You could hear it coming, and see it blasting the tops of the trees. Five seconds later it hit you, with a bitter force and intent. This was tolerable when we were walking under the protection of trees, but when the cover broke and there was nothing to shelter us, we began to cringe every time we heard the gusts pick up their noisy song and shake the trees off in the distance. The wind was also eerie in that it sounded remarkably like snowmobiles racing along the road on which we trod.
We knew it was a snowmobile trail. That much was obvious. We’d parked along the road that passes through Griggs Gulf State Forest, and as we came over the hill I told Jen to stop there because I wanted to photograph the view. We decided that this would be a good place to hike in for a while and take pictures. She wanted to photograph an interesting tree in the middle of a field, I was looking for a scenic vista, and we both wanted a pleasing walk, and maybe an adventure.
We saw what what we thought were bear tracks along the road, fairly fresh, maybe from the previous day. Jen didn’t believe it: “don’t they hybernate?” “No.” I told her, “they just go dorment. Often in the middle of wintre, they’ll get up and eat, and on occasion, they’ll even go searching for food.” This shocked her, and she asked if I brought bear spray, but of course I had not, “it’s February.” Part of me was really hoping we’d see the bear, and part of me knew that was a stupid thing to want. It looked like a snowmobile had chased the bear (or whatever it was), along the road, or followed the tracks before turning off into the woods. Tread marks made it easy to follow the vehicle, and therefore made it clear that the path we’d turned down was frequented by them, and later we saw signs indicating that the trail was maintained by the Finger Lakes Snowmobile Club.
I heard them first. “Oh shit. Get off the road.” We ran into the knee-deep powder as the roaring treaded beetles tore around the corner.
“I’m really glad you heard them.” Jen laughed as the sound of their engines faded. “That would have really sucked to get run over.”
“They smell awful don’t they?” The exhaust held a much higher concentration of gasoline than that of a car. It made you gag, and served as a reminder that even after the noise of the engines and immediate threat of being squashed disappeared, a colder, subtler threat remained.
She nodded. “I’ve never been able to understand motorized toys like that.”
Me either. It’s like going for a drive; you can’t look at the scenery because you’re concentrating on where you’re going. The difference is that with ATV’s and snowmobiles, no one is a passenger, so there isn’t anyone who can enjoy what’s passing by, you can’t listen to music, all you hear is the screeching engine, and everything flies past you at once, you couldn’t take it all in anyway.
Now that we were listening for the little monsters, the wind began to make us paranoid. It sounded from a distance like the roar of engines, but we’d stop and look, and there’d be nothing there. It was unnerving, and we thought it was possible that we, (as hikers), weren’t even supposed to be on this trail, but we were unobtrusive users, not destructive, and the only thing we wanted to take was pictures. So when we were very close to a turn, and several of those death machines came careening around the corner, we literally dove off the road to get out of their way. It’s pretty obvious what the hierarchy was.
We turned around and walked past the road where we’d parked our car further into the valley. This trail was windy and a bit narrower than that on the other side of the street, and for some reason, the acoustics were different. The wind sounded even more like engines, and when we were almost run over by five of the beasts, it didn’t seem like the sound was dying out, we kept looking in either direction, waiting for another squad to come along, but they never did.
The sun was shining brilliantly through the trees,
making romantic, even clichéd, little patterns in the snow. There was definitely an old-growth forest feel to this section near the creek where we’d stopped to photograph (and wait out the snowmobiles). There was no undergrowth, and little mounds which might be remnants of fallen trees made for a perfect picture. The problem was that at this point, having had several run-ins with the snowbeetles, and now that we couldn’t tell where they were anymore, if they were coming or going, or if we were just listening to the wind, it was only prudent that we go back to the car.
“It’s getting dark.” Jen said as the sun disappeared behind a cloud, like it had been doing all morning, with off and on flurries, effectively destroying the perfect lighting of my photograph.
“Yeah, I know.” I responded, snapping a last picture anyway.
