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MLK Day Snowshoe on the Tug Hill

Snow-covered trees

On Martin Luther King Day I decided to spend some of my day off snowshoeing up on the Tug Hill at Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area in Parish, NY. This would be my first snowshoe sojourn of winter due to numerous injuries and illness. I was looking forward to getting out of the suburbs and losing myself in a winter wonderland for an hour or so during the early afternoon hours.

Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area totals 8,895 acres located in eastern Oswego County. Happy Valley offers a varied selection of different habitats due to its history of reforestation and farming activity. Several ponds exist in the area along with upland forests and a variety of wetlands. It is bordered to the north by NY State Route 104 and to the south by Oswego County Route 26.

When I arrived I found a single SUV with a snowmobile trailer at the far end of an unplowed parking lot. With great trepidation I entered the parking lot driving through the much wider-spaced tire ruts in the snow. At first I planned on parking next to the SUV but I soon abandoned the idea and instead settled on parking right near the entrance/exit of the parking lot. I attempted to back up the small hill in the lot so as to be out of the way of any other vehicles coming in later in the day. After three such attempts of only making it as far as the very crest of the hill I parked my subcompact car right on the hill and began my preparation for my bushwhack through the snow-covered forest.

After getting on my Tubbs Peak 30 Snowshoes and carrying a single adjustable Komperdell back country and snowshoe pole I headed down the main snowmobile trail down Churchill Road. This trail is fairly well graded dirt road during the warmer seasons but now was covered with at least several feet of well packed snow. The forest around the buildings has been marked as a restricted area for the last several years so I continued to snowshoe along the edge of the snowmobile trail until clearing the restricted area.

Upon moving past the restricted area I moved off the snowmobile trail and into the deep snow soon vanishing into the surrounding forest. The snow was very deep and I was easily sinking a foot or more down while I struggled to make the adjustment from walking on the packed down snowmobile trail I just left behind. Being the first time out on snowshoes it took me a little longer for me to get my snowshoeing legs. After a few minutes I was weaving around trees and dodging large chunks of snow falling from the conifer trees as a slight breeze blew.

Happy Valley is a patchwork of conifer plantations and natural forests in all different stages of development. Swampy areas abound which are easily discernable during the winter season by a snow-covered hummock and hollow pattern. There are a scattered number of ponds in the area as well although most of them tend to be clustered in the southern portion of the wildlife management area.

I continued snowshoeing in a southeastern direction for about a half hour before finally turning west in an area of huge eastern hemlocks near the border of a large open wetland. Since I planned on taking an hour long trip I knew I would have to turn westward at about half way so as to return to the snowmobile trail where I could cross it and follow along the western edge back north toward the parking lot along Route 104. At about 30 minutes from leaving the parking lot I pulled out my compass and headed westward.

As I moved through a dense area of hemlocks over rolling hills I discovered a large hollow log sticking out of the snow at the base of a large tree. Scattered about in front of the end of the hollow log was the scat of some animal plus a few scattered hair. Trails in the snow led away from the log in many different directions some of which ended at the base of large trees. I suspected the log to be a latrine of a porcupine. I peered into the log but could not see anything more than a foot inside. Before continuing on I searched about in the trees to see if I could locate the suspected porcupine but I was unsuccessful. I took a few pictures with my compact digital camera before departing.

At the top of a hill just west of the log I observed some recent snowshoe hare tracks. I followed the tracks for a short distance hoping to get a peak at a snowshoe hare in its winter coat. Unfortunately this was not to be and I suspected perhaps the hare was watching me undetected due to its pelt blending in with the white surroundings. Do they get snowshoe envy I wondered as I continued on toward the snowmobile trail?

Porcupine latrine

Soon I entered an old logging road with a cross-country skiing track down the center. The track was at least a day old but the old logging road looked familiar so I followed it as it winded its way up a hill through a beautiful mature mixed forest. After climbing some distance the old road ended at a bright yellow barricade.

On a branch near the barricade perched a vocal black-capped chickadee. Its “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” broke the winter silence where other than my snowshoes flopping around in the snow there was rarely a sound. The chickadee was clearly annoyed by my presence as it would fly down and disappear at the base of the barricade only to fly back to the branch a few moments later to scold me before repeating the behavior. After watching for a while curiosity (and my cold feet despite my winter boots) got the best of me and I approached the barricade at the point where the little bird was so active. As I rounded the barricade I looked down at the point where the chickadee had been vanishing being careful so as not to disturb the area. It appeared a carcass was buried in the snow here and the chickadee had been pecking at it to obtain some much needed protein and fat during this lean winter season. Small pieces of meat and fat were scattered about in the snow and despite my curiosity as to the identity of the poor creature whose life ended here I left it undisturbed for the small bird to continue to celebrate his or her good fortune.

The barricade was near the edge of a clearing where the main snowmobile trail cut through down the middle. I quickly crossed the snowmobile trail to the western side and turned north back toward the parking lot. Glancing at my watch I knew I was in for an hour and a half to two hour snowshoe trip now. I moved a little farther away from the main snowmobile trail and snacked on a granola bar and some hot tea before proceeding further. While having my snack I heard the sound of snowshoes striking the hard snow-packed trail in a frequent and rhythmic fashion. Scanning through the forest in the direction of the snowmobile trail I spotted a man running up the trail in small snowshoes. He was keeping a very aggressive pace and was dressed in a bright orange and black jacket. He passed quickly without noticing my presence off in the forest.

After packing my stuff away I climbed over a rock wall covered in snow and approached a white pine plantation. While keeping a steady pace walking along the edge of the white pine plantation there was an explosion of snow right before me as a ruffed grouse flew out from under my feet and took off into the forest. It had obviously been buried in the recent snow from the previous day and decided to stay in the relatively well insulated shelter.

Snow-covered trees in Happy Valley

At this point my snowshoe hike was over an hour long so I picked up the pace and headed due north. When I intersected with an old logging road I turned east and headed down the old road. Soon I spotted one of the restricted area signs along the old road and knew I was near the parking lot. After continuing along the old logging road I soon entered a clearing with the main snowmobile trail at its far end.

I rejoined the main snowmobile trail and headed northward along the packed down snowmobile trail. Soon I entered the parking lot and was back at my car where I had left it. I went over and checked out the thermometer at the window of one of the buildings and if I read the reflection in the window correctly it was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. No wonder I was cold every time I stopped for a rest.

Another SUV arrived and parked next to my vehicle while I was changing in preparation for my return drive. After chatting a little with the couple I returned to my car ready for a struggle to exit the parking lot. Luckily my little car made it through the parking lot alright though I did have trouble making a left out of the parking lot and back onto State Route 104. Instead I drove straight out of the parking lot onto a side street and turned around in the middle of this street so I could make a right turn onto 104.

For a first snowshoe trip of the winter, especially after the last two difficult months health-wise, went very well. Unfortunately later that day my ankles got really sore with a mild case of tendonitis. This put the time of my next snowshoe trip in doubt but hopefully I would get at least another few trips in before the winter snows melted and the bushwhacking season begins anew.

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