If you go
Where: Swampy Lakes Sno-park, Porcupine Snowshoe Loop
Getting there: Head west on Cascade Lakes Highway out of Bend, look for signs for Swampy Lakes just past Virginia Meissner Sno-park
Cost: Sno-park pass required
The Central Oregon Nordic Club is working to raise money to rebuild and refurbish the Swampy Lakes Shelter, which serves several cross-country ski and snowshoe trails. According to the group’s website, it has raised 28 percent of the estimated $35,000.
As I drove up the Cascade Lakes Highway in search of a good place to snowshoe, I noticed the temperature outside kept rising. As I climbed in elevation, so too did the temperature. Inversion at work.
The warm weather, which measured well above 40 degrees (nearly 10 degrees higher than it was in Bend), is not good for snowpack, but it had a few benefits. When I unpacked my gear at Swampy Lakes Sno-park, I decided to ditch my heavy winter coat in favor of the lighter fleece.
Last year, I remember feeling brutally cold as my clumsy, frigid fingers worked hard to tighten the snowshoe straps as quickly as possible. This outing, I was able to take my time getting the straps just right before adjusting and readjusting my backpack.
The sun was bright, the sky intensely blue and the wind almost nonexistent. It was a great day to be outside. Too bad the snow wasn’t great.
I knew the snow conditions would not be ideal, but that’s a big reason why I opted to snowshoe rather than ski. While fresh powder is ideal for skiing, snowboarding and sledding — it’s not so great for snowshoeing, where you have to hoist each foot out of the new snow with every step. Instead, snowshoers want crusty, old snow. At least, that’s been my experience.
The parking lot at Swampy Lakes was fairly deserted, as were the trails. I opted for the Porcupine Snowshoe Loop, a 4-mile trek with a stop at Swampy Lakes Shelter at the midway point. On the way back, the trail ascends Telemark Butte, about 6,200 feet in elevation.
Getting to the shelter
I took my time getting to the shelter, essentially plodding along. The trail is pleasant as it weaves through large stands of trees. It was a mix of cool shade that felt like winter, and beaming sun that made it feel like May. The mix of ever-changing and evolving scenery kept the trail interesting. After cresting a small hill, there was a bit of a clearing with views east of Telemark Butte.
The signage for the route was fairly clear, but I recommend bringing along a trail map that can picked up at the start of the trail.
After 2 miles, I came to the shelter. It’s an old but cozy wooden structure in need of some repair (see “Save Swampy”). Normally when visiting shelters, I find groups huddled around a wood stove, warming up hands and feet. Not this time. The small group I encountered was busy snacking and chatting, and quite warm already. A few in the group were walking along the trails without snowshoes, opting to use shoe traction attachments, like Yaktrax, instead. The snow was so sturdy, they were able to walk along the surface without the extra weight of the snowshoes. Seemed like a smart idea to me.
Not far from the shelter I came to an expansive clearing. I turned around and caught a glimpse of Mount Bachelor, but a few trees blocked what I thought would be a spectacular scene. Determined to get a great photo, I decided to tramp across the open field, to where I was certain to get a perfect shot: open, snowy field, trees perfectly framing Bachelor. I trudged across the expanse and quickly remembered why walking on soft snow is not fun. Each step, my foot sunk about 10 inches. After about only 50 yards, I was huffing air, my hip flexor muscles hurt and, as for my spectacular view? It wasn’t so great. So back across the plain I went, puffing. This turned out to be a fortuitous exercise, a warm-up, if you will, for what lie ahead.
I have snowshoed this loop before. But it was many years ago and the details were fuzzy in my mind. I remembered some sort of hill, but not its intensity.
Disclaimer: I recognize Central Oregon is filled with ultramarathoners, triathletes and people who sprint up mountains. I am not one of those people (I am pretty much equidistant between couch potato and mountain sprinter). The following description of difficulty is based on my view only — as I am sure there are plenty of people out there who could effortlessly jog to the top.
The ascent up Telemark Butte began gradually, then really began to climb. I felt pretty good for the first few minutes. But after coming around a sharp corner, I realized that what I thought was the top of the butte was really only about a quarter of the way. That’s when I dug in. I would take about 20 steps, then stop, take five big breaths and then begin to trudge some more. The climb became quite vertical, and I was walking mostly on the balls of my feet, calf muscles working hard. As I would stop to recover, I noticed the lovely golden afternoon light spilling across the tops of the trees surrounding me. Closer to the top, I looked back and caught gorgeous views of the Cascades, especially Broken Top. What was probably a 20-minute climb felt like an hour.
Even though the walk was difficult, I loved the feeling of working so hard and pushing to the top — that little burst of “I did it!”
I assumed coming back down the hill would be easy by comparison. Not so much. The way down offered an entirely different challenge. The southern slope of the butte received most of the sun, which meant the snow conditions were terrible. There were many patches of bare dirt, with no snow. And where there was snow, it was soft and slick. Even with snowshoes on, I felt nervous about my footing and could envision toppling over and down the steep hill. I made a conscious decision to just go really, almost agonizingly, slow as I made sure of each foot placement before taking another step. Better painfully slow than in actual pain, I figured.
I felt another blip of joy when I reached the bottom, which is just a few minutes away from the parking lot. After my experience, I wondered if it would make more sense to climb up the butte on the first leg and the loop back on the easier portion. Ah well. The overall journey was beautiful either way.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, email@example.com
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misidentified Telemark Butte. The Bulletin regrets the error.