Foster Creek snowshoe trip, 2009. - Photo by Jim Bauermeister

Moonlight snowshoe in the Cascades

In contrast to most of the expeditions I do with my teenage son, Sam, we make absolutely no attempt to get the proverbial early start. Our goal — my goal anyway — is to hike under the pale white light of the full moon.

I go to the library at noon and make copies of the Hamaker Butte topo map in the area where we plan to hike. Then we end up not hiking there, after all.

I pull into the Claude Lewis trailhead. It looks like a snowmobile convention. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of the things. My plan was to head due west from the parking lot and (if we could get across Muir Creek) enter the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness after about a mile. But I don't think we can get far enough away from the snowmobiles soon enough for my taste. Besides, there isn't even a place to park. There are RVs, huge pickups with wide trailers, SUVs and trailers, people sitting in chairs and snow machines scattered everywhere. We need a Plan B. I didn't make a Plan B.

Then I remember that Oregon DOT clears a modest parking spot at the beginning of Foster Creek Road (FS 6540). It is not an official snow park, but it will do. We drove up the road last summer. I didn't think it was anything special; just some second-growth conifers, a corral and some cattle along a typical Forest Service road. But winter does something to a place. This afternoon it is beautiful.

There are some magnificent old conifers near the highway. The three- to four-foot snow pack had melted, compressed and then froze solid. We don't need to strap on our snowshoes. There is a skiff of new snow on the surface that records the activity of the forest. There are some fresh bobcat tracks heading up the road. We follow them.

Koko the Wonder Dog rolls on some delight buried in the snow. I suspect it is cougar scat. There is more recent scat on the surface and frequent cougar tracks. Some are in the old frozen snowpack and some are on the surface snow. Obviously, we are in a mountain lion's territory. It looks like good territory for the cat: there are also many deer and snowshoe hare tracks. We don't actually see any live animals this day. We hear the caw of a distant crow; kinglets high in the tree canopy.

We take a short detour on Forest Service Road 6520 to stand on a culvert and admire Foster Creek as it flows through a snow-covered meadow.

There is a great mix of conifers here: Douglas fir, Western white pine, grand/white fir, Western hemlock, incense cedar, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and, down by the creek, Englemann spruce.

My winter hiking is not usually destination oriented. My vague plan is to hike up the road until dusk and then turn around and come back under the moonlight.

Near sunset the road begins to climb significantly. We come to some pools of water in the snowpack. Sam goes to the north of one such well. I warn him that the snow is undercut by the water. I go to the south of the well and my right leg abruptly sinks to my crotch. I drag myself out laughing, "It's time to go back."

The Web — the source of all wisdom and truth — said the moon would rise at 4:30 p.m. Were that so, there would be no gap between sun and moonlight. Yet there is. It is soon dark and we stumble along on the uneven surface of the snow. Nevertheless, Sam sets a brisk pace. The idea of cougars makes him nervous even though I remind him that no human has been attacked by a cougar in Oregon for more than 60 years.

Except for us, the night is exceedingly quiet. We hear no owls. The moon rises slowly. A low-angled moonbeam shining down a draw looks like a flashlight or a snowmobile headlight. Sam momentarily wonders whether it might be some lost souls.

We are almost back to the pickup before we can see the full orb of the moon behind the silhouettes of the conifers. It casts shadows on the snow and we can see our outward-bound tracks.

Jim Bauermeister lives in Medford.

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