Return of Winter

After a month without snowfall and bare ground at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, it appeared our snow days had ended for the winter season and the landscape would quickly resemble spring. But nature reminded us that winter is still upon us as more than a foot of snow fell at the Environmental Learning Center and surrounding areas over the weekend! In our excitement, North Cascades Institute graduate students took advantage of the weekend celebrating the white stuff.
On Saturday, several of us headed to the gate near Ross Dam to ski and explore the portion of Highway 20 that closes for the winter season. There appeared to be about six inches of snow on the road and surrounding areas at that time, just enough to keep from hitting asphalt.
Skiing the road was a great opportunity to explore the part of the highway that is often buzzing with activity during other times of the year. I’ve sped through this section of highway in a car on my way to the Methow Valley, but was glad to slow down and take in this portion of the North Cascades landscape.

The closed portion of Highway 20 near Ross Dam provides a chance to explore the section of road at a slower pace

Masses of icicles line the cliffs along the highway

A graduate student in the distance explores the landscape of the closed portion of Highway 20

The air was still and silent, as it often is in a snow-covered landscape. Occasionally a dusting sound of snow falling from pine branches broke the stillness. The green, tree-covered mountains were covered in a sprinkling of snow. The contrast of green, white and gray made an already intimidating landscape even more rugged and beautiful. Rocky cliffs with long, sharp icicles and ice walls lined the highway. We occasionally found animal tracks appearing from the forest and into the road, but the snow made it too difficult to determine who made them.
One of my favorite views of the scene above Ross Lake was a striking vista of a snow-covered Hozomeen Mountain and Desolation Peak. The view conjured fond memories of hiking to the summit of Desolation with my graduate cohort last summer, and I wondered what it must be like to stand at the top this time of year with a snowy, jagged Hozomeen in your immediate presence.

Views of a snow-covered Hozomeen Mountain stand out against the blue and gray hues of the winter sky

Snow accentuates the ruggedness of the vast North Cascades landscape

Unidentified tracks trail from the forest into the highway

We skied to a bridge where we broke for lunch. Engraved in a concrete portion of the bridge was ‘1972’—the year Highway 20 was constructed. I stared at the engraving and thought about the history behind the construction of this highway that connects those on the western side of the North Cascades to the east. In a way, I felt I was looking at a piece of history that has reshaped how people access and interact with this landscape.
As we skied back to the gate the weather began to shift as the temperature dropped and a cold breeze hit my cheeks. Mountain peaks began to disappear behind a mist of clouds. More snow was in the forecast and I kept my fingers crossed.
I awoke Sunday morning to heavy snowflakes and a significant addition of snow! The snowfall continued throughout the day and into the evening as more than a foot of snow accumulated at the Environmental Learning Center.

Graduate student Stephanie Pate walks through the snowy landscape at the Environmental Learning Center

More than a foot of snow fell at the Environmental Learning Center over the weekend

Sunday’s snow offered another opportunity to explore and play outside as several graduate students took to our winter past-time of sledding. Our imaginations kept building as our sledding course progressed from a single track to a longer course that included a jump, several berms and eventually a ramp. Bouts of laughter echoed in the still forest as we sped down the course on our inner tubes, only to crash into a pile of soft snow at the end.

Snow fell heavily, soaking our hair, hats, jackets and mittens. I was taken back to my childhood, where many afternoons were spent in the snow building forts and snowmen, throwing snowballs and sledding. While we have been busy with various school projects and classes in our recent adult lives, our weekend adventures in the snow were a great refresher and reminder of the significance of taking time to play and explore outside.

Graduate students take advantage of a winter day and build an extensive inner tubing course. Photo by Teresa Mealy.

Graduate student Scott Davis catches some air on his inner tube. Photo by Teresa Mealy.

Graduate student Nick Mikula holds on tight as he flies down the inner tube course. Photo by Teresa Mealy.

How long the snow will stick, whether more will fall or be replaced with rain is unknown. But I am thrilled to have had another opportunity to play in the snow this winter before the longer, warmer days of spring take over. There’s not much that can surpass a beautiful, fun, snowy weekend in the North Cascades.

Photos courtesy of the author, unless otherwise noted.


  1. Leslie Franzen

    Thanks for sharing-looks like it is beautiful up your way and you all got a great opportunity to play-what fun! Someone in our family actually rode horses with her husband when they were scoping out the North Cascades Highway to be built. She is in her 90’s now, but has shared how she saw this area prior to the highway. It was really interesting to hear. Enjoy the rest of your winter.

  2. Saul Weisberg

    Great story! So that’s what’s going on at the Learning Center when the rest of us are stuck down-valley?!

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