Find education with your recreation on this Snoqualmie Pass outing and a variety of other guided treks.
SNOQUALMIE PASS — For many amateur photographers, snow is a challenge. Beyond dealing with frozen fingers, foggy lenses and dying batteries, we have to worry about falling into a tree well or getting stuck in a snowdrift.
And that’s not even mentioning the issues inherent in light metering when half your field of vision is blazing white.
U.S. Forest Service volunteer ranger and longtime photography enthusiast Chuck Davis addresses all these things when he leads guided snowshoe walks at Snoqualmie Pass, as he has for nine years now.
“Winter Photography Outings” are just one of several guided snowshoe walks the Forest Service offers, many of which make for a perfect introduction to snowshoeing. Not only are you out with folks who know their way around the equipment and the terrain, you’ll likely be with other people who are happy to take things slowly and ask lots of questions. On a recent outing, our group of eight included three first-time snowshoers.
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After a brief introduction, which included double-checking to make sure we all had extra food and clothing, we set off for Commonwealth Basin. The area is popular with snowshoers, partly because it’s right across the street from the Summit at Snoqualmie ski area.
With the help of fellow volunteer JB Robinson, Davis ensured we were all strapped in and gave us some basic tips before we started up the trail. “It really is just like walking,” he said, and it is — especially if you tend to wear extra-large shoes.
Everyone caught on quickly, and we were soon tramping up a slope just steep enough to warm our muscles.
Tips along the way
Davis paused at appealing vantage points to offer photo tips on everything from composition to keeping batteries working (stow your spare in a warm pocket in case the cold drains the power from the one in the camera). A discussion of light metering helped me realize all my photos were going to be too dark if I stuck with my usual settings.
The conditions changed constantly throughout the day, from light snow to heavy snow to clouds hinting at the possibility of clearing. Sometimes mountains stood out in stark relief against a flat gray sky only to be shrouded in thick fog a few minutes later. After last year’s snow drought, we were all happy to be plowing through a thick layer of snow.
Davis, who has traveled these trails many times in all seasons, occasionally took us off the main trail to get a closer look at Commonwealth Creek or a particularly attractive old tree. It was nice to be with someone who knew enough about the terrain to safely leave the confines of the well-trodden main trail.
Davis pointed out the dangers of tree wells, unstable snowdrifts and “snow bombs” — chunks of old snow piled atop tree limbs, just waiting for an unsuspecting victim they can pummel. He also paused to give a stern warning about the greatest danger snowshoers face in the mountains: avalanches. When he leads longer snowshoe walks, “we go up near where avalanche terrain is and show people what it looks like,” Davis said.
Other walks offered
If we had wanted to know more about avalanches — a good idea for anyone exploring the mountains in winter — we could have signed up for an Avalanche Awareness Walk, offered at Snoqualmie and Mount Baker with help from the Northwest Avalanche Center. It’s part of a handful of different snowshoe programs the Snoqualmie Ranger District offers on weekends, January through March. They range from a short Junior Ranger walk for kids to a five-hour extended tour.
Other ranger districts also offer guided snowshoe excursions, but with its proximity to Seattle, Snoqualmie’s programs are the most diverse. “Interest has been building year after year,” Davis said.
I’ve gone on a number of guided snowshoe walks in various places and learned something every time. Beyond tips on how to get the most out of your snowshoes and other gear, rangers entertain their guests with stories about local wildlife and geological formations. The pace is generally slow enough that any reasonably fit person can join in, but fast enough to stay warm and get a decent workout. The Forest Service provides loaner snowshoes for those who don’t bring their own.
Although we saw only a handful of other snowshoers on the upper reaches of the trail, we came upon a few other guided groups as we returned. Adults filed along obediently behind rangers. Children romped, not caring when they fell down.
By the end of our tour, everyone had learned something new. Those who already had a handle on winter photography picked up new snowshoe tips, and experienced snowshoers had improved their photography skills.
Matthew Hemsath, of Everett, who spent his childhood snowshoeing near his hometown in Alaska, was glad for the excuse to get out and explore the trails near his new home. “It’s always good getting out in the snow,” he said.
If you go
Photography walks and more
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest offers Winter Photography Outings on snowshoes March 12 and 26, at 9:30 a.m. on Commonwealth Creek at Snoqualmie Pass. Bring lunch, outing lasts four to five hours.
• The Forest Service leads other snowshoe walks on Saturdays and Sundays through March at Snoqualmie Pass, Stevens Pass, Mount Baker and in the Darrington Ranger District. Reservations are required, and group sizes are limited. Suggested donations range from $10 for a children’s walk to $25 for the photography walk or a longer guided hike. Details: seati.ms/1oQFPFB.
• Ranger-guided snowshoe walks are also offered at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park (usa.gov/1gcOEPT) and at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park (1.usa.gov/1vqI7Nh).
• Mount St. Helens Institute offers snowshoe programs through March in Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Reservations are required: bit.ly/1czxMPP.