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Walking Through Woods on a Snowy Spring Day

While on a day’s hiking/rambling exploration with Chas this last April in Japan, we encountered the very conditions I left Colorado to get away from. Snow. Lots of it. Not falling through the air – deeply layered on the ground. Wet, heavy, rotten snow from the winter slowly trailing past. In Colorado this winter, the snow was dry as sand and the day time temps stubbornly refused to break 30 degrees. For two months. It was warmer in Japan and the cherry trees were in bloom and the trees were leafed out. Ducks had paired up… In the mountains, winter remained, providing gentle reminders that spring hadn’t fully established its hold and summer was months away.

I borrowed my Mom’s hiking boots – attractive suede that looked fairly new. We started cheerfully by driving up into the mountains and hiking up to Choshigataki Falls, walking through spring woods on dry ground. The air was fresh and clear and the temp was comfortably in the 60’s. We got our pictures and decided to try a trail to Bandai san crater that Chas had hiked last summer.

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Approaching the falls.
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Enjoying the cool air and spray
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We arrived at a discrete parking lot for the Kawakami Trail and observed we were the only ones there. On such a nice day, we were slightly puzzled but nonetheless thrilled to have the place to ourselves. We headed up the trail, past burbling water and early spring grass and flowers. After about 200 yards, climbing up through the trees, we started to see the occasional patch of snow. The snow gradually became more prevalent, but the trail was clear and the heights were calling. Abruptly, the trail disappeared under the snow. No footprints showed the way. No signs, no useful markers sorted us out. We knew we were headed up, we had hours of daylight left, we weren’t cold and we both appreciate a challenge. And so we went. Our trail sense was sound and we knew where the car was, but the snow was deceptive. Firm and a few inches deep in places, another few steps and either of us would plunge knee deep in a drift that completely concealed the terrain. Wet snow. Wet, rotten, brittle snow. I noticed my Mom’s boots were getting wet at the toe but my feet weren’t cold and I thought we’d be out of the snow fairly soon.

We never did find the trail. We discussed our strategy – a loop around the drainage we were in, if we didn’t intersect the trail, we’d head back to the car. As we went along, I would sometimes break through the snow and plunge the length of my leg into… nothing. My floundering toe would never find ground or a branch or a rock or anything. Eventually, I did remember that Japan has bears just as Colorado does and those bears were likely still hibernating where the snow was heavy. Bears hibernate in dry areas under the snow. Suddenly, being unable to poke anything massive, hairy and breathing with my toe was fantastic. Then the full mental image played out – falling through the snow, prodding a bear, bear waking up… And I asked Chas if he had ever heard a bear laugh.

Well, we ended up returning to the car, boots damp and somewhat the wiser as to why we had the place to ourselves. The locals know well how annoying it is to flounder along in the snow, alternately breaking through to your hips or tripping over buried rocks and branches. We knew where we wanted to end up, but the dense forest and peek-a-boo trail promised a long and difficult day.

So we decided to return to the Five Colored Ponds – Goshikinuma and see them in the sunlight. We knew there was snow along that trail, but we also knew it wasn’t very deep snow and the trail was visible. Upon arrival, we noticed several large tour buses in the parking lot. Clustered along the rail, overlooking the first pool were a couple dozen teenage Japanese girls in matching blue track suits. We fortified ourselves with an ice cream that tasted like a ripe peach on a cone and then set off. Shortly, we encountered the tail end of a long double line of teenage Japanese girls in matching blue track suits. They were delighted to see us and smiled and laughed as we stepped off the trail and started to pass them. I smiled back and said, “Konnichiwa!” The ice being broken, they chorused, “Allo! We love you! Are you available?” The whole line started yelling these stock phrases in a high pitched pigeon English I still hear in my sleep. We passed that line fairly quickly, managing to avoid becoming engaged, went around a corner and saw the tail end of another long double line of teenage Japanese girls in matching blue track suits. We had known they must be ahead of us – the giggling and squealing was a giveaway. The snow along the trail here was deeper and wet, but when they spotted us and called out, “Allo! We love you!” and I heard Chas ask from behind me, “How fast can you walk?” I stepped off the trail and got going.

