Eugene Buchanan: A brush with Shackleton: Cross-country skiing the Yampa downtown
January 20, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — I'm not ready for Antarctica, but I took a stride closer recently with an afternoon outing from the office that, even in my book, seemed distinctive: cross-country skiing on — yes, on — the Yampa River from the 10th Street bridge to the Treehouse bridge.
Don’t paint me a whacko. I'd hatched the idea a few weeks earlier when walking across the bottom bridge to Howelsen Hill. The river's banks were wide, frozen and as smooth as my well-laid plans, seemingly inviting someone to come ski them.
So, on a bluebird afternoon, I applied sun block to thwart writer's block, sauntered outside and strapped on my flimsy, double-camber blasts-from-the-past just off the bike path and started striding.
Right away I knew the idea held water. The snow was fast, the ice stable, and the route ahead blanketed with fresh snow. Surely, someone else has thought outside the icebox like this?
Its uniqueness bubbled up quickly, just like its open expanses of water. I skied alongside fissures flanking rushing water, crevasses corralling swirling currents and ice formations resembling everything from brains and lava flows to casseroles of cauliflower. Yessirree, I was an explorer the likes of polar pioneers Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, all rolled into one ice-dodging package and feat of derring-do. I'd been down this stretch countless times in rafts, duckies, canoes, kayaks, SUPs and tubes — everything, it seems, except Shackleton's ship Endurance itself. But never up it, in winter and on lunch break to boot.
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Speaking of lunch, like Shackleton's team starving on Elephant Island, I forsook mine. The groan of the ice below matched those from my stomach as I passed Aurum, Sunpies, E3 and Sake2U, whose decks bustle in summer but were now frozen silent and enshrouded in snow. I was instantly thrust into the wilderness, but could still have skied up to a California Roll.
A few strides after passing under the 5th Street Bridge, where I got an up-close glimpse of its graffiti, I surprised two fishermen wetting nymphs in lone patches of water. With the ice as thin as my hairline in spots, I was trying not to become a nymph myself.
I'm from Colorado, not the Midwest, so I was naturally wary of the ice's thickness and my own post-holiday weight. On a few strides, the ice creaked loudly, augmenting the babble and gurgle of water somehow still finding its way seabound. Each time, it gave me pause, encouraging quick transport.
There were plenty of other paws also. Animal tracks crisscrossed the snow everywhere — likely that of intrepid Fisher (Pekania pennanti), ermine (Mustela erminea), weasel (Mustela), pine martin (Martes americana) or maybe even mouse (Mus musculus) — whose makers Shackleton's team would have gladly shish-kabobbed. While not as intimidating as polar bear prints, their patterns took my mind off my breathing. I could almost hear their pitter-patter as I strode by, matching my heart's as I realized none of them belonged to animals even one-tenth of my weight.
Thinking light thoughts (not that cranberry Brie dip from the holidays), I stayed on the south side of the river, figuring it'd be more frozen and out of the sun. My polar expertise paid off until the river turned right and south, leaving me wondering which side would be firmer, the east or the west? I opted for the west side, next to the Brooklyn neighborhood, reasoning that the early morning sun hitting it was likely colder than the afternoon rays hitting the other side.
Putting my sextant away, I forged onward into the Great Unknown. But I was still left with route decisions, especially when, like those polar explorers before me, my chosen path was blocked by open water. I had to cross the river twice … once on right channel near Rich Weiss Park — taking me under my first railroad bridge, whose plowed snow from above created a perfect mini rink on the ice below — and another above Fetcher Park. I crossed gingerly each time, knowing the ankle-deep waters of the Arctic lay below me.
Admittedly, I wasn't quite in the same wilderness as my polar peers. But I pretended otherwise, keeping my head down when striding close to River Road, whose drivers no doubt noticed my touring tomfoolery. I even ran into a gal friend jogging the bike path at Fish Creek, who seemed surprised at my schussing.
It was schussing, at least, until encountering my biggest foe: Mr. Slush. In my polar naivety, I hadn’t even considered it might be a problem. Luckily, it didn't strike until two-thirds of the way up when, close to the bank, all of a sudden I glided into hidden glitchola. Like skiing through molasses, my bases were each now 10 pounds heavier, picking up snow every step. I was now Jack LaLanne, skiing with leg weights, with no choice but to stop and scrape them off with my ski edges. It was adversity overcome, just like Robert Peary and Frederick Cook in their quests to discover the North Pole.
Like my courageous kinsfolks, I thought about turning around plenty before reaching my own Pole of the Treehouse bridge, but I persevered onward. So, I kept to the right, rounded the big (and deep) bend by River Road, stopped for a quick scrape beneath the railroad bridge and finally, knocked the bottom of the bridge with my ski pole. It wasn't quite planting a flag on the Pole, but it would have to do. I thought briefly about hitchhiking back on River Road, but Shackleton would have poopooed that idea, so I turned around and skied down.
On the way back, I had the benefit of gravity, but the detriment of warmer temperatures. At one point my upstream tracks were now a few inches underwater on an ice shelf. Better not go that way. Farther down, they ended in an abrupt hole; it must have caved-in shortly after I passed.
Mr. Slushmeister seemed worse on the way down, sneaking up when I least expected it. Sometimes I'd tough it out, rubbing my ski bottoms off on rocks, branches and my pride (note to self: next time bring a scraper). Others I'd give in, take my skis off and scrape. It made me ponder if the sub-snow goo was the price of admission and is here all the time, or if it disappears as temperatures drop?
I contemplated that and more as I retraced my tracks back downtown. In the whole scheme of things, my feat was relatively weenie compared to exploits of my polar brethren and even Carl Howelsen, who once skied from Hot Sulphur Springs to Steamboat. But not bad, I figured, for an office stiff on lunch break — and even Sir Ernest would appreciate where I refueled afterward: The Shack.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatPilot.com.