A SNOWSHOE CHRISTMAS
By Sandy Brown Jensen
Published Dec. 16, 2015 Setting Forth
I tried stepping on both snowshoes at once and buckling the elk leather straps with my liner gloves on, but after fumbling with the elk-hide straps, I finally pulled the gloves off with my teeth. The leather had stiffened in the wind while riding on top of the car, so now they twisted backward on the bias. A couple of yanks and some nimble opposing thumb work later, and I straightened up, pulling my thick moosehide mittens over my liner gloves. I stamped a couple of times to check that the long, 48-inch, rawhide-laced snowshoes were on securely, slipped my hands through the straps of the wide-basket poles, and was ready to hunt for that perfect, high-mountain Christmas tree.
Dad’s stocking-capped head was bent over my eleven-year-old sister Toren’s feet, where he was helping her strap on a shorter pair of bear-paw shoes. He looked up, “Everybody ready?”” He picked up his big, double-bit axe and his camera, and we were off on our annual hunt. My brother Lisle had shuffled a trail through unbroken powder snow toward the pine forest, and we followed after.
The day was clear and cold as the Babe the Blue Ox’s nose. We were high on the eastern slope of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. The view from the ridge was of more ridges and peaks in the increasing distance, more pines. Black basalt outcroppings stood in eye-aching contrast to the snow and sky. Far below, the silver ice thread of a river flashed in and out of view like a mirror snaking through the trees.
In this high country the pines grew individually. The first one we passed looked perfect for our front room, tall, round and redolent. It was also over twenty feet tall, Daddy pointed out; we needed one half that size. Fortunately, that meant wandering deeper and deeper into the landscape until the bright orange splash of our International Harvester (a kind of very large, early SUV) disappeared and the glass shard sparkle of snow surrounded us.
Lisle led us on a healthy huff uphill and around to a south slope. When we stopped for breath, Daddy pointed his axe handle at the base of a big pine. “Be careful, “ he said, “The south sun melts the snow next to the tree trunk and makes a hole. Then the next snow blows over it, so you can’t see the hole.” He banged the axe on the ice rim at the base of the caramel-scented ponderosa. The ice and snow caved away, and we couldn’t see to the base of the cavern that yawned beneath the trunk. “We’re up on a variable ten to twenty foot snow pack on this side of the hill, so it’s a long way down.”
Only one person fell into an ice well that day, and that was me.
At one in the afternoon, Daddy suggested we spread out across a likely looking area and shout when we found a tree. I always liked going out of sight of the others to be alone with only the sound of silvery ice bits sifting down from the big trees. I rounded a south edge of a ridge and immediately spotted the perfect tree—round and full, and short, only about ten feet tall. I shuffled closer to take a look, and my shout of discovery turned into a shout of surprise as the ice caved away from under my snowshoes and I tumbled deep into the well.
The first thing I noticed was that the tree wasn’t ten feet tall, it was twenty-five or thirty–maybe a hundred from this perspective. I had landed splayfooted, twisted, looking up. I tested all my limbs; everything was in working order. My snowshoes were jammed crosswise in the well, so the next order of business was to take them off. The buckles were frozen into icy lumps, but by taking my mittens off again, I worried them free, propping them one by one against the tree. Now what?
Various resourceful heroine ideas came to mind: climb the tree and get off on the uphill side? Nah, too sticky, and I couldn’t leave my snowshoes behind. Kick steps into the snow wall? Daddy had taught me how to get out of an ice crevasse using a roped technique called prussixing, but I didn’t have a rope. I kicked experimentally. The process of melt and freeze had created dozens of layers of rotten snow crusts, so a kicked step that at first seemed solid would collapse when I put my full weight on it; still, the step could be solidified with more kicking and stamping. Snow sifted down from the tree looming above me, its crown high above in bright sunlight. The walls of the ice cave glowed an eerie blue, and I shivered in the shadowy cold.
I made it halfway up the near vertical wall of snow before my Dad’s head popped over the top. He was stretched out on his belly looking down at me. “Anybody home down there?”
“I’ve almost got it, “ I said, panting.
“Hand me up your snowshoes.”
Lisle and Toren’s heads appeared over the hole. “Cool,” Lisle said.
Toren asked, “Are you going to get out and come see the Christmas Tree?”
I hoisted the snowshoes one by one over my head, and Lisle snagged them up with his basket pole. Daddy inched his big axe with its sturdy leather sheath over the edge. “Grab hold and keep kicking. Don’t put all your weight on it, or there’ll be two of in the hole.”
The axe steadied me as I kicked my way up the last few feet and finally felt the afternoon sun on my hat again.
We all stood around looking into the hole while I buckled back in.
“It’s a long way down,” Toren said admiringly, “It’s sort of like a secret fort.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t break anything,” Daddy said, and then led us back around the hill where the chosen tree smelling of Christmas lay ready to have four ropes attached. We hauled it out of the woods, leaving a long trail behind us.