Leaving the sunny deserts of Arizona for the snowy mountains of Colorado means changing the contents of my backpack. Hiking pants and backpacking shirts are replaced with ski pants, sweaters, warm underwear, hats, and gloves. Cold-weather gear takes up quite a bit more space than warm-weather gear; but I will need it as I explore Gunnison National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park during the very chilly month of February. Upon arriving in Gunnison, I discover I also require snowshoes; so I dispatch Stephen to the Dallas REI to learn all he can about snowshoes. After thorough research, we decide to order a pair of 22 inch MSR Evo snowshoes from REI and have them shipped to my son’s rented cabin in Almont, Colorado (between Gunnison and Crested Butte).
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a perfect place to learn and practice snowshoeing. From January 18 thru March, every Saturday at 10 am and every Sunday at 1 pm, a park ranger leads a beginner snowshoe tour on the south rim. The park visitor center even offers snowshoes to borrow. Reservations are required; but everything is free, including the entrance fee in the winter. The South Rim Road beyond the Visitor Center closes in winter except for cross country skiers and snowshoers. The North Rim is closed all winter. My twenty-year-old son, Nathan, wants to try snowshoeing so I make a reservation for two for Sunday afternoon, February 2.
The 62-mile drive from Gunnison to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is gorgeous with stunning views of Curecanti National Recreation Area. It is a beautiful clear, crisp day with seemingly endless blue skies interrupted by the occasional snow-covered mountain peak reaching for the heavens. We pass over a frozen lake where fisherman are huddled over small holes in the ice tempting the fish with tasty bait. I don’t think many fish want to leave the deeper, warmer waters to end up on somebody’s hook; but, nevertheless, I decide I would like to try ice fishing someday. Maybe there is a national park that offers ranger-guided ice fishing.
Nathan and I enjoy a late breakfast at the Denny’s in nearby Montrose, Colorado, about fifteen miles west of Black Canyon along Highway 50. Arriving at Black Canyon, we are greeted by our ranger guide and asked to gather with the rest of the snowshoe group in the auditorium of the South Rim Visitor Center. Ranger Murray Shoemaker begins by introducing himself; and Nathan makes the comment that the ranger has the appropriate name to be a snowSHOE guide. Black Canyon offers a selection of snowshoes, in various sizes, to borrow and Ranger Shoemaker describes the differences. Only two of us brought our own snowshoes, so Nathan and the others choose the shoes they would like to try and we all go outdoors and prepare for the trek.
The first challenge is to attach the snowshoe to my feet. This is not a simple task because I am wearing bulky, yet very warm GoreTex ski gloves that limit my dexterity. The obvious solution is to ask my son to buckle the snowshoes for me; but I am determined to learn all aspects of the sport of snowshoeing and this includes putting on my own gear. So, at the risk of fingertip frostbite, I remove both my gloves and my glove liners and manage to buckle my own snowshoes. I even fasten them properly, nice and tight, before my fingers begin to turn blue.
Ranger Shoemaker demonstrates how to walk on a snow-packed trail and a group of approximately 15 follows behind as he climbs an easy, short trail. We pass beautiful scenery of snow-touched trees and bushes. Clumps of white, powdery snow cling to the ends of branches reminding me of central Texas cotton bolls. Soon we reach the South Rim Road and the ranger suggests we try climbing a steep incline with no packed trail. He explains how to walk on our toes using the crampons on the snowshoes. The snow is about three feet deep and I try not to cheat by following in Nathan’s tracks. I want to become an “expert” snowshoer so I forge my own trail falling only once. When we all reach the top, we again follow Ranger Shoemaker single file along trail. The ranger stops and the group gathers round as he presents a short winter survival lesson. We learn what essentials to always take on any snowshoe trek, what to do if we get lost, and how to start a fire in the snow. Continuing on the trail, we arrive back at the visitor center.
The snowshoe ranger program at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to learn the basics of snowshoeing. From learning about various types of snowshoes to learning how to start a fire in the snow; experiencing walking on packed trail and experiencing walking in deep snow; and knowing what to carry in a backpack on a winter trek to knowing what to do if lost in the winter, I am ready for more snowshoeing expeditions. Hmmm…Rocky Mountain National Park?!