Let It Snow

After three months of aimless wandering, I’m back in Stehekin and, well, there’s a lot of snow.

snow covered trees under overcast sky

Stehekin and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area lie just east of the Cascade Crest, but well within the Cascade Mountains. When moisture-laden winter storms move east from the Pacific Ocean over the Cascades, they dump prodigious amounts of snow. Stehekin averages 120 inches of snowfall each winter. In 1996, 298 inches of snow fell, almost 25 feet. Although I don’t know how much snow has fallen so far this winter, it’s not a trivial amount.

Earlier this week, I was eager to explore the snow-shrouded landscape, so I strapped some skis on to Large Marge and headed out.

No, not that Large Marge. This Large Marge, my fat tire bike.

fat tire bike with skis strapped horizontally on it

Two tools of winter exploration: Large Marge and cross-country skis.

I cycled on an icy, freshly plowed road to the Stehekin landing strip to ski the Stehekin River Trail, which parallels the Stehekin River downstream to Lake Chelan. It’s a pleasant hike in summer when the trail is easy to follow. The snow changed this familiar trail greatly. Where thick snow obscured the exact route I had to watch gaps in the vegetation carefully to stay on the trail.

deep snow and trees

Where’s the trail?

I needn’t worry about getting lost though. The trail is bordered by Stehekin River one on side and 8,000 ft. tall mountains on the other. I only had to stay in between. The trail has no significant elevation gain, but traverses some tricky spots for someone like me who sucks at skiing.

small open water channel next to steep slope

Caption: Short, steep bluffs next to the river’s side channels were difficult to negotiate on narrow skis. I often side-stepped up and down these places instead of risking a fall into open water.

The scenery was worth the effort, however.

River and snow covered trees

Stehekin River.

Animal tracking is always on my mind when there’s snow. The snow records much about an animal’s behavior as it moves through the landscape. The deep snow of the Cascade Mountains present a very difficult challenge for large and medium-sized animals, however. If you’re not a small mammal that can live under the snow or in the trees, then you either hibernate or abandon the high country and migrate to areas with less snow pack.

Partly because of lots of fresh snow and partly because most animals are either under the snow or in a different area altogether I didn’t see many animal tracks. A few Douglas squirrels were out and barked a warning when I skied under their tree, but there were few fresh signs of large animals on the upper half of the trail in the deep, soft snow.

Where the trail passed under a thick canopy of Douglas-fir and grand fir, I found the skiing easier. Tall conifers intercept a lot snow before it falls to the ground. When it does fall, it often does in large clumps that compact quickly on the ground. In these areas, deer and elk often “yard-up” to avoid getting mired in the deeper snow of open areas. Might I find deer and elk sign here?

ski tracks through forest

I encountered little fresh powder where conifer trees grew thickly. These areas are often preferred places for deer and elk to travel and rest. In open areas, my feet plowed through at least 20 centimeters of newly fallen snow, making travel more difficult.

On the river’s floodplain, under a tall Douglas-fir, I found a depression where barely an inch of snow covered the ground. Elk tracks radiated away from it, and a few pellets of elk scat lay within it. Evidently, this was a frequently used resting place for at least one elk.

depression in snow from resting elk

An elk had repeatedly used this bed to rest. For scale, the Douglas-fir trunk is larger than one meter in diameter.

Shortly afterward, my approach spooked an elk away from the fallen branch it was feeding on.

conifer twig clipped by browsing elk

Twigs nibbled by members of the deer family have ragged edges. An elk recently nipped the end of this Douglas-fir twig.

I only caught a glimpse of the elk, but it was a bull with sizable antlers. Carrying antlers into late winter seems counterintuitive and a waste of calories. Those antlers weigh a lot, and it can’t be cheap, energetically speaking, to keep them on your head. Shouldn’t this animal have shed its antlers by now?

Unlike deer and moose, who shed their antlers in early winter, elk often keep their antlers until spring. Different selection pressures may have controlled the timing of antler shedding. Antlers can be used for defense, but they are most often used to maintain dominance. This is especially important during the fall rut. For elk, antlers may be needed to help maintain dominance in the winter as well when access to food is limited. Deer and moose tend to overwinter in small groups or solo where competition with fellow moose or deer for browse may not be an issue. Elk, in contrast, overwinter in larger herds where antlers may be needed to maintain dominance; not for access to females of course, but for access to food.

That elk appeared to be alone, but as I approached the end of the trail near the lake, I skied past two deer, at least one of which was a buck, sans antlers.

mule deer looking at camera through fallen trees

The Stehekin River Trail ends at Weaver Point where the National Park Service maintains a boat-in/hike-in campground. Snow reduced visibility in the dim afternoon light, but the scene was gorgeous.

snow covered mud flats and steep mountainside

Lake Chelan seen from Weaver Point.

Seeing the land blanketed in a meter of snow gives it a very different appearance. It was almost as if I was exploring the area for the first time. In a way, I was. Winter in the Stehekin Valley is wholly different than summer.

6 thoughts on “Let It Snow

  1. That is some seriously beautiful country. I love the trees against the sky under their frosting of snow. Interesting observation about why elk might keep their antlers. And interesting to see where they bed down in winter. I am wondering if that isn’t good wolverine habitat. I was watching the Nature program about wolverines and they are pretty interesting animals with the males making the rounds of several dens and caring for their young in each in turn. Anyhow, thanks for doing the cycling and skiing for us!

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    • Wolverines inhabit the national park and national forest land in the North Cascades. Their populations seem to have begun to rebound after heavy persecution and trapping, but their continued presence is tenuous.

      In Katmai, I was fortunate enough to see three wolverines. They are very impressive animals. They are also an umbrella species, like grizzly bears. If we protect enough habitat for wolverines, then we protect habitat for myriad other species.

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      • Thanks for the link. That is a really good article. Glad to know they are making their way back. But it’s sad to think that we wiped out our own population (subspecies?) of Gulo gulo. (LOVE that name.)

        And I had not thought about the concept of an umbrella species, but it makes perfect sense. Did you see the vid that BearCamAddict posted, “How Wolves Change Rivers”? The ultimate reason for reintroducing wolves succinctly laid out in 4.5 minutes.

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  2. Pingback: More Snow? Yes, More Snow. | Wandering at Large

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