A famous politician once referred to the world that lies just outside our normal experience as the “known unknown.” And generally speaking, most people prefer to leave it that way. But there are those for whom a small dose of mystery is a key ingredient in any adventure, and for them, Okanogan Country after the snow falls means getting off the beaten paths and onto a pair of snowshoes.
Snowshoes are believed to have originated in Central Asia approximately 4,000 years ago. Since then, however, the craft has moved forward considerably and those old images of buckskin-clad voyageurs tromping into the winter wilderness on wooden “racquets” is as outmoded today as, well, leather clothing. Space-age materials and new design concepts have coupled to make modern versions of the snowshoe astonishingly light and easily steerable. Plus options such as heel risers, toe crampons, interchangeable decks, traction bars, micro-adjustable bindings and titanium poles make for a stable ride over virtually any terrain and quite literally bring the sport within the range of almost anyone old enough to walk.
Needless to say, those making their first forays into the winter landscape on snowshoes are well advised to take advantage of one of the many prepacked snowshoe trails available in Okanogan Country. The Highlands snowpark near Havillah, Loup-Loup South Summit trails and the Sun Mountain Lodge trail system all win consistent praise for their diversity and grooming. Same with the state parks at Alta Lake near Pateros, Pearrygin Lake near Winthrop, and the ski hill at Sitzmark just outside of Tonasket. But as Mark Twain once noted, the whole reason for going outdoors in the first place is to “explore, dream and discover” and that means — when you are ready, of course — putting the known into the unknown.
Those new to the sport may wish to head for Whistler Canyon, a well-defined network of trails located just four miles south of Oroville on U.S. Route 97. A map board posted at the frequently snow-free parking area will give you an idea of where to head. More adventure-minded snowshoers may wish to head for the Wilcox Mountain trailhead located approximately 12 miles east of Tonasket. To access the trailhead parking area, drive east on Havillah Road to a left turn on Dry Gulch Road followed by another left onto Swanson Mill Road where you will find a very “informal” parking area at the intersection with FS road No. 3525. In either case, whether you choose to follow an established trail or simply ramble cross-country in whatever direction your curiosity takes you, it is always worth remembering that winter on this side the mountains still packs a bite and no one ever plans to get lost or injured. So let someone reliable know where you are headed and bring a pack stuffed with a flashlight, matches, food and water, extra clothing, a communications device, map and a compass.
Or maybe your unknown is a little closer at hand. Maybe it’s no more than simply slipping into a pair of snowshoes, putting on a parka and some mittens, and following a game trail, or shuffling outside at night far enough away from the lights that you can look up at and count the stars. What mountaineers refer to as “the freedom of the hills.” Or what folks in Okanogan Country just call home.
No matter where you travel in Okanogan Country, stop at every chance you get to sample the flavors — and the culture, friendliness and authentic hospitality — of Washington’s largest county. Free guides and maps at www.OkanoganCountry.com.