That was when we heard the wind – there was no mistaking it this time: it was much more powerful than before, a gust upwards of 60 kph. I was still holding my camera, and when I saw the snow falling off the trees in giant clumps, I started clicking away. Jen thought it was great and started dancing. We were both laughing, but that ecstasy didn’t last long as we both quickly realized that this wasn’t letting up. I stashed my camera and by the time I got my bag back on, we couldn’t see more than ten metres in front of us.
“This is ridiculous!” we laughed. “I really hope no snowmobiles are coming. There’s no way in hell they’d see us!” I yelled, so that I could be heard over the wind.
Three minutes. That’s all it took to go from blinking in the sunlight to blizzard conditions. It now became imperative that we reach the car. God knows it wasn’t safe to be out on the trail, and we probably should have waited until visibility improved, but we didn’t know how long the storm was going to last, and we figured that the road didn’t split off in other directions, so we couldn’t get lost. At first we were just walking along as we’d been doing all morning, but as the wind picked up in intensity, and visibliity worsened we moved closer together, huddling so that we couldn’t get lost from each other. We stopped laughing at this point and focused on walking. We were hoping that the snowmobiles would stop for the storm to pass, or at least slow to a crawl, but our previous interactions told us that this was unlikely.
Back on the road visibility had not improved, and we definitely weren’t expecting cars to stop for the weather. It took some convincing for us to cross the street; when you can’t see cars, you listen for them, but the wind was too loud to hear anything else, so with a quick prayer to drivers to slow down, we ran as fast as we could to the other side. I was wearing a black jacket, but it looked white from all the snow being blown in my face. I brushed it off so that cars would have a better chance of seeing me, though apparently this didn’t matter because no sooner had I dusted off my front than it was completely white again. Please don’t let anybody come! I thought frantically.
“Where’s the freakin’ car?!” Jen yelled after about ten minutes of trudging into the wind.
“There’s no way we could have passed it.”
“No, no. It’s got to be up there.”
“We did park a little ways away from the trail.” This was more a pep talk for me than for her. We couldn’t have passed it. I repeated to myself, we were walking along the left edge of the road, and that’s where we’d parked. It’s funny how easily the mob mentality takes hold: she asked where the car was, more out of annoyance at having not reached it yet, and I knew that, but it planted the seed in my mind, that we might possibly have missed it. In an attempt to get my reason to overcome my fears, I told her that it had to be still up there, and she responded the same way. This in turn caused me to worry that we might have made a huge blunder by walking during a white-out. One of the worst things to do is put your head down and start walking, and yet, that is what we’d done, but not without direction. I really hoped we didn’t pass the car.
Of course, we didn’t, it was only just out of our visibility when we started to get really nervous, and as soon as we saw it, we ran up to get inside, then we started laughing uncontrollably. It’s a release. You get scared or nervous, or you’re on edge, for any length of time, and as soon as the danger or apprehension is over, you burst out in laughter, even if you’re giggling about it while it’s happening (like we were), because you’ve worked yourself up, if everything works out okay and no one gets hurt, you have to get that adrenaline out somehow, and laughter is one of the best ways.
“That was crazy!” We kept saying over and over again before we’d break out with another peel of snickers. “Oh my god that was insane!” There was really nothing more to say about that, especially since after we’d been in the car for a couple minutes, visibility increased, and in a few more minutes, the sun was back out.
A snow squall. Freak winter storm. It was the only way we could explain what had just happened. On our way back to Ithaca, we drove through another one. We saw it up ahead and slowed way down. This one wasn’t nearly as bad though because we were inside the car, safe (or at least with the illusion of safety), and warm.
I was still in a minor state of shock when I entered my house, prone to random fits of giggles and excitedly describing what I’d just been through to anyone who’d listen. The sheer insanity of not being able to hear or see what was up ahead or behind me left me with a newfound respect for my senses, and an (albeit slight) feeling of pride at having made it through the storm all right.