It was two days of making and seeing tracks.
The first day involved making tracks on cross-country skis. From the Dead Indian Memorial Highway we crossed the road to a snow-covered junction, where we stepped into our skis. For the first half-hour we followed tracks made by snowmobiles.
But at a place where the snowmobile tracks continued along the main forest road, we angled onto an unsigned forest road and began making fresh tracks in the undisturbed snow. Liane Venzke led the way, carving our impromptu route. She charged along, but paused frequently to appreciate and admire our untampered surroundings, a forest of the unfamiliar.
The snow was ideal — plentiful enough that we only occasionally had to step over or detour around sections where rocks poked out, but not so deep or soft that creating a trail resulted in sinking to our knees or ankles.
The forest was beautiful, an abundant canopy of old-growth pine and fir trees, many towering high above us, many so large bellied that two or more people would need to hold hands while surrounding the tree. Other than the swishing sounds of our skis sliding through the virgin snow, the only other sounds were those of whispering breezes fluttering through the trees and bushes and the occasional calls of unseen birds.
Where the little-traveled route ended in a tangle of young trees, bushes and downfall, a nearby fallen log proved the perfect resting place for water and snacks.
After a short detour we returned to and followed our newly made tracks back to the main snow-covered forest road. On the skis back to the highway we sometimes glided on the well-packed snowmobile tracks but more often carved our own tracks by veering onto the untouched powder snow.
Day two was different. Very different. Our place for making and seeing tracks was unexpected — Lava Beds National Monument. We parked at the pullout for Mammoth Crater, near the park’s southern boundary.
Normally the Lava Beds receive and retain little snow. But these conditions weren’t normal. Our travels began from the Mammoth Crater Trailhead, near the park’s south boundary. Thinking cross-country skis or snowshoes weren’t necessary, we plodded through — surprise! — often ankle-deep and deeper snow. The better-prepared zipped on gaiters.
The expansive views along the crater’s edge revealed a stark but beautiful landscape and, even better, sightings into the crater, where thousands-of-years-ago eruptions spewed out the basalt that created most of the park’s lava tube caves.
The Big Nasty loops around Mammoth Crater, dropping from its rim down into ponderosa pine forests before returning to the trailhead. But, as pre-planned, we veered off, angling north toward Eagle Nest Butte, one of the many craters formed by those long-ago eruptions. Our boots frequently disappeared into the soft snow. All five of us had hiking poles, which proved necessary for maintaining balance walking on the snow trippy lava rock-spattered terrain hidden by snow. Those in front pounded out tracks in the snow, tracks that became deeper and wider as others followed.
Our destination was the base of nearby Eagle Nest Butte. Trip leader Bill Van Moorhem wanted to see if recent forest fires have blackened and charred areas at a relatively flat, rock-free site near Eagle Nest Butte where he likes to backcountry camp. We trooped through areas with severely burned and scarred trees, but near Bill’s campsite most remain alive and healthy.
Far more tired than expected from deep-stepping, plans to continue exploring were abandoned. Instead, after lunch we retraced our tracks, following our freshly stomped-out tracks back to Mammoth Crater and the trailhead-parking area. The tracks we’d made earlier were laid out like a wavy path in the snow.
But the most interesting tracks were not the ones we’d made. Far more intriguing were tracks left by critters — probably coyotes, deer, rabbits, ground squirrels, mice, voles. Some were erratic, ragged lines, others were tiny dots and squiggles. Several times different sized tracks intersected and crossed paths. Some were spaced apart, possibly made by a bounding deer or coyote.
Two days with several very different sets of tracks, some made by snowmobiles, cross-country skis, boots and unseen wildlife. Tracks made by others to follow or to ponder, and tracks we made to attract others to follow.