It was a cold spell in early January, and my wife, Hilde, and I had decided to make use of the full moon to take a late-night cross-country ski tour. The drive up through the Cascade Mountains on well-cleared roads was easy, and half an hour after leaving home we were ready to ski.
The sport has many attractions, with quiet beauty perhaps the most obvious among them. A few hours in the winter woods is more potent medicine for psychic ills than anything a doctor could prescribe. Cross-country skiing is also reputed to be one of the most perfect forms of physical exercise ever devised. The legs are used without the pounding that goes with running, the arms and shoulders work hard, too, and each deep breath is of unpolluted air.
We had our skis ready in minutes. There are about half a dozen waxes that are useful to cross-country skiers, and they range in color and texture from a mess called klister that may be red, purple or blue and squeezes out of a tube, to the hardest waxes, which are usually colored blue and green. The general rule is that harder wax is for colder snow. Of course, there are modern fiberglass skis that need no waxing. But our wooden models are old and well cared for—almost antiques—and for me they are to cross-country skiing what split-cane fly rods are to fishing. When it comes to a sport that involves direct contact with nature, if there's a choice about equipment, I'll use wood instead of synthetic materials every time. And the relationship between skiing and fishing is real—it's pleasant to know that the snow you ski on in January will melt into the river you fish in June.
This was green-wax weather—the temperature well down into the teens—and even up-hill there was plenty of glide through the powdery snow. From where we had parked it was 100 yards up a logging road to a narrow break in the fir trees. The road curves through the break, then starts a downhill run of about a mile. Logging has certainly done a great deal of harm to Western forests, and other than the obvious economic considerations, I know of only two certain benefits that have derived from the harvest of millions of trees. One is that populations of grouse thrive in areas where the Douglas firs have been clear-cut; the other is that logging roads make perfect cross-country ski trails.
I led the way on the downhill run, just to be sure that no trees or large limbs had fallen across the road since our last trip. The skiing was as good as I'd hoped for, even better. The bright, cold moon in the eastern sky gave plenty of light. Under the new layer of powder the frozen base was as hard as iron, which made for speed, and the three fresh inches on top made turning under control at least a possibility. Cross-country ski bindings clamp the toes of your boots down, but the heels are free, so turning is always something of a challenge when you're traveling at any kind of speed. But this night even I could manage. I'm not a good skier, don't even want to be, having never taken a lesson or read a book on the subject. If you ski a while you learn to get where you want to go, and that is sufficient for me. There's no one around to show off for. The form-and fashion-conscious downhill skiers are in another world, far away.
Cross-country skis through powder snow make a lovely, muted hissing sound. That was all I heard as I gradually picked up speed down the slope, the trees dark blurs on either side, the road itself perfectly smooth and glowing white and, at night, strangely without dimension in the moonlight. About halfway down, where the run is steepest, is a very sharp left-hand turn, but it's steeply banked. Crouching low, leaning left, I negotiated it. The rest of the way to the bottom was easy, and, out of the turn, I relaxed to glide the last half mile.
That was when the first coyote howled. Soon a second, then a third joined in. Then there were more. Perhaps it was the sound of skis through snow that made it happen, or it could have been the full moon.
When I reached the meadow at the bottom of the road, Hilde was close behind me. The coyotes sounded very near, and she was frightened. So was I, but I didn't want to admit it. I explained to her that they couldn't possibly be as near as they seemed and that three or four coyotes can easily sound like a dozen or more.
One would bark, then yip a few times in rapid succession, then start a long drawn-out howl that seemed to last at least 20 seconds, the note rising shrilly as the volume increased. The louder the howl became, the closer it seemed, and when the animals joined in chorus they sounded as near as 80 or 100 yards.
I let Hilde take the lead. We kept on skiing because the route was familiar to us, and the pack of coyotes followed along. We crossed the meadow to an old homestead cabin, its roof long ago caved in, snow in drifts against the weathered logs to window level, glowing smooth and almost blue in the moonlight. Beyond the cabin a narrow creek cuts across the meadow, and when we crossed the creek we heard the water flowing far down beneath the ice and snow. Just past the creek, where a gold mine is cut into a north-facing slope, we hit another logging road and followed it south, climbing again.