It was another cold morning as I threw the snowshoes into the back of the Jeep. But I didn’t care anymore. It was only -21C with a windchill of -27C and really, after the extreme cold we’d had, this was not so bad. I just had to make sure I brought lots of different gear options. Liner gloves, fuzzy mittens, Columbia omni-shield mitts that covered the wrist. Gaiters, snowpants, two toques. I was also wearing a merino wool undershirt under my long-sleeve thermal top. I had my Icebreaker puffy on and my Columbia waterproof shell stuffed in my pack. I wasn’t going to wear it all, of course, but one needs options. Any fool can be uncomfortable.
I think I spent most of January indoors. There was another lockdown and I was working from home for the first two weeks. Then Bob fell ill (pretty sure it wasn’t COVID but we still needed to self-isolate and I wasn’t allowed to go into work). Plus the weeks of extreme cold, it was pretty boring.
So two weeks ago, I decided I needed to do something about it. I borrowed some cross-country skis for both Bob and I and last weekend, we gave that a go on the trail near our house. I was finding my rhythm and really starting to enjoy it when I turned around to find Bob on the ground quite a ways behind me, skis and poles flailing. I wish I’d gotten a picture but I was laughing too hard. So that was the end of that.
This week, I decided to find my winter hiking mojo again and snowshoe up Blueberry Mountain. Because I’m an early riser, I’ve always been at my most energetic first thing in the morning. But with the extreme cold of late, I’ve been lounging until late afternoon to do anything. I had the gear ready so I packed up and headed out at 8 am before I could convince myself it was too cold.
Bob and I had hiked Blueberry Mountain in the fall of 2019 and the view was amazing. It’s one of The Seven Wonders of Lanark County; a gorgeous little gem of a hike. It’s less than an hour up, if you’re fairly fit and if you happen to catch the lookout at a quiet moment, a wonderful place for a picnic in fine weather.
I have done many significant winter hikes in my time, most in the Adirondacks – The Saranac 6, The Tupper Lake Triad, the two smallest of the 46 High Peaks (Cascade and Porter) as well as the longest (Allen) – so I was not worried about being unprepared. Overcoming the mental hurdle of winter hibernation was another matter.
Blueberry Mountain is actually private land called cliffLand. The land is part of the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust and they have graciously given hikers access to it. So please mind your manners – what you take in, take out, pick up after yourself and your dog, and keep your dog on a leash – so that the general public can continue to enjoy its beauty. It feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s 21 km off the 511, just north of Hopetown, down several winding roads that end up in gravel, but there are small blue signs that direct you. If you pass a village sign for the hamlet of Flower Station, you’ve just passed the final turn. Drive with caution as the roads are narrow and aren’t exactly cleared of snow. I put the Jeep in 4 wheel drive just to be on the safe side. The views are beautiful, especially after the light snowfall we’d had overnight. Blue sky, glistening snow on the branches and frozen lakes.
I was the only vehicle in the small parking lot when I arrived at 9am. It was so cold that as I threw my gear into my backpack, my mittless fingers ached. I quickly ripped open some hand warmers and stuffed them into my mitts and shortly after started to have sensation in my fingers again. I first opted not to take my snowshoes as the trail seemed well groomed, but after about 100 m, I realized that the snow was quite soft and if it got any deeper, it would easily become a more arduous trek. So I turned around, went back to the Jeep, got my snowshoes on and started again.
I’m really glad I decided to wear my snowshoes. Snowshoes make the trail nicer for everyone. I think a lot of people figure if they can do it without snowshoes, why should they bother with them, but snowshoes make the hike a lot more enjoyable. They tamp down the trail more solidly than bare-booting it, they break a wider trail, the teeth grab the snow for much better traction than boots and should you find some icy patches, those teeth create some traction. And even though snowshoes don’t exactly keep you on top of the snow, they certainly keep snow from going down your boot if you hit a deep spot. If you don’t have snowshoes yet, I recommend shorter ones like these MSR’s. The longer ones are more difficult to manoeuvre in and they can throw snow up behind you, making your butt and back snowy and potentially wet.
The trail is an easy but fairly steady climb and there are small signs along the trail that give information about some of the flora and fauna that can be found in this conservancy. My heart and lungs were thankful I stopped to take photos. I was definitely feeling the lack of activity of the last three months. But I knew that after a few minutes, my body would warm up and acclimatize. Hiking isn’t a competition; there’s no need to rush. When winter hiking, make sure to balance your effort as well to avoid sweating too much. Go fast enough to get and stay warm but don’t go so fast that your under layers get wet because once you stop moving, those wet layers are going to get really cold really fast. On long uphill hikes, I often bring a change of undershirt with me, just in case. I didn’t today because I knew that 2.5 km was not going to take me long to hike. Hiking downhill is much less strenuous but keep in mind that you won’t be as warm because of it.
About 300m from the lookout, a bench blocks the forward path and turns you to the left. This part is fairly steep and the rest of the trail was not groomed, only broken by boots. This is where I was very happy to have snowshoes. Some poor soul broke trail and post-holed up to the lookout and I’m sure that was both quite a bit harder to do as well as quite a bit colder, if they weren’t prepared. And well, there’s a lot of people out there that figure 5 km isn’t that long and how cold/deep/bad could it be? In my years of hiking, I’ve seen some extremely poor choices of attire for being out in the elements. What’s the saying? There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.
The trees had been a wonderful buffer along the trail, breaking the wind. But as I started to climb, the icy chill grew more noticeable and I had to cover my cheeks as they started to ache. I didn’t plan on staying at the top for too long even after putting my hood up. The view was sunny and glorious! The dark green evergreens blanketed in white mixed with the dark grey branches of the deciduous.
After a few minutes, I started to make my way downhill again. I had brought my small butt-sled tucked into my backpack in the off-chance that I would meet a slope significant enough for me to slide down. The steeper part that I had just climbed up, would be the best option. When the trail turned away from the edge of the mountain (accidentally sliding off the edge of a mountain would be a sad story), I sat down and tried to slide downhill. I’ve had a lot of fun on trails doing this. The slope needs to be steeper than you think because of the soft snow. Be careful of trees and rocks; sliding into them or over them can be painful. I have destroyed several hard flexible plastic butt-sleds (I don’t know the technical term for these tiny sleds that you sit on) in the cold weather but I found one at Decathlon Ottawa that had a thin layer of plastic on the bottom of a foam seat which made it more flexible and more durable. I only got to slide for 30 seconds in total, and only down this final steep part but it was still fun.
I reached the Jeep again after thirty minutes. I wasn’t cold in the least. My heart was happy that I’d decided to get outside and do something instead of sitting on the couch, reading for hours and my spirit was uplifted, having renewed my relationship with winter. Thanks for the wonderful little adventure, Blueberry Mountain!