A mile into our trek along the Cheat Mountain Trail, the cloud began to lift revealing the wooded expanse ahead. The path was relatively flat which made breaking the trail an easy task. My wife and I stopped to dust off some of the snow that had accumulated on our backpacks. We carried only a change of clothes and basic toiletries to spend the night in the forest. Food was not required. A full gourmet meal awaited us at the end of our journey.
The backcountry hut and a variety of other adventure programs are the brainchild of Mike (Fluffy) Valach, the Outdoor Adventure Program Manager. [Editor’s note: after overseeing the development of Snowshoe’s Outdoor Adventure Program, Mike Valach joined the historic Homestead Resort in Virginia this past summer as Director of Outdoor Activities.]
The hut allows one to experience the wonders of wilderness in winter while at the same time eliminating the abysmal chore of winter camping. After another 30 minutes of snowshoeing, we arrived to discover not a hut, but rather a large log cabin. Preparation Chef, Meghan O’Connell greeted us at the door with a hot mug of apple cider. Inside, the cabin included four bedrooms, a large dining area, kitchen and a bathroom on the first floor. A loft upstairs housed four double beds. A large, wood burning stove heated the entire space. We huddled by this stove to warm up as we sipped our cider.
The Chef and Hutmaster at the time of our visit, James Patterson, had returned to the resort to ferry in 10 other patrons on snowmobiles. They would be joining us as part of the Adventure Dining program. While we waited for dinner, Meghan entertained us with stories of life at the hut as she bustled about the kitchen. Bears, deer, bobcats, wild boar and other wildlife were often seen from the front porch. The bear’s den lay just a few 100 feet down the hill below the cabin. Though they have never had any problems with these creatures, I felt better knowing it was hibernating season. As the smell of freshly baked rolls filled the air, we succumbed to a pre-dinner snack. The sounds of engines then alerted us to the arrival of the other diners. They spilled into the cabin, cold and in need of refreshment. So I helped out in pouring the wine. Fine Cabernets, Merlots and Chardonnays are other items you usually don’t find in the backcountry. Ahhh, roughing it!
For dinner, we were served an appetizer of Vidalia onion soup. The main course was a choice of grilled steak or salmon. To accommodate my vegetarian spouse, James prepared a pasta prima vera with hints of basil. Side dishes included garlic mashed potatoes and sugar snap peas. A checkerboard marble cake and coffee followed.
By nine o’clock, the diners and Meghan were ready to depart and we were ready for bed. We optimistically chose a room with a sunrise view. The quiet of the evening returned now that we were alone in the cabin. We drifted off to sleep under the thick comforter long before James had returned from motoring everyone else back to the resort.
Since we were still somewhat stuffed from dinner, we opted for just cereal, juice and tea instead of a big country breakfast. James didn’t seem to mind not having to cook. After freshening up and donning our expedition weight long underwear, we set forth deeper into the woods on a trail to the Cheat Mountain Fire Tower. It’s always best to start out a little cold so as not to overheat when cross country skiing or snowshoeing or winter hiking. The thermometer read a balmy 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrrr. But with the sun shining and the trees sheltering us from the wind, we warmed up after only 20 minutes. One of the great things about snowshoeing is that it requires no skill. Your boot is secured to the snowshoe on a pivotal binding. Metal cleats protrude from the toe portion. Another cleat extends from the bottom at the rear of the main deck. When going uphill, you kick with your toes. When going downhill, just stomp down on your heels. Trekking poles help you balance. A variety of styles exist for different purposes and weights of users. The large surface area of the deck distributes weight so that you only sink in a few inches with each step. Breaking trail in deep snow, especially going uphill, can be quite the workout. But running down a hill of deep powder is a blast as you bounce into the air with each stride and the powder explodes upwards around your feet.
We followed the narrow footpath along the mountain ridge as strong winds whistled at the tops of the trees. Red and pink ribbons tied to the trunks marked the way. We had the entire mountain to ourselves. After stopping occasionally to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the deep forest carpeted in white, we arrived after two miles at a clearing for the fire tower. Unhindered by the trees, the full force of the cold breeze sent chills while we removed the snowshoes and climbed to the top of the 60- foot structure. Bracing against these frigid gusts, we were treated to a panoramic view of the West Virginia countryside as well as the ski slopes at the resort.
The trail ended at the base of one of the chair lifts. It was a strange feeling to suddenly re-emerge into the world of men and machinery. But after trekking 5 miles, it sure was nice to be able to ride the lift back up to the top of the mountain!
For more info, contact Snowshoe Mountain Resort at: (877) 441-4FUN, or visit their web site below.
Matthew Graham is a skier as well as a hang glider and paraglider pilot, SCUBA diver, cavern diver, equestrian, polo player, sailor, hiker, biker, rock climber, paddler, and skater. He's also yoga teacher and certified personal trainer and has dabbled in just about every other sport, even stunt car driving and bull riding! He has written for the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, USA Weekend Magazine, Hooked on the Outdoors, Richmond Magazine, Chesapeake Life Magazine, Metro Sports, American Fitness, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Recreation News and numerous other outdoor and travel publications.