– Julia Stuble
It is February or March and a weekend beckons. Do I gear up and head into the heaps of sparkly snow in the mountains? No. I turn away from the joys of white powder, smooth trails, and the scent of sun-warmed pine. I turn to mud.
Stick with me. There can be joy in mud. In terms of the substances that can be underneath our feet in this late winter season, mud is underrated.
It need not be oozy. It need not require bog boots. It could be frozen, it could be hardened and crushable, it could be arranged in jigsaw puzzle pieces the size of dinner plates. It could be on that fine line between suck-your-feet-to-the-netherworld (goodbye shoes!) and welcoming and doughy, soft and giving. Consider, too, ice. Ice underneath skis: not fun. Ice underneath hiking shoes: possibly more fun. Consider sand. Consider hard-packed dirt. Consider not skiing in the mountains on this winter weekend. Go to the basins, adventurers. Go on an off-season hike.
On this particular Saturday, it was along the beach at Boysen Reservoir. The sun was playing tag with tendrils of stratus clouds and the lightest of breezes, just a tease, made me adjust my muffler. Josh and I had parked at the Poison Creek Campground with plans to go around the creek’s inlet and continue north for several miles. The beach of Boysen is one of the bar-none winter hiking locations, especially if you catch it between the end of ice fishing season but well before the influx of the crowded warmer seasons. Try to catch it during mud season and you will be happily alone. An hour’s drive from Lander and just a few miles west of Shoshoni, it meets every one of my winter hiking criteria, even if on this trip, we caught it a bit early.
Last year at Boysen, Poison Creek’s inlet was a thawing mudflat; one filled with secrets among the clumps of dead grasses and in the cups of slushy water between the hummocks. Now it shone glassily, both alluring and possibly treacherous. We hemmed and hawed. We eyed the ice fishing huts further to the west, on the deeper water (and hopefully, thicker ice). We ventured out, listening to the noises: hidden, settling, woomphs. Sharper cracks, like a quick chiropractic adjustment. We were there to walk, we eventually reasoned, so why shorten the walk by cutting across the ice? We went around.
Once around the inlet, we strode happily across soft, giving, sand. Even though every inch of my skin was covered by clothing, it is a beach. Without the breeze, I could even lower my hood, remove my muffler, and enjoy the sun. 0°F isn’t so bad after all. The dogs darted on and off the beach, into the shrubs and willows, following rabbit tracks that, other than our footprints, were the only sign of animal life. We knew that within the next mile, the sand turned to river-rock sized cobbles and then to intermittent gravel. It is tough to make time on the cobbles, and we had that itch to stride, so clambered up the hill on the north side of the inlet. On top, we stretched our legs on the hard-packed dirt. There had not been enough snow here for mud to form yet — but if you desire sticky accumulations on your shoes, return after the wet spring snows. Forlorn snowdrifts huddled against the southwest sides of hardy, tiny, sagebrush. The dogs could only take several gulping mouthfuls of each drift before it was scattered and dirty.
We dropped back down to the beach via a gully and sandstone alcove.It was warm and peaceful so we sat down for a snack. A key element to the successful winter hike is a high-fat snack and a thermos of warm drink — preferably herbal tea, as staying hydrated is essential to staying warm and drinking cold water is difficult at 0°F. (And plan on packing bottles of water inside your pack as the tube of a hydration bladder will surely freeze.)
The alcove was not warm enough to sit for long, but the nearby pile of driftwood was inspiring, so we scraped aside a clearing in the sand and started a small fire. It wasn’t necessary, but why not?
Fueled from within by good fatty snacks (say “yes” to Snickers) and toasted from the outside, we were primed to return south. The falling sun deepened the blues of both ice and sky and we moved quickly. At the junction of Poison Creek and the reservoir a sedan and truck were out on the ice near several fishing huts. We hurried across instead of going around, slipping and sliding and skating, our hearts racing at each sound from the ice. The cold logic of tire tracks across the ice and the deep freeze of winter only slightly calmed my unease at each noise. Rosy-cheeked and heated by adrenaline, our truck was a welcome sight. We knocked the dried mud and sand from our shoes, climbed in, and turned the heater on. Though a bit early for a muddy hike, it was an off-season hike at its best.
Prepping for a winter hike:
I recommend trail shoes, liner socks and neoprene socks, which rival heavy boots and weigh less. Wear ankle gaiters, wicking base layers, and softshell windproof pants and jacket. Over the windproof articles, layer several (as needed) thin-to-medium weight synthetic puffy pieces.
The best winter hiking locations are easily accessible from well-plowed (or wind-blown) roads. Don’t try to drive miles into the Great Divide Basin. A few suggestions:
- Dubois Badlands, accessed from the Dubois dump road
- Reardon Draw, southeast of Big Piney
- Sublette Flats, northwest of Farson
- West of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, east of Highway 530
- White Mountain, north of Green River
Winter hikes are about getting away. Many snow sports use established locations: groomed cross-country loops, resorts, or user-packed trails. Find a place you would not or could not access in another season — one that, while possibly lovely in the summer, has a unique curiosity about it in the cold season. And don’t be afraid of mud. It only adds to the joy in the esoteric and understanding the season and place.