-covered and people were crossing, but we opted to skirt around the edge as I do not trust frozen lakes in Washington. We reached the lake and looked above it to the ridge, feeling fresh and enthusiastic, we decided to continue up to the rock garden. I pulled out GAIA and turned on the hill shading to ensure that the route would not cross any avalanche slopes before we went exploring. After defining a safe route, we began switchbacking up the hill before bursting through some trees into a magnificent rock garden.
The first boulder stuck out beyond the cliff overlooking the valley, reminiscent of pride rock from the Lion King. We wound around the various boulders that rose from the snowy flats, towering above us. Holes in the snow showed the effects of a misstep and we carefully made our way through to the base of the hill. Looking up at the highest rock, where we had planned to climb, we realized the exposure was more than we were comfortable with. The final push included about an 8’ climb that looked fairly doable on the way up, but a sheer slide on the way down, with a fairly nasty runout. As we did not bring ice axes or any fall-arresting gear, we opted to climb high enough for a small view then head back down.
As the loop began to descend, we found a boulder that we could rock-hop to from the trail, ensuring that we wouldn’t for any new social paths in this highly sensitive area. The blanket came out again with the rest of our lunch and we enjoyed the sights and watched the constant stream of people pass.
We climbed up the next few switchbacks, saw the giant glowing peaks in the distance then quickly turned around the make the journey home. The sun had gone behind the clouds and the extra thousand feet of elevation gain made for very chilly hands. We hurried back down the rock garden to the lake, opting to not stop for lunch and instead continue our way back to the car.
The route back down went quite quickly and we were back at the parking lot before we knew it!
Leave No Trace: Wildlife
Skyline Lake is one of the many routes in the winter that are full of birds that don’t migrate over winter. One of the most common species is the grey jay, also known as a camp-robber. These brazen birds do not migrate like most species and instead eat hidden food from the spring and summer. As grey jays are cache birds, they have plenty to eat in the winter from the food stores they collect–that is, as long as they are not given human food. These caches also serve a valuable purpose in the forest when the birds fail to recover a small percentage of their cache, which ultimately turns into trees, plants or food sources for other birds and mammals.
Feeding these birds human food–even seeds and nuts, as those are usually non-native species–can have significant negative impacts on both the birds and the forest around them. The grey jay is known as Wiskedjak in some regions based on Algonquian language in Eastern Canada. The bird is a mischievous, transforming spirit that enjoys playing tricks on people.
Early trappers knew grey jays well, as they often would steal the bait from traps, or pilfer unattended food stores. Grey jays are known to closely associate humans with food and are unlikely to forget the association, leading to a close link with early trappers. Many considered it bad luck to harm a grey jay and the legend went that whatever you inflicted upon the bird would come back to you. A folk tale circulated in Maine told the story of a man who plucked a grey jay of its feathers and woke up bald. Perhaps we should consider feeding wildlife worthy of the grey jay curse–feed these birds at risk of your own peril! But really, don’t feed them at all.