May Powder

The Cascades form a great wall of the Pacific Northwest. The lofty volcanic peaks divide the region from west and east, populated and unpopulated, wet and arid. As moist air masses move in off the Pacific Ocean, they have no choice but to rise above the range, gaining thousands of feet in elevation and losing temperature as they climb. The water vapor condenses, and the precipitation falls. The majority of that precipitation falls as snow, even in late spring. With a banner year of accumulation already established, recent snowfalls were just icing on the cake, and that sweet enticement called for a trip to the base of Tumalo Mountain.

It’s been a few weeks since I was out on snowshoes. For much of the winter, this was a very regular activity. I lead trips by sunlight, moonlight, and starlight into the subalpine forest that surrounds Mt. Bachelor. Fresh powder has been falling over the last few days up here in the Cascades, so here I am to play in it once again.

Three, maybe four inches of new accumulation rest on top of the icy sheet that covers the six or seven foot base that remains underneath. In some spots, the fresh blanket is closer to a foot thick. Wind whips through the forest while wet flakes continue falling. In the cover of the hemlocks I find a reprieve and thus a moment to stop and consider the scene.

This is a peaceful walk in wintry woods of May. I am alone in this forest, or least the lone human. I am certain that other mammals are out and about, whether above or below the snow, but I see no signs of their movements. For now, it’s just me as I ramble among the mountain hemlocks, grand firs, and lodgepole pines. After a childhood in the southeast, I wonder if snowy scenes like this will ever lose their novelty. I hope not.

The loop I’ve made for myself is almost closed, but at last I see tracks in the snow. A pine marten has been here, and it hasn’t been gone for long. Excited, I follow the tracks. Maybe I can still catch a glimpse of it…

The pine marten (also called American martens) is a master of this environment, especially in the winter. Weighing only three pounds, this relative of weasels, ferrets, and wolverines has (relatively) large feet that act as built in snowshoes. I had to gear up to head out here. The pine marten just had to wake up. It bounds across the snow, sinking in just an inch or so with every landing. The path it cuts connects the dots of tree wells where it searches for smaller prey. The pine marten is elusive and beautiful, once prized for its enviable coat of ruddy brown and black. I have seen one before: a fleeting glimpse on the shore of Sparks Lake. I know my pursuit of this fellow snowshoer is likely to yield no view, but I pursue nonetheless.

The pine martens tracks cross over my tracks from earlier: it has indeed been active very recently. I can imagine it scampering across the snow, scanning the tree wells, and perhaps looking over its shoulder to keep tabs on me. Of course, this assumes that I am close enough to garner its attention. Chances are, it’s long gone. The only interaction I’ll get with a pine marten today is through the tracks it leaves behind.

I end my pursuit and bid the pine marten a good day in whatever corner of the forest it now occupies. As it hunts for voles and snowshoe hares, I head back down the mountain to warmer weather where walking doesn’t require snowshoes. The marten is home here in the snow and the forest. I am only a visitor.