Snow appears out of nowhere just as my phone loses service and Google Maps is no longer a reliable source of directions. I miss my turn and have to double back, driving through the snowmobile parking lot toward the Nordic center on Mount Spokane, windshield wipers aggressively clearing the fat flakes from my view.
Parking in front of Selkirk Lodge, I go through my mental checklist: water bottle, backpack, mittens, hat, signed waiver. Somehow, I managed to remember everything the Spokane Parks & Recreation recommends for the Moonlight Snowshoe adventure I'm about to experience.
Spokane Parks & Rec has an impressive list of winter outings, with the "Moonlight Snowshoe Dinner Tour" being one of the most popular according to Ryan Griffith, assistant recreation director.
"Unfortunately, sometimes we have to turn people away," Griffith says. "They're tremendously popular."
Snowshoeing expeditions aren't the department's only winter offerings, though. There are a variety of sports programs offered in the winter, as well as art and music programs, cooking courses and more. The city even has a personal interest department, which offers classes like martial arts and yoga. Of course, there's also a variety of snowy classics like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing tours, oftentimes accompanied by dinner or wine tasting, at both Mount Spokane and 49 Degrees North.
"Winter can be especially challenging for people and Parks is a great place to find something new and get out of the house," Griffith notes. "Parks programs are great because you don't have to invest a whole lot."
He's right about the parks department being a great way to dip your toes in the water. I walked into Selkirk Lodge with only my winter jacket and snow pants and walked out fully equipped with all the snowshoeing essentials.
Before venturing into the woods, our tour guides Amy Lutz and Josh Crowe give our group a quick rundown on how to navigate with snowshoes strapped to our feet and headlights secured to our heads. With that basic knowledge, we're ready to go.
This trip is ideal for socialized introverts like me. There's plenty of time to hike in silence, admiring the snowy landscape, broken up by easy chatter about the trail, our lives and everyone's love of the outdoors.
Walking single file, it's like a game of follow-the-leader, wandering up and around the mountain in Crowe's footsteps. I end up right behind him, pestering him with questions about his job. Crowe has a master's degree in outdoor recreation and has been working for Spokane Parks & Recreation leading trips for the last three years. He loves all things snow, and he turns out to be a goldmine of information on backcountry skiing and splitboarding in the Spokane area.
"I have more gear than I can use," Crowe admits about his collection of splitboards, the snowboarder's solution to backcountry outings — basically a snowboard split in two that acts as both a board and skis. I'm jealous.
Crowe is also an avid water sports enthusiast and spends the summer guiding kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding Parks & Rec trips. Of course, the department offers hikes around Mount Spokane in the warmer months, just without the snow.
If the winter options seem impressive, summer is absolutely killer. There are bike and winery tours in Walla Walla, and whitewater rafting, kayak and coffee tours on the Spokane River, just to name a few.
"Summer is always the busiest time," Griffith says. "We try to get out in March and April when the weather's warming up and people are getting cabin fever."
Spring programming kicks off with hiking trips around Fish Trap and evolves into summer kayak cave tours around Metaline Falls, where they will lead you through Gardner Cave, a 1,000-foot limestone cavern. And new trips are constantly in the works it seems, as Griffith talks about a possible huckleberry hike, accompanied with a homemade huckleberry ice cream workshop, in late summer.
"We're always looking to offer new programs, stay on top of the trends, and always trying to think outside the box with our programming," Griffith says.
While February normally has me jonesing for sunshine and 80 degrees, snowshoeing in the dark is enough to completely drive the desire for summer from my mind.
Crowe points out a trail marker as we hike quietly through the darkness, illuminating the blue diamond with his headlamp. It sits just a few feet off the ground, stuck to the trunk of an evergreen.
"Hiking in the summer, you have to look up above your head for the trail signs," he says. According to our guide, the snowpack on Mount Spokane is about 4 feet right now, putting that trail marker almost 8 feet up a tree.
Ian Hansen, a fellow snowshoe novice, treks along the side of the trail, venturing into the deeper snow off the beaten path.
"Got to try it all out, see how this all works."
Hansen is referring to the snowshoes, but his try-anything attitude clearly covers all aspects of life as I soon learn he ran the Boston Marathon not long ago.
"I get the parks department magazine, and when I saw the recent cover I thought 'That looks awesome,' so here I am," Hansen says about the snowshoe tour.
His prediction was accurate, the moonlight snowshoe is awesome.
We stop to catch our breath every so often and our guides fill those times with facts about the mountain. Crowe and Lutz know Mount Spokane well, and I learn the land was originally staked to be a national park. Lucky for the Inland Northwest that plan never came to fruition; we've been spared the hordes of tourists that plague Yellowstone and Yosemite.
The land was saved by a group of women who believed, despite the mountain not being distinct enough for national attention, it should still be protected. Using $40,000 in bake sale profits, they managed to help make Mount Spokane a state park instead.
The park is more than just a mountain, and the history of Mount Spokane goes way beyond the 1920s. The nearly 100 miles of trail that crisscross the mountain today overlap sections of trails sacred to the Spokane Tribe. This land is special, and like so much protected wilderness, you're transported out of the busyness of everyday life here among the trees and snow.
It's quiet. So quiet, that when Crowe has us pause for a minute of silence, all you can hear is the falling snow. When the moment is over we head back down the trail, turning off our headlamps and continuing on in comfortable darkness.
"If you pay attention, you can smell the trees," someone says behind me.
With that exclamation, it falls silent again.
I inhale deeply, snow and winter greens fill my nose. I fall into a rhythm — right, left, right, left — completely relaxed as my snowshoes carry me over the snow back toward the lodge where a hearty dinner, hot cocoa and happy conversation awaits. ♦
For more information about Spokane Parks & Recreation programs, visit my.spokanecity.org/recreation/outdoor.