Subalpine Snowshoeing for the Semi-Couch Potato

Novice snowshoers climb a hill during a 2005 excursion at Mount Rainier’s Paradise visitor center. Even first-timers quickly learn how to use the their snowshoes, although beginners should expect to fall once or twice as they get their snow legs. (Chronicle file photograph)

Go: Free Hikes Up at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Start Dec. 18

By Becky Bartholomew
For The Chronicle

I’m new to the area and wondering how to survive the monsoon season. Or I’m old to the area and didn’t get my fill of snow two winters ago.

So I Google “winter Mount Rainier Park.” Top among results is a link to VisitRainier’s web page, “10 Ways to Experience Mt. Rainier This Winter.” VisitRainier is a nonprofit that promotes tourism in Lewis and Pierce counties.

A quick scan shows six of the 10 ways are right up my ski slope. Number seven, for instance: Watch the winter weather from my lodging at Rainier. Or number five: Take in the view of Crystal Mountain while dining on fondue.

Six recommends I witness the daily feedings of elk and big horn sheep at Oak Creek and Cleman Mountain. Nine urges a spa experience at Alexander’s Country Inn, StormKing Cabins, or Wellspring Retreat.

Two and 10 look more strenuous. I’d have to bundle up grandchildren and sleds, then haul them to Paradise before sitting while they frolic in the Snowplay Area. Or I could bundle up my husband and haul him to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Eatonville, for a tram ride through the frosty landscape.

Four and eight, involving Nordic skiing, threaten to be outright rigorous. Three, Ride the Northway Lift up Crystal Mountain, means finding an arduous way back down.

Number one, however, looks just right: Ranger-guided snowshoe tours for beginners at Paradise.

I dial a phone number that connects me to Ranger Casey Overturf. Casey, 28, considers himself “very, very lucky” to have drawn Mount Rainier Park his first assignment out of Virginia Tech.

This is only his second winter in the park.

Casey said starting Dec. 18 he and other rangers will lead two-hour snowshoe tours looping from the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center 1.5 miles between subalpine meadows, rock outcrops, and clusters of mountain hemlock. I ask why I should sign up for one of his tours.

“It’s a good bit of fun,” Casey said. “Showshoeing is very similar yet very different from hiking. You can kind of go wherever you want. It’s up to you to know how to get back to where you came from. Snowshoes open up the park to exploration and seeing all sorts of new stuff.”

Also, he said, “Out there in the snow, there’s that silence.”

Silence sounds good. Casey said the snowshoe walks are the reason he does this job. He’s rewarded when visitors have a good time and find they’re learning, too. Each guide has his or her own expertise. Casey’s specialty is winter ecology — how plants and animals deal with the challenge of cold.

He said there are migrators, hibernators, and then the wildlife that stay active year round such as snowshoe hares and red foxes. If the snow is fresh, he promises, “you might see a fox print zigzagging between different tree wells looking for where the hare might be.”

In addition, Gray’s jays, Steller’s jays, Clark’s nutcrackers and common ravens winter at Rainier. Casey has noticed the birds that stick around eat seeds and needles in addition to berries. A few species make secret food stashes to carry them through the long winter. Others steal from stashes, so some make fake stashes to hoodwink thieves.

Next I talk to Lee Snook, Casey’s supervisor. She’s been a ranger eight years and this is also her second winter at Rainier. She adds white-tailed ptarmigan and lesser weasels to the list of winter stay-at-homes.

I ascertain the tours are free. Lee assures me free includes loan of the snowshoes. However, the park encourages a $2 to $4 donation to pay for shoe replacement and maintenance.

Concerned about my image, I ask if everyone who starts a tour completes it. Lee chuckles. “About 99.9 percent. Try to make sure folks understand snowshoeing is aerobic exercise. You’re gonna sweat, so you will want to wear layers. Tell them to be prepared and bring the proper gear to stay warm.”

Becky Bartholomew is a Chronicle freelance writer living in east Lewis County.

Snowshoeing in Paradise

Who: Minimum 8 years old. Snowshoe supervisor Lee Snook says 10 is even better as middle-grade children get more out of ranger tutorials.
What: Two hours of mildly aerobic walk interspersed with rests and mini-lessons. “Life is really vibrant at this time, it’s just hidden underneath the snow. I like opening people’s eyes to the winter world,” Snook said.
When: Beginning Sat., Dec. 18, daily tours start at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. After early January, walks are offered only on weekends and holidays.
Where: State Route 706 from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise is one of the few park roads open to cars in winter. Paradise Jackson Visitors Center is 10 miles east of Longmire.
How: Signup begins at the information desk one hour before each walk. Tours are limited to 25 hikers. If you’re bringing a horde (i.e., more than a handful) of hikers, please reserve ahead of time by phoning (360) 569-2211, ext. 3314. Reserved tours start at 10:30 am.
What to Bring: Wear layered clothing. You’ll need snowshoes, which are available from the park for a $1-$5 donation per pair, or you can use your own. Also bring hat, mittens or gloves, sunscreen, sunglasses, and suitable boots as even snowshoes sink in snow. (Here’s a citizen’s suggestion: bring a water bottle but replace the water with body-warming liquid.)
Unguided Snowshoeing: People with a preference for more taxing workouts can hike Mount Rainier’s other trails anytime, but bring or rent your own showshoes. Call Longmire General Store, (360) 569-2411, for rates and availability. Be warned some trails are shared with snowmobiles. A list of trails with descriptions is at www.mt-rainier.com/snowshoeing_
trails.html.