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Outdoorsy 5: Playing In The Snow

Kerry Klein
Yosemite National Park's Mirror Lake after snowfall.

Today, we’re taking advantage of the season and venturing out into the snow. We’ve gotten a lot of it this winter, so it’s the perfect opportunity for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Or at least snowball fights.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Snowshoes come in a variety of sizes--rental outfitters like Herb Bauer can help you get fitted.

A native New Englander, Kerry loves the winter—as long as she’s bundled up and warm. Ezra: not so much. But as far as winter activities go, snowshoeing is his jam. And who doesn’t love seeing their breath in the air and hearing ice crunching under their feet?

In this episode, we’ll take you to a few places near the valley to play in the snow, we’ll help you get equipped, and then tantalize you with a sugary delicacy that’s wildly popular in Shaver Lake.

Yosemite by Snowshoe

So far this winter, we’ve taken two snowshoeing trips—each with varying success. The first was to what Kerry regards as the most magical place in wintertime: Yosemite National Park.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Half Dome Village, formerly Curry Village, has hundreds of heated tent cabins available during winter.

We went with a few friends friends over Christmas weekend when a big storm rolled through the Valley. We drove in as the snow started falling and we settled into Half Dome Village, formerly Curry Village, in a heated tent cabin. And we listened to the snow and ice fall on the tent roof all night.

The next morning, snow plows were out, snow chains were on, and people were slip sliding all over the paths between buildings. We pulled out our snowshoes and decided to take a nice big tour of the valley—walking from Half Dome Village to Mirror Lake, then back along Tenaya Creek with a stop at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel for some hot chocolate.

Yosemite’s greatest hits, all by snowshoe! At least, that was the plan.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
If you have to put snow chains on your car, there are worse places to be than in the shadow of Yosemite's Royal Arches.

Within a few minutes of taking off, however, we were under a lot of tree cover. There were all these bare patches with hardly any snow, and our snowshoes kept scraping on rocks and dirt. So almost as soon as we started, we gave up and took the snowshoes off.

But you know what? We were still in Yosemite. The walk was gorgeous. With more snow, it would’ve been perfect. But that’s the nature of weather, right? Either way, whether or not there’s snow, we highly recommend spending a night or two in the park this time of year and enjoying it without the summer crowds. Even in the tent cabins there’s heat.

Take Two: Tamarack Ridge

A few weeks later, we got some real snowshoeing in—this time at a so-called “Sno Park.” We took off east out of Fresno along highway 168 and watched the snow grow deeper and deeper on the side of the road. We finally stopped at Tamarack Ridge, a Sno Park between Shaver and Huntington Lakes. There are a few Sno Parks along this stretch of 168, but Tamarack Ridge is especially good because it has lots of criss-crossing trails for snowshoeing, cross country skiing or snowmobiling.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
The Tamarack Ridge Sno-Park is located about halfway between Shaver and Huntington Lakes along highway 168.

To park there, you’ll need a permit. Day passes go for $5, and you can get a season pass for $25. In the Shaver Lake area, they’re available in a half dozen stores, but you can buy them online or by mail, too.

When we arrived at Tamarack Ridge, it was packed with little kids sledding and building snowmen and families tailgating in the parking lots.

After you wade through the folding chairs, you’ll arrive at a sign at the trailhead. It’s huge and it’s been lifted above the snow level so you can get your bearings and plan your route without having to burrow into the snow.

We set out on the Raven Trail for a 4-mile loop. Just a hundred feet or so in, we were the only ones there. We had six feet of pristine, untouched snow all to ourselves.  

It was quiet and serene and beautiful—but without footprints to follow, it also meant we lost the trail. A few times.

But it’s not a big deal, because unless three feet of snow have fallen in the last hour (they hadn’t), you can still see your footsteps and retrace them. So we went for a few hours, turned around, and probably still got 3 or 4 miles in.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
If you're lucky, like we were, you'll get the trail all to yourself.

Getting Outfitted

One of the first times Ezra rented snowshoes it was sort of a disaster. The rental place messed up and gave him two shoes for right feet. It made the trip harder than it should've been. He fell a few times and the shoes made me want to veer right the entire time.

To spare first timers experiences like his, we found a local expert.

Scott Shively is an avid snowshoer and skier as well as the manager for the backpacking, camping, mountaineering, and snow related section of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods in Fresno. He says so far this year snow levels in the Sierra Nevada are perfect for snowshoeing, but the elevation of snow here can present a problem for newbies.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Scott Shively recommends renting skis and shoes for beginners.

“We’ve had good snow and I’d say it's very good conditions this year,” says Shively. “However the last few storms have been on the warmer side and of course that means the snow levels will go up and up and up.  Realize also that our snow is at a higher elevation and there’s less oxygen up there. It’ much easier to get tired. I always tell people leave the day going I could've gone further verses of I'm still two miles from the car, I’m just dying.”

"If you're just going out for the day and if you don't go out very often I would virtually tell you to go snowshoeing 100 percent of the time." - Scott Shively

Herb Bauer rents and sells cross country skis and snowshoes. Shively fitted me with a pair of large ones. He says you don’t need special shoes for snowshoeing, just waterproof hiking boots.

“And you get your foot about to the  all of the foot section,” says Shively. “Your toe will hang over the binding just a little bit.  You don’t want it to hang over too much because then as you’re moving up and down it's not going to close and it depends on your footwear you’ll snug it down. Super easy to put on and off when you don’t have a gloved hand, when you have a gloved hand it's a little bit more difficult.”

