By Leif Whittaker
The road is clean. Broken ice and packed powder is pushed into barriers on the shoulder. The plow is like the heels of two open palms compacting sand on the foundation of a castle. We used to pile sand on the grey beaches in summer. We built castles as big as we could and then watched the tide destroy them. We were delighted to throw rocks and drop logs on the walls. To stomp it into oblivion and aid the erosion. We got wet feet and tossed sand at each other. Cleaned our eyes in the salt water afterwards. Sand is so much like snow.
The sign says chains are required but our car doesn’t need them. The pavement is bare but the hills are blanketed. The snow deepens as we climb towards Hurricane Ridge. One vehicle passes going the other way. Downhill. I wonder if the driver made it to the ridge and found the snow too shallow to ski. Freya doesn’t think so. She thinks they watched the sunrise. We don’t see another car until the parking lot.
Even there we are almost alone. A few other excited souls have made the trek. They’re hoping to discover something hidden in this November pinch. A wonderland. An immaculate landscape waiting to be painted. It beckons all of us with a whisper.
Boughs droop under heavy powder loads. Soft breezes vibrate frozen needles that fall and dissolve in the bright air like sugar in a cup of tea. The sky is dynamic. Half-empty clouds break against the salty currents of the nearby ocean. Sun cleaves through for a moment. Dark valleys glow with an emerald tint.
I have not been here since I was a child. Sledding in a purple onesie with mom, dad and brother. Face-plants didn’t hurt back in those days. It didn’t matter how deep the snow was. It was always deep enough.
The one-hour journey from Port Townsend seems criminal. I have a terrifying suspicion that the snow and terrain will be worthless because the drive was so short. We haven’t worked hard enough or paid enough money to get here. Something must be missing.
But the reason we haven’t paid a cent is because the T-Bars are closed. It’s too early to be here. Or is it? More cars arrive in the parking lot as Freya and I prepare our gear. I see rooftop boxes filled with skis and snowboards. I see snowshoes. I see children in purple onesies. There are many people looking for the same thing we are: the first powder turns of the season. We better get moving before all the fresh canvas is taken.
After about five minutes of skinning I realize that I am severely overdressed and Freya realizes that she is severely over-geared. Her snowboard is strapped to a pack that is way too big for her. She is using snowshoes and ski-poles to follow a bootpack that is actually quite solid. She doesn’t need either. Her camera dangles at her side from a single shoulder strap. She is a walking garage sale and I don’t look much better. My shovel bangs against my helmet with every step. My baselayer is soaked. We continue upward and arrive at the crest of a lamp-shade-like peak after thirty minutes of climbing. We look down at a sparsely-treed face covered in completely clean powder. This is the perfect spot to drop in.
Awkward backpacks and unnecessary gear require reorganization. It takes us too long to transition from climbing-mode to skiing-mode. By the time we’re ready to descend I am shivering beneath my soggy clothes but I’m excited to see if this powder is as perfect as it looks.
I point my tips downhill and let myself slide. The first few turns are awkward but the knee-deep snow is soft and forgiving. I feel no rocks beneath my skis. No shrubs or branches. Only soft clean powder. The feeling is exhilarating. The next few turns are natural and quick. I paint a symmetrical weave between the trees. My turns will remain until the next big snow. A jaunty poem to be read by cars passing on the road below.
The run ends on the road below. We snap out of our bindings and stick out our thumbs. We shove our gear into the back and sit next to a young girl. Her parents are driving. They have an energetic Welsh corgi that licks my face.
You can actually ski here? the mother asks.
Yeah. It’s great!
So do you hike up and then ski back down?
Seems like a lot of work.
It is. But those powder turns are all worth it.
I’m impressed. Good work you guys.
Thanks. What are you all doing up here?
Oh, you know. Pictures and stuff.
Right. It’s a beautiful day.
Where are you from?
Alright. Just across the water.
Not too far.
Well thanks for the ride.
No problem. Have fun!
And we are back at the car. Freya ditches her snowshoes and poles and pack. I get rid of some layers. We both feel free.
We hike up the same ridge but go further along than before. The terrain is slightly steeper here and the powder is still untouched. Every turn feels perfect this time. The slope runs beneath my skis like a wave pulling pack from the shore. I could not have imagined a better first day. I cannot imagine a better way to play.
After four runs the sky is turning dark. It gets late so early this time of year. We have been here over four hours and in that time we have skied downhill for less than ten minutes. But what an amazing ten minutes it was.
I can’t wait to come back. I can’t believe this powder grows so close to home. I’ll be watching the weather report closely for the next storm. Winter doesn’t have to mean dark wet days. It doesn’t have to mean hiding at home. I’ve seen something different. Winter is beautiful. Winter is a beach. Winter is chest-deep pockets of soft clean snow.