We put some distance between ourselves and the school outing and slowed down to enjoy the view. The snow was wet and our boots became steadily soaked and I was really hoping my mom’s boots would not be ruined. Oddly enough, my feet weren’t cold though my jeans and boots were dripping wet. As the sound of giggling faded behind us and the scenery unfolded before us, I realized this park was an unexpected jewel in the rugged snowy mountains. The “pools” – small lakes, actually – are each a different color. One was a brilliant, milky blue, one deep emerald, one the color of aged whiskey, another would be blue green and so on. The trail wound through the trees and edged the pools and, once, did a little dog leg and produced a breath taking view of Bandai san framed by tall pines and reflected in a still pool. There were a few ducks – European widgeons, spotted ducks and mallards. Scattered along the way were concrete benches for resting. In several places, the benches were buried to the top in snow.

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One of the ponds at Goshikinuma Bandai san and one of the ponds Bandai san
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There were few people as we reached the far end of the trail. The sky was a light, clear blue and the air was cool but comfortable. We had two choices – wait for a bus to return us to the starting point or turn around and hike back the way we had come. Much to the surprise of a family that arrived just behind us, we turned around and started back down the trail. That family waited for the bus.

As we hiked along, I realized my boots and feet were so wet I may as well have been wading in the pools as we went. In the cool and cloudy spring weather, I couldn’t imagine how long it would take for them to dry out. I really hoped they didn’t dry solid and brittle. I was following Chas and we were alertly scanning the trail ahead for a gaggle of teenage girls in blue track suits. Every flutter of blue surveyors tape, every half imagined high pitched voice made us both flinch. We took a little more time on the return trip, enjoying the view we had shot past on our earlier flight from squealed proposals and crowded conditions.

At one elevated place on the trail – a bluff overlooking one of the pools, Chas made his way through the knee deep snow towards a bench carefully placed to allow the weary hiker to rest and gaze at the aquamarine water. Only the top of the bench was visible. I watched in amazement as Chas took a step and his leg plunged through the snow, shooting him under the bench and towards the water. In my mind, I saw him knocked senseless as his head smacked into the bench and then his body being launched through the air and into the pond. Fortunately, he stopped about halfway under the bench. He pulled himself out as I tried to determine a useful place to stand and apply leverage and we both started laughing as we realized we had the same mental image of how that could have ended. Chas said that he was sure, after being knocked cold while zipping under the bench, he would have shot spread eagled trough the air and landed in the near freezing water, being jolted back to consciousness by the shock.

As we brushed slush off ourselves and decided we could continue, I looked us over in some dismay. Jeans soggy to the knees, boots soaked, backs getting stiff from hours of floundering in rotten snow… We looked a tad ragged after our little day trip. And so it was time to go home. Upon reaching the car, I took off my boots and tipped water onto the parking lot. I was wringing out my socks when a bus went by and the family that had been amazed at our determination to hike back to the start of the trail got off and stared as they walked past. I just smiled and waved.

On the way home, I mentioned that I really hoped my mom’s boots weren’t ruined. I was also wondering how long it would be before she noticed – I didn’t think they would be a huge priority but I was pretty sure the squelching would be a giveaway. We stopped at the grocery store so I could look for curry flavored Pringles – a hit the last time I was visiting. Chas stayed in the car while I perused the various current offerings – shrimp flavor and ramen flavor. After two attempts, I gave up and we returned to Mom and Chas’ house. I had no sooner stepped out of the car when the door to the house flew open and my Mom came running out, stared at my feet and said, “What in the world did you do to my boots?” Speechless, I blinked and looked at Chas and saw the most innocent look I’ve ever seen on a grown man. And I knew – I’d been tag teamed by pros.