Embracing endless winter
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
It was midmorning on Super Bowl Sunday and the gnarliest storm of the winter was in the process of turning the Mt. Baker Highway into a sleet-encrusted ice ribbon full of fallen trees, downed power lines and disabled vehicles lodged windshield-deep in drifting piles of oceanic snow.
“Just so you know,” I told my esteemed colleague and honorary birthday chauffer, Professor Mossbauer, as we crept cautiously toward the half-buried vestiges of Maple Falls in his all-wheel-drive jalopy, “If you decide to turn around and bag it right now, I won’t hold it against you. In fact, the further up this forlorn death trap of a road we go, the more I think I’d actually appreciate it.”
“Although your hazard assessment certainly seems sound and your flexibility is admirable,” Professor Mossbauer replied, “I’m afraid withdrawing to Bellingham is no longer a viable option.
“I promised to take you on a proper ski adventure and—despite the fact that variable forms of interceding precipitation have hindered my ability to see further than a car’s-length in front of us since Rome Grange—I fully intend to honor my word.”
Suddenly, through our open windows, we heard the cannon-like explosion of a giant red alder snapping in half.
“Tally ho!” screamed the professor as he swerved reflexively into the oncoming lane just far enough to avoid being struck by the toppling crown.
“Like peanuts in a shooting gallery,” he said with a grin. “I bet you…” But that was all he had time to say before a fully loaded sand truck came roaring down the debris-strewn roadway straight toward us.
It was then—just as we miraculously managed to evade a potentially gruesome head-on collision by mere fractions of a second—that I realized the full gravity of our predicament. With every tree and branch in the forest straining under the added weight of winter, the entire upper North Fork valley had become a spring-loaded death trap.
And the festivities kept getting sketchier from there. First, we saw a kid holding a “MOUNTAIN CLOSED!” sign through the windshield of a westbound minivan. Next, just past the Horseshoe Bend trailhead we encountered an official road closure sign. Finally—after we managed to creep about two miles beyond the posted warning—a blockade of DOT workers who were in the midst of plowing the shattered remnants of a lethal-looking Doug Fir snag off the tarmac put our increasingly fraught eastbound trajectory to an insurmountable halt.
Meanwhile, during the five engrossing minutes we sat listening to one of the crewmembers describe the storm-induced carnage that had befallen the highway ahead, a monstrous maple came crashing onto the highway 50 feet behind us, blocking our escape for half an hour.
By that point, the professor and I were starting to feel a little shell-shocked. But before we headed home we decided it would be prudent to stretch our legs by skiing a few loops through Douglas Fir Campground.
Despite encountering dozens of fallen trees and lethal-sized tree branches over the roads we found glide conditions along the North Fork to be so conducive to our preferred mode of self-propulsion that we were compelled to scamper beneath the highway bridge and kick our sticks down Horseshoe Bend Trail as far as the snow-shoe tracks would carry us.
Shadows were deepening in the tempestuous timber as we poled our way across the snowy flat seeking respite among the boulder-strewn banks of the river an hour later.
Sitting on the nearest available log to enjoy hot tea and biscuits, we spent some quality time absorbing the aquatic acrobatics of an American Dipper as it darted and danced among the rippling, ice-cold water.
“That little bird has more balls than either of us could ever hope to have in three lifetimes,” mused Professor Mossbauer. “Every tree in the forest could come crashing down over a critter like that and it wouldn’t miss a beat.”
“What a great birthday this is!” I said, emboldened to see the dipper start drilling its entire head repeatedly into a dingy snow bank. “I think I’m ready for a swim.”
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