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Sugar, Crust, and Corn

March 24, 2011
The first step onto the frozen snow surface in the morning wakes my imagination to the limitless possibilities for pathless journeys through the woods. Step off the beaten trail anywhere you want. Take a few light steps to gauge the crust and then pick a line between the trees, over snow-covered boulders, skirting swales choked with blow-downs, taking the path of least resistance; like flying low through the woods.

To enjoy crust and corn conditions, get out fairly early, before the sun thaws through the crust. The best condition occurs just as the temperature edges up past freezing and the sun hits the snow. South facing slopes corn up first, then as the day warms up, they rot through. North leaning slopes stay frozen longest. The perfect corn snow window is often small, especially on days that are headed above 40 degrees. It's usually a matter of an hour or two. It takes timing and luck to get it right.

Last week I enjoyed a trek around the Double Heads in Jackson with Ken Lidman in conditions that started as corn at the base but morphed to boilerplate and crystal chandeliered trees at the top, the result of ice buildup above 2,000 feet during a recent freezing rain storm. Microspikes got us up the steep, slick New Path, snowshoes took us out to the South Peak overlook, then back over the saddle to the North Peak. The New Path climbs 1,350 feet from the height-of-land on Dundee Road to the saddle just north of the South Peak at about 2,900 feet that provided an exhilarating jaunt into the crystalline world.

After descending the Ski Trail a couple of hundred feet on bone-hard snow, dodging pockets of blown-off, ice-coated spruce debris, I realized my old MSR Denalis were not holding as I expected. Since the crampons on the MSRs run lengthwise, stepping down on a hard ice slope requires sidestepping, taking time and effort. A quick change back to Microspikes solved the problem. Below the ledges, where the slope angle eases, we could jog over the humps of solid snow. A few tentative ski tracks indicated someone had come looking for the corn, but there was not much evidence of graceful turns. It looked more like scratchy desperation.

Two weeks ago, a rainstorm and thaw, the same storm that iced the tops of the Double Heads, opened many of the brooks in the woods, making for difficult or impossible stream crossings. I look for routes that do not have known water crossings. I don't trust the snow bridges or the shelf ice along rivers when the temperature is above freezing. I heard this morning from someone who tried the North Moat Trail on Sunday and found Lucy Brook uncrossable.

Wednesday of last week, wet snow fell most of the day at higher elevations. I spent the morning exploring some old paths along Wildcat Brook, downstream from Bog Brook Trail. Three inches of wet snow hung heavy on the trees and dampened the woods. I stayed out longer than I'd planned, enjoying he solitude and beauty of the late winter woods. March is fickle; this could well be the last snow of the season, though that's unlikely. I ventured out on the remaining shelf ice along the brook, looking for mink tracks. All the big snow bridges that had looked so inviting two weeks ago were gone. Open water coursed between high ice banks. I looked longingly at the untried paths on the far bank, regretting not having crossed them when I could; maybe next winter.

Saturday night, temperatures dropped back into the 20s, just what I hoped for. Sunday's conditions looked great. I went out with a group of JSTF employees and Board of Directors members to tour the new trails at the north end of Carter Notch Road. We started in on the beaten path but soon went off on the crust, making our way between trees, over rocks, tiptoeing over swamps. Some exposed south embankments showed bare ground, but just enough crust remained to let us sneak by. We made a loop down by Wildcat Brook, then returned to the road by the way we'd come an hour and a half before. By then the surface was softening, and in certain places close to tree trunks, over downed logs we started to fall through. We'd lucked out and hit the crust and corn window just right. The afternoon on the same ground would be a different experience.

Last Thursday, the temperature got well above 50 degrees, and I couldn't resist the temptation to get on my bicycle for a short inaugural ride, up to Jackson and back. My old body was full of creaks and groans, but a few miles into it the muscles remembered what to do. The roads were sandy, wet, and covered with rock salt from Wednesday's snow. Despite the warm sun, I felt no great pull to keep going. It was just a pleasure to get out and roll. I've been through this transition before. The cycling urge will build as the weather improves.

Friday was even warmer, hitting 60 in the sun. The snow banks along the roads were melting fast, assuring a steady flow of cold water to the puddles in the bike lane. I rode to Conway, and then out Passaconaway Road to the winter gate, dodging fans of winter sand and tire swallowing cracks. Sections of the road in the Dugway area looked ready to slump into the Swift River. On the way back up West Side Road, a fierce headwind kept me in low gears and threatened to blow me off the road. Doesn't sound all that much fun, but it was - fun to make the change from winter to spring, to reorganize my clothes into a cycling wardrobe, to remember where the tire pump is and how to lube the chain. That's the way cycling season begins with a bit of discomfort, some grit on my teeth, and dreams of many rides to come.

Minnich cycles in summer and snowshoes and skis in winter. He guides snowshoe treks for Jackson Ski Touring Foundation and produces mountain bike trail maps of Valley. Minnich lives in Glen with his wife Sally

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