A winter classic: Owl Head a wise choice for snowshoers
By Kristin Kimball
My husband proposed to me in the winter, wearing these same snowshoes. That hike ended in a toe-gripping scrabble up the icy backside of Bontique in the Schwangunks. Those big, tumbled-down conglomerate rocks were frozen and slick, and we had to boost my city dog, Nico, to the top of each boulder. I was glad I hadn’t trimmed her claws as I watched her tense up, wag her tail, snuff the clean air, cling. I felt a lot like she did, excited and scared, in love. At the top, Mark, a farmer, recited a Wendell Berry poem, and I said yes.
Fast forward through two cold Adirondack winters—a wedding, a move, the founding of a new farm, two chaotic growing seasons—to land in this one, a mild one, with the January temperatures hardly dropping below freezing. We’re on the 2.5-mile climb to Owl Head Lookout in the Giant Mountain Wilderness. Mark, a veteran winter camper, has insisted on bringing the space blankets, spare socks, a half-gallon glass jug of water, enough food for a dozen people and the weather radio. I pack my camera, a notepad, a pen.
This winter hike is nothing like Bontique. That one, done in the heat of an urgent romance, was heart thumping and dangerous. This one, done in the mellow unhurried days of marriage, is more moderate, a nice stroll. It’s just the two of us. The dog, now old and lame, had to be left at home. The slope is gentle, and the snowshoes are more nostalgic than functional in the shallow snow. Just past the marker at the base of the trail, Mark breaks off a bit of birch twig, hands it to me as he always does when we pass a birch in the woods. Chewing it, I say it tastes like root beer, as I always do. Mark is a nature nerd, so when I ask, he tells me the names (in English and in Latin) of the dry coppery-silvery beech leaves I see scuttling across a crusty bit of snow, the white pine, and the striped maple, which, he informs me, is also known as whistlewood.
As we cross the wooden bridge spanning Slide Brook and climb gently through the winter woods, we go quiet. The roar of cars on Route 9N disappears, and we stop to enjoy the sound of Slide Brook, the three-part harmony of water, rock and ice. The ice has frozen in a thin layer at the edges of the brook, three inches above the level of the running water. There are stalactites of ice and crystal lily pads hanging from twigs. Overhead, a white birch is losing strips of its bark to the strong wind; they flap and wave like loose bandages. We pass two enormous white pines, girths as big as tractor tires. We pass a tall poplar with a wide black scar running its whole length, dead as a toothpick. Lightning strike, Mark says. I imagine the explosive shock of noise dropping off into an ozone-scented gulf of silence.
The snow has thinned to a skim over mud, and we unharness our snowshoes beside a boulder that has split in two. The water drops into the crack in a smooth sheet. I stop to take a photo of it, and nothing happens. My camera is not working right. Mark tells me that when the boulder was whole the brook probably ran farther to the west. Over time, water found a crack in the boulder, froze, melted, froze again, and the next thing you know, the rock is split, and the course of the stream is changed for an eon or two. I’m struggling with the camera, which refuses to do anything useful. It’s futile, Mark says impatiently, and suddenly, in the midst of the winter woods, we’re having a married-person fight, fussy and petulant.
By the time we get to the top we’re mad at each other. We stomp around the summit for a while, separately, and the gusting wind blows our sweaty backs cold. My damn camera won’t work, I shout over the wind. Don’t swear, he says, I’m trying to enjoy the view. The sun peeks out from behind pewter-colored clouds for a moment to illuminate the promontory we’re standing on, which looks, from below, like a barn owl’s head. It’s covered in scrub blueberry and stunted pine, twisted by the wind into arthritic-looking shapes.
The view is panoramic. On the distant slopes, the winter trees are skeletons of their summer selves, and we look right through them to the ground below. There is still snow cover on the north faces, but only milky patches on the south faces. To the east we can see the Green Mountains, and in front of them the dormant Vermont farm fields, which remind us of our own looming duties back home. The sun is getting low, and it’s time to turn around if we’re going to be back in time to milk. There is a thick, freezing fog gathering in the cols, rising toward us. As we descend off the peak, taking separate paths, it envelops us.
We meet up to collect our packs at the base of the promontory. I can tell Mark hasn’t gotten enough of something on this outing. He looks at me out of the corner of his eyes. Want to bushwhack back down? he asks, a little shyly. One of the reasons I fell in love with my husband was that his wild sense of adventure overreaches my own. Sure, I say. Follow me, he says, and I nod, and we’re off.
We let gravity have its way with us, taking increasingly long strides until it feels like we’re flying. The snow is thicker here, off the beaten trail. We’re descending so fast my ears pop, and I’m trying to keep up, ducking trees, laughing like a little kid. I am half out of control, thinking about how the action of running is exactly the same as the action of falling except we keep catching ourselves with our feet. Just then my foot lands on an ice-coated rock, and I face-plant into a patch of snow. Mark flops down next to me, and in the protracted duet of laughter that follows, we realize we’ve outrun the shadow that was dogging us, and we’re mates again.
As the terrain flattens out we get lost and end up on the wrong side of Slide Brook. Eventually we hit a tangle of logging roads that leads to the back side of a house. We follow the sound of the cars on Route 9N to find our way out to the road. Mark’s grinning, his sense of adventure fulfilled now, the day a success. We emerge a half-mile east of the parking lot as the light is fading, and turn toward home, where our cows will be gathering at the barn door, ready to be milked.