Shively says if you’re just going out for a day and it's your first time then it's best to rent. It’s about 40 bucks a weekend to rent skis, boots and poles and under 30 bucks for snowshoes.  A new pair of snowshoes is around $150 and a whole ski system can cost $500 or more. He says ski poles aren’t necessary for snowshoeing and he says the sport is easier to get into than skiing.

“If you’re just going out for the day and if you don’t go out very often I would virtually tell you to go snowshoeing 100 percent of the time,” says Shively. “Within five minutes you’ll be having a good time. You’re not gonna be able to go as far because you can probably go about half as far as you can walk. So if you are used to walking five miles on a hike during the summer, you’re probably are going to go about two and a half miles in that same amount of time.”

For snowshoes, Shively says it’s imperative that you have the right size and maybe even have extensions for them so you don’t sink into the snow. Extensions are tails that you clip onto the end of snowshoes to increase the surface area meaning you won’t sink. The size of snowshoes are dependent on how much a person weighs. The heavier a person is the larger snowshoes they’ll need to keep them from sinking into the snow.  

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Skis and boots can also be rented at Herb Bauer in Fresno.

“I’m about 180 pounds and I probably about 25 percent of the time would need a tail and 75 percent of the time wouldn’t. And tails cost about 40 to 50 bucks,” Shively says.

When it comes to skis the investment is a lot larger. You’ll need skis, bindings, poles and boots. Besides the actual hardware for these activities Scott says it's important to wear the right kind of clothing. Outerwear that breathes easy and is waterproof. Scott says there are so many places to have fun in the snow in the Sierra Nevada.

“The place that I would say is the most guaranteed for snow is Tamarack,” Shively says. “It’s just in this little valley. If you got an outdoor thermometer on you car you’ll watch it go from 25 to 25 to 17 and then it will go back up to 25. That valley that Tamarack is in is just geographically positioned in a way that it really gets cold. So when it's raining in that area the place that is the coldest is probably going to get the most snow. The place that is the coldest is probably gonna hold the snow longest.”

Another place to snowshoe is in Sequoia National Park. There are guided moonlit tours that run through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy every month while there is snow still on the ground.

Shaver Lake Sugar to End the Day

So you’ve rented your snowshoes, sweated it out on the trail, and perhaps triumphed in a snowball fight, and you’re ready to head home and grab a snack. If you’ve gone somewhere along highway 168 in the mountains, there’s a place in Shaver Lake where you might want to stop for a dessert with an intriguing history. The store is called Shaver Coffee and Deli and it’s a combination food counter and convenience store on the main drag in town.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Shaver Coffee and Deli is located right on highway 168 in Shaver Lake.

They sell a lot of food – smoothies and ice cream, tri-tip sandwiches and burritos, but they’ve got one clear best seller. When I walked in, Fresno State students Haley and Alexa were standing by the door devouring a sugary, sticky-looking dessert. They hadn’t even sat down. They were just standing by the cash register picking it out of the container with their fingers.

“It just melts in your mouth, and it's just soft and moist,” says Haley.

“It's incredible,” says Alexa. “Haley introduced me to it and I was just trying to take a bite but I can't stop eating it, it's so good.”

This dessert is called chunky bread. Cook and manager Shaunna Curtis says it’s their #1 selling product.

“My most accurate way to describe it is it's like the center of a cinnamon roll,” says Curtis, “but it's a whole loaf of it. Like, the best of the part of a cinnamon roll, only you get a whole big loaf of it.”

It’s their own version of something you’ve probably heard of, called monkey bread.

“We start with French bread dough and chop it up, and roll it around in cinnamon and sugar and then cover it with our goo mixture and just bake it,” says Curtis. “It's super simple and I think that's part of what makes it so awesome is there's not a whole lot going on with it.”

That’s right: she said “goo mixture.” And it’s exactly what it sounds like—a sticky, sugary, buttery, cinnamony substance that holds the little dough balls together. And Curtis is deliberately mysterious about what it is.

“What's in the goo mixture?” Kerry asks. “I cannot tell you,” Curtis answers. “That's our smoking gun, it's the goo.”

And that goo’s got appeal. On a busy day, Curtis tells me they can easily sell 200 loaves of the stuff. Kerry asks how many pounds of material that amounts to.

“Like 160 pounds, probably, of dough. God, that's so much when I think about it multiplied like that,” Curtis laughs.

So this gooey chunky bread, it’s a secret recipe. And what’s interesting is, it’s not a family recipe—it’s a community recipe.

“The recipe for the chunky bread has been in the town for upwards of 50 years and it's just been passed around from business to business,” she says. “So every business that has had it has had success with it. And we just happen to be the one that has it now.”

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Chunky bread: A Shaver Lake community secret for decades.

Curtis thinks it was first made by a woman named Edna.

“It was her homemade recipe that she just made at home and then they started making it over there at the village,” she says. “And it's just continued on since then. I think that it was here before under another owner, and the restaurant across the street, the Cafe, the Village, Angelo's, The Falls, and all of those places have had it at one point or another.”

So what’s keeping other businesses from cashing in on this recipe?

“We keep it a secret,” she says. “The exclusivity of it is part of what makes it so popular, I think—the fact that you can only get it in one place. Other restaurants in town have tried to mimic it but it's just not the same.”

An honor system that’s actually working? When a community gets together on something it can be pretty impressive. And delicious.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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