Early Deep Winter

Running in shorts on Thanksgiving Day yielded soon to Old Man Winter over the course of the last weekend in November. From virtually no snowpack, to several feet deep is often the way the 'Old Boy' makes himself known. I was on my way 'down river' (the Rio Grande) from Alamosa to New Mexico for the Holiday when I stopped by Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, a prominent lodging, restaurant, and hot springs resort 90 minutes south of Alamosa on Highway 285.

The bonus for me is the Trail System to the west of the springs with the trailheads for several trails a few yards from the main springs and parking lots. The place was packed that morning and though windy, it was warm enough to run in shorts. I picked the Posi Trail, which, though little remains, was a large Indian village over 700 years ago. Why? The hot springs provided life giving warm water and the Rio Ojo Caliente continues to flow by the ruin as it did then. The land and climate were suitable for growing crops. Life was good for those villagers. Pot shards, reminders of their culture, are scattered everywhere! Pick up, examine and replace.

Having been to the annual Crane Festival in March at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge, one of the main stops for migrating flocks of various waterfowl species, I had planned to go to the Bosque Del Apache, their winter living quarters on the Rio Grande in south central New Mexico, 100 miles south of Albuquerque. Rumor though, from my friend Eric in Albuquerque, is that the migratory species were slow in arriving this year because of the extended warmth of the fall. We decided to postpone our trip.

As I negotiated the rough trail toward the ruins, dodging cactus and other prickly plants, lo and behold, I heard the familiar honking and cackling of thousands of migrating cranes. The Rio Grande was probably 40 air miles to my east, and as the migrating cranes were following the river south, I could hear, but not see them. They can fly incredibly high! Cranes fly in groups of as few as 80 to sometimes well over a thousand. I stopped and scanned the deep blue for them with no luck until a 'squadron' of about 200 flew directly over me and only two thousand feet above the ground. Ah, a confirmed sighting! But how did the cranes know what was coming soon? Hmmm...


Fast forward several days to winter in late November. On average, the jet stream drops south on November 10th. Courtesy of the jet stream rocketing south this year, roughly 2 and half weeks beyond normal, several winter storm systems had tracked across the West and slammed into the San Juan Mountains. Mucho nieve! Beaucoup niege! Whether a Spanish explorer or a French fur trapper - these words mean 'Lots of snow!'

Wolf Creek Pass is on the Continental Divide and as winter storms move east, storms try and lift their heavy wet loads of clouds up and over the mountains. To get over the divide, they must drop their moisture in the form of snow. Wolf Creek Ski Area's motto is 'The Most Snow in Colorado'. For good reason! Where Alamosa during a winter storm may receive from none to two inches of snow, Wolf Creek Pass, 65 miles to the west on Highway 160 and 3,500 feet higher may get 22 to 40 inches of deep soft fluff. On December 3rd, having heard Wolf Creek had received close to 4 feet of snow, I decided to go snowshoeing for the day at the Ski Area.

Rumors of deep snow were NOT exaggerated. At the far end of the Alberta parking lot, after consulting with Kristi Sports in Del Norte, I was informed there was a trail to Alberta Reservoir that Wolf Creek grooms for cross country skiing, snowshoeing or simply hiking.

On a beautiful blue sky, deep snow day, I strapped on my snowshoes and took off from the parking lot. Finding the groomed trail too easy, I headed into the steep trees near the ski area to find my kind of challenging aerobic fun. I wandered through the woods making my own tracks, the deep fresh fluff consuming my snowshoes and most of my 44 inch ski poles. While admiring the beauty of the patterns of snow lying thick on the pine tree branches, my science mind kicked in to gear. Amazing how pine trees have evolved to carry the heavy loads of snow, their branches bending toward the ground, but if the weight gets too much, or high winds come calling, the branches will dump those snow loads and 'sproing' back into place waiting for the next storm. I love the solitude of the dark forest, the way the snow muffles all sounds, sunlight dazzles through breaks in the trees and contrasts sharply with the early deep winter shadows. After ninety minutes of blissful aimless wandering, I made my way back to the groomed trail near a chairlift and immediately heard a "Hi Dave!" Great, cannot even hide from people who know me! Had a conversation with several powder seeking friends before following the groomed run back to my car, admiring the long distance views in the waning daylight, feeling refreshed and energized more than fatigued and thinking of Mike's words about ski conditioning after saying his quad muscles were tired. "The only way to get in shape for skiing is to go skiing." He' got that one right! The lesson? Get out there, early and often if ya can!

The parking lot was a mixed batch of snow lovers. Most license plates were Colorado but there were many from New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and an assortment of other states across the country. All with one common interest, early deep winter in the southern Rockies in search of deep deep snow for which Wolf Creek is known. Want to discover the magic of this place? About an hour and fifteen minutes west of Alamosa on US 160. Numerous rental shops can offer you plenty of snow toys, from downhill skis, cross country skis, snowboards, snow shoes or mountain bikes with big fatty tires. Or, even hiking boots will get you on the groomed trails for no charge. Dogs welcome!

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