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Solitude of South Willow makes for ideal snowshoeing

21 Dec

Following tracks in the snow is a fascinating pursuit—especially when they’re your own.

An ice-crusted South Willow stream is one of the highlights of a winter trip to South Willow Canyon (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the December 17, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The lone set of snowshoe tracks swerved gradually back and forth as they climbed the canyon road.  Back-tracing them, it was easy to reconstruct my entire run.  Here—where the tracks sink in deeper than the rest—is where I stopped to shed my coat and gloves.  Small deviations in my route showed where I had cut over to examine a large canine paw print, where I took my eyes off the road to monitor the advancing storm above, and where I stopped to listen to my heart pound against the insulated silence of the snow-coated canyon.

I was alone in South Willow Canyon, which is not an uncommon occurrence.  I inaugurate each spring and winter season with a run in this intimate Stansbury Mountains chasm.  South Willow sees a large number of visitors during the summer, but is virtually people-free the rest of the year.  It’s especially quite during winter when the closed Forest Service gate restricts the canyon’s upper half to foot traffic.

My winter run is decidedly tougher because snowshoeing is much more rigorous a workout than regular walking or running.  A 2002 study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association showed that snowshoeing on packed snow at four miles per hour is equal to walking on a treadmill at six miles per hour.

Increase your snowshoeing speed even slightly and your energy expenditure doubles that of treadmill walking.  According to a 2004 study by the University of British Columbia, running in snowshoes is twice as difficult as running on the road– and they’re talking packed snow.  It’s estimated that breaking trail in unpacked snow is up to 50% more taxing.

Last year a few snowmobiles and other snowshoeers had broken my trail for me.  If the trail was already broken this year, I would run about 2 miles to the Medina Flat trailhead and hike another 1/3 mile to its intersection with Mining Fork Road, a narrow double track that leads into the Deseret Peak Wilderness toward South Willow Lake and a colossal glacial cirque.  The rarely traveled road is publically accessible only from this junction. If I pushed myself and timed things right, I’d have time to snap a few pictures and return to my car by dusk.

(photo by Clint Thomsen)

Forest sign (photo taken during last year's run)

Why Mining Fork?  Why now?  Because when I hiked it last summer I couldn’t get over how utterly lonely it was.  Beautiful? Yes, but alarmingly dreary.  If there’s any place in these mountains I wouldn’t want to be alone during winter, I thought to myself that day, it’s Mining Fork Road.

So that’s precisely where I was headed.  It would be a rite of passage– my annual coming to terms with a season marked by chill and unease, a season with which I’ve always had a love-hate relationship. I love its simple, cruel beauty and the concept of the Great Reset, but I’m no fan of the cold, and I approach wintertime adventures with a degree of unease.

Outdoors writer Brion O’Connor wrote that “the backcountry isn’t always a benevolent place.  In reality, it’s unaware of our presence, unconcerned about our fate.”

Nothing epitomizes this notion than winter, and nowhere are the odds more stacked against the lone man than in a winter mountain canyon.  Play it smart and you’ll leave the canyon intact with a rewarding workout under your belt.  But one misplaced step could spell disaster—especially if you’re alone.

No sooner did I walk past the Forest Service gate than I realized Mining Fork was out of the question.  A light snow fell as I strapped on my snowshoes.  The dark olive-colored cloud that loomed in the mountains ahead was spreading quietly down the canyon toward me.

The road beyond the gate was unbroken, covered by a pristine blanket of unconsolidated powder at least a foot deep.  Breaking a trail would delay my arrival at the Medina Flat trail head by at least 45 minutes.  Assuming I even recognized the trail to Mining Fork, I wouldn’t arrive there until dusk.  I didn’t like those calculations.

Bridge over South Willow Creek (also from last year's run)

I decided to stick to the canyon road.  I ran to where the creek disappears into a weir, pausing to listen to the haunting call of a bird somewhere on the mountainside.  At about a mile in I decided that the way the road’s slope framed my snowshoe tracks below the stormy peaks warranted a photo.  If it turned out well I could apply black and white and caption it with an inspiring quote about breaking trail.

I continued exploring for a few more minutes before putting my coat back on.  A stiff wind tore through the canyon, whipping a fine wall of powder against the canyon’s southern wall.  Dusk was upon me.  The olive cloud had advanced to my position.  I didn’t hurry out of the canyon.  I walked, calves burning and mind invigorated, back over the snow I had packed.  I may not have made my exact destination, but I think I was sufficiently winter broken.  And I’ll be back—preferably after a few snowmobiles or a large snowshoe party.

TRIP TIPS
Snowshoeing South Willow is an excellent workout.  To get to South Willow Canyon, turn south on West Street in Grantsville and drive 5 miles to the South Willow Canyon turn-off.  Follow the road 3.2 miles past the cabins to the Forest boundary.  The road is paved up to the gate and the dirt road beyond it is snow-packed.  The gate is closed as the campgrounds don’t operate in winter, but the rest of the road is open to foot traffic and is accessed by walking around the gate.  Cottonwood Campground is 1 mile from the gate, but the road continues up the canyon for 3 more miles, ending at the Loop Campground.  The road is well-packed in some spots, but most everything beyond the gate is impassable without snow shoes or cross-country skis.  Before venturing into any canyon in winter, consult the Utah Avalanche Center’s website at www.avalanche.org/~uac.

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