A walk on the mild side

The last time I went for a snow hike that didn't involve snowshoes, standing in line trying to buy a lift ticket at Stevens Pass or trying to take out the garbage last week, I nearly died.

I was, I don't know, 18 or 19 years old and a couple of buddies from high school and I had the bright idea to go camping at Staircase Campground, which is just northwest of Lake Cushman and near Olympic National Park's southern border.

With more than a foot of snow on the ground, we figured there'd be no one crazy enough to drive all the way out to that campground, pitch a tent and dig a hole in the snow deep enough for a campfire pit.

We were right. And for 24 glorious hours, that whole campground was ours. We went for some truly spectacular hikes, threw snowballs, saw a bit of wildlife ... basically played like kids for a day.

Then came the rain. And the most uncomfortable night of (not quite) sleeping upon what was once a bed of snow, transformed into a torrent of ice water and rocks. And rain that stayed with us through the morning. And fires that didn't start thanks to ridiculously damp wood.

And then the car, our only means of transportation, broke down. And with our perfectly beautiful isolation, no one - not even a park ranger -- could help us. Oh, if only cell phones were in mass production then. And with the rain seeping into our clothes, we all thought, "Is this the way we die?" Drowning 200 feet above sea level?

It took a car ride from a friendly fellow hiker back to Hoodsport and a phone call to a friend in Seattle - that was where our closest friend lived, so you might guess we weren't the most popular guys around - to save us from irreversible pruning of the fingertips and toes.

I vowed never to camp in the snow again as long as I live.

But a hike in the snow ... that's a different story.

Needing a good constitutional and desiring some cool, mountain air - but not really wanting to spend too much time getting there, so settling for hill air - my thoughts turned to Burnt Hill.

For years I've known about the expanse of green, lushly forested land maintained by the

Department of Natural Resources. I'd covered some stories about its uses, predominantly the contentious and ongoing dialog between the hill's neighbors and recreational vehicle users, with state officials mediating in between.

I didn't come looking for a fight last week but rather a nice walk through the woods in the snow.

My wife, Patsene, and I made our way up Johnson Creek Road in my trusty Honda Element and made it to the trailhead just short of the second gate without much trouble; the snow here was 8 inches deep and, with tire tracks leading up the hill's various pathways, perfectly negotiable in standard hiking boots.

I didn't really have a specific route in mind. Peering at some maps of Burnt Hill before the trip, I realized there are several dozen combinations of loops one could make inside the thickly-wooded hill's borders, so I plucked a map from Mike's Bikes' Web site - a path normally used to help mountain bikers find a double-diamond route called Free Way - and started up the hill.

Keeping mostly within the tracks of vehicles rather than getting inundated with snow inside our boots, we tramped up the hill and breathed in the pristine winter air. What's neat about Burnt Hill is the relative quiet. We were far enough away from the highway not to notice much droning traffic and only three times did we have the pleasure of happening upon recreationalists cruising up or down the hill on their 4-wheelers.

We waved. They didn't. Maybe it's not cool to wave to hikers, or maybe they had another way of saying hi. Or maybe I started thinking about it too much.

Then I started to notice plenty of sounds. The scrunch, scrunch of our boots in the snow, the snap-crackle-pop of snow slipping from branches, the gurgling water in nearby streams.

Hiking up these old logging roads is a workout. Less than an hour in, however, we were atop a clearing of sorts. According to our map we were standing at the "View Point," elevation 2,050 feet. All we could see were some oddly-placed boulders and a couple of rusted-out junk cars.

We hiked further to the south and found a clearing that gave us mountaintop views of Blue Mountain and other Olympic peaks. But with so many tall evergreens, there was no real clearing to get the grand scope of the Olympics. Oh well, I thought. I've seen them before. I didn't mind the solitude - and cover from potentially brutal winds.

Getting a little tired, we headed back to the boulders, wiped the snow away and broke out our lunch fare. Soon our conversation turned from the qualities of this particular hike and which direction to go, back to what Patsene is studying in her college class. Rather than exercise our legs anymore by taking the easterly route that looked like it led up another steep incline, we decided to hoof it back down the old logging road. And while I tried to keep up with my wife's musings on olde English poets (I didn't do too well) the easy pace of the loping downhill striding was an enjoyably tiring finish to this hike.

All told, the jaunt was a mere two hours, although it should have been longer: we had planned to make a snowman at the top of Burnt Hill.

Oh well, guess there's plenty of reason to return.

Michael Dashiell can be reached at miked@sequim

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