Snowshoeing in Indian River Valley

Forest with Snow

Fellow natural history enthusiast Kitty LaBounty wanted to make a trip up the West Fork of Indian River to look for mosses over spring break. I thought that sounded like a reasonable way to spend a day, so I agreed to go along. Despite the spring in spring break, it’s been anything but spring-like around Sitka this March. The snow started around the middle of Febraury, and with only a few exceptions, there has been additional snow each day since then. We were uncertain what exactly conditions would be like, but after my slog through deep snow last week, it seemed the smart thing to do was take snowshoes, so that is what we did.

We got started around 9am under overcast skies threatening snow. The trail was well-packed from the feet of other hikers, so we carried our snowshoes at the start.

The walk along the trail was largely uneventful. The woods were quiet with the sound of the river muffled by deep snow. We made good time to the second bridge. At the second bridge, we stopped to put on our snowshoes in prepartion for leaving the trail.

It quickly became clear that someone else had been snowshoeing along the route we had chosen, so the snow was already partially compacted and supported our weight just fine, especially with the snowshoes. On a couple of occasions, I purposely went off the trail just to see what it was like. With the snowshoes on, the softer snow still held me, but I sank in noticably more than I was doing on the trail.

The trail followed the main fork of Indian River for a short distance before turning up a short, but steep, hill slope that took us to the edge of the large muskeg below the Middle Sister. The way up the hill was a bit of a challenge, as it was steep and the snow was deep, so it was difficult to step up high enough to move up. I ended up crawling and grabbing whatever I could hold on to to help pull myself up.

While we were walking through the muskeg it started to snow lightly. It was very different than other times I have experienced this place, mostly in the summer. I remember one warm summer day in this muskeg, perhaps the first time I ever visited it, actually. It was bright and I came out of the woods at the lower end of this long sloped clearing. There was the faintest of breezes, just enough to feel the warm air on my face as I left the coolness of the forest for the open sunlight. The sun glinted off the grasses and sedges that were growing. I noticed what almost looked like a path of light through the grasses and sedges. Along this path, the blades were twisted differently from the prevailing orientation and so reflected the sunlight with a different intensity. This was my first experience with one of the most ephemeral kinds of tracks you can find. Today, all of this was buried under 4 feet of snow, waiting patiently for the coming of spring and summer.

The trail followed the muskeg up toward the base of the Middle Sister before veering off toward the West Valley. We followed it to the edge of the woods and decided that it was time to part company, as it was our intention to go further up the valley. I let Kitty lead and we found the going a little tougher without the guiding trail. The snowshoes worked well, but sometimes fallen logs lead to treacherous sink holes where the snow was not as deep as it looked. Each of us probably got our snowshoes stuck at least once when they were partially pinned by a log or branch.

As we made our way along up the West Valley, picking our route by what seemed easiest, I looked up and noticed the trees seemed to imply there was a clearing up ahead. I couldn’t actually see the clearing, but the trees got shorter and scrubbier looking, as often occurs at the edge of muskegs around here. I commented that this would be a new clearing for me, as I did not remember finding one in the middle of the West Valley before. We made our way towards it, and as we left the woods, a mountain ridge became visible. The problem was the mountain ridge looked totally wrong for the one that goes from Harbor-Gavan Ridge back to connect with Starrigavan Ridge and the North Sister. It took me a minute for my brain to remap what I was seeing and realize that I was in fact looking at Verstovia. The problem with this was it meant we had become completely turned around, and this “previously unvisited” clearing was actually the edge of the muskeg we had just finished walking through a short time before.

This is the first time I can ever remember being completely turned around like this. I took some solace in the fact that I wasn’t the one leading at the time, but it was still a little disconcerting to have gone along so easily. In actual fact, it was probably a good experience to have, as it gave me a little bit of a sense for what happens when people get lost. I’ve read that sometimes when people get lost, they will ignore obvious cues that should tell them they are not where they think they are. For the briefest of moments, despite having a pretty good idea that there are not any clearings in the middle of the West Valley and despite knowing what the ridge should have looked like, I was about ready to decide that my memory must just be faulty and/or the lighting and snow might have made things look different. Expectations can be quite powerful and have strange effects, I guess.

After figuring out where we were, we turned back and follow our trail to see where we had gone wrong. It turned out to be a matter of consistently choosing a left tending path when picking our way through the forest. It was not a sudden turn around, and if it weren’t for the fact that we kept focussing on the best route (in the short term) through the snow, we probably would not have been turned around at all.

Having corrected the error of our ways, we worked our way up and towards the center of the valley. At one point along the way, Kitty told me to stop and look because there was a marten… or maybe a deer. I asked her if she didn’t think it might actually be an elephant, but that seemed a little unlikely given the amount of snow and the northerly location. I never did see the animal, but when we walked over to where she had seen something, there were fresh deer tracks, so that is presumably what she had seen.

After not seeing any deer tracks up from Herring Cove last week, it was interesting to see several sets of tracks in the West Valley. Although the snow was quite deep in many places, under the full canopy it was a little less so. Some of the blueberry bushes which, from past experience I knew to be fairly short, were sticking up above the snow. At one point we dug down and found the snow only 12-18 inches deep. The large trees in this valley seemed to do a good job keeping the snow from accumulating too deeply.

Without any real particular reason for doing so, we decided to make the big hemlock a destination for this hike. I had never visited the big hemlock by way of the muskeg before, so I thought it would be interesting to try finding it from this direction. In the end, we didn’t really have any trouble finding the big tree, and we stopped there for a bit of a break. While we were there, the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky and sunshine for a few minutes. Before we left, the clouds returned and with them snow and a little wind.

The wind made travelling in the woods interesting for awhile. It would shake the branches enough to release massive clumps of snow that would hit the ground with a large “WHUMPH”. I think some of the clumps, had they been a direct hit, would have knocked me down. They certainly would have made a for a rather chilly experience with snow down my front and back. Fortunately we both managed to avoid any direct hits. There were only a couple of occasions where snow fell close enough for us to experience the miniature blizzard that expanded from the impact zone.

On our way back, as we were following the West Fork not too far up from the first bridge, we spotted a Pine Grosbeak. After walking slowly up to it, we discovered there were in fact several of these birds.

Also on the way back, we finally found some overturned trees with rootwads that were not totally covered in snow. We took a look at some of the bryophytes growing on these, including some Goblin’s Gold (though we did not see any of the reflecting cells that give this moss its name). Kitty collected a few to look at more closely with a microscope, and we continued on our way. We ended up making it back to the trailhead by a little bit after 4pm.

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