Arctic Blast 2008 – A Hike in a Winter Wonderland
“Snow!” the Portland television weather forecasters proclaimed exultantly. I cast a skeptical eye at the television, as they anxiously replayed the impending arctic scenario over and over again. Why is it, I thought, that it always seems that when they predict it, nothing happens? So I wasn’t too concerned with this latest breaking weather alert.
In a day’s time, however, we had indeed received about two inches of the fluffy white stuff, followed by a dangerous glaze of freezing rain. Portlanders, normally shy about getting out and about in icy conditions, hunkered down during this initial blast. But Mother Nature had made arrangements for the best, which was still yet to come.
We woke up the weekend before Christmas with a blizzard of white swirling around our house. A drift of nearly three feet was tucked up against the south side of the house, delivered by the howling winds. The forecasters were right- this was a full-scale red alert in the weather department- a record-breaking snowfall that smashed totals from 40 years ago.
Nearby Rocky Butte, a 612-foot-high extinct cinder cone, towered just a stones-throw away from our house and seemed to be a great perch to take in the storm action, provided we could make the summit. It beckoned, flocked in snow and promising great views. Brad, my husband, and I looked at each other- the decision was made! What else were we doing, since he wasn’t going to work? An expedition to the summit was launched to combat our growing cabin fever.
We suited up in what was probably reminiscent of astronauts preparing for space travel. Layers of socks, pants, shirts and outerwear took shape around us. Brad brought out some ski goggles, and I immediately scoffed at such goofy attire. But in the wind, snow, ice pellets and snow blasting in 40+ mph winds outside, I quickly became grateful for his foresight.
We embarked on our 3.5 mile urban arctic trek to the summit of Rocky Butte. Amazingly, there were some hearty souls still cheerily navigating their 4-wheel drives along the main roadways, but even they fell prey to the deepening drifts. As we ascended, we could hear engines whining below us in desperate attempts to break free of snowy entanglements.
The wonderful part of this wintry hike was how quiet the landscape became as we got higher up Rocky Butte Road. The forested areas covering the top provided a canopy and the snow silently fluttered down on this leeward side. Mid-way up the hill, we passed through a tunnel which echoed eerily even from our muffled footsteps.
However, as we came around on the south side of the butte, the trees overhead began bending uncontrollably, as though someone was pushing down on them in an attempt to flatten them. The roar of the wind grew louder as we approached the southeastern flank, and then we were in the midst of the gale. Frigid sub-arctic winds being driven straight down the Columbia River Gorge blew snow straight up the hillside… did you see that I mentioned ‘up’ the hillside? It was blinding and amazing to see. Drifts were starting to cover the icy layer on the road.
As we got to the top of the butte, we reached Joseph Wood Hill Park. In 1901, Joseph Wood Hill established Hill Military Academy in northwest Portland. He soon moved his school to the Rocky Butte area. In 1935, land on Rocky Butte was donated to the public. The following year, Joseph Wood Hill Park was completed and officially dedicated at a ceremony which paid tribute to the WPA workers whose craftsmanship was reflected in the approach drive and throughout the park. Almost 65 years later, thanks to the efforts of the Rocky Butte Preservation Society and the acquisition of 5.5 additional acres, the park was refurbished in partnership with the Rocky Butte Preservation Society and the site was re-graded and lawn areas, irrigation, red cinder pathways, and trees were added. (Information courtesy Portland Parks and Recreation website, April 2002)
Today, however, was not a picnicking excursion, obviously. We reached the top and peered through the curtains of wind and snow out towards the freeways. Not a surprise, hardly any cars below. Those that were brave enough to venture out on the highway were crawling along.
We snapped some quick photos on top while trying to stand up straight in the blasting gusts. Timmy the dog was toasty in his thick fur coat, but Buddy’s thinner hound fur wasn’t keeping him warm, despite being swaddled in two doggy-coat layers. His look of “let’s get out of here NOW” helped prompt us to get moving for the return trip home.
The rockwork around the park was especially beautiful as the snow created a monochromatic print suitable for framing. Brad and I snapped a few more pictures before hustling back down the hill. Almost everywhere we turned, there was another spectacular photo to take capturing the beauty of the storm. However, by the last quarter mile of the hike, my thoughts had turned from enjoying the beauty to highly anticipating a nice warm toddy in our cozy house to thaw out, which proved to be highly motivating!
Once we arrived safely back home, I peeked around the Christmas tree in the front window and marveled at how snow can completely transform your own neighborhood. The best part about this storm, however, despite the memorable hike, was that as soon as there was a break in the weather, all of the neighbors literally poured out in convivial spirits to shovel their sidewalks. Everyone had taken the storm in good spirits and were watching out for each other, which really made me appreciate how wonderful my neighbors are in Portland.