Flakes of snow are dancing through the air, my feet are chilled, but dry, in my waterproof hiking boots, and I’m driven by the promise of steaming hot chocolate, and a comforting bowl of soup, made by park volunteers. The 2018 Columbus Metro Parks Winter Hike Series has kicked off in style! There’s a deep blanket of snow, glimmering icicles hang overhead, and I have miles of trails up ahead.
For several years I’ve been aware of the winter hikes, and attended from time to time, when there wasn’t anything else going on, on a cold January weekend. Occasionally I’d bump into someone I knew on the trail, which was a treat, but I was just as likely to hit the snooze button, pull my blankets around myself a little tighter, and skip the excursion altogether. It was 10 degrees, gloomy, overcast gray, and who wants to hike in the middle of winter anyway. . . . ?
You’d be surprised!
Two years ago the Columbus, OH Friends of Metro Parks made a move that was a game changer, for myself, and for many of my cycling friends. You see, cyclists track their yearly miles, they challenge one another to ride in the snow, post to social media about a 30-day riding streak, and create games of tag, played from their bicycles! Cyclists are also motivated by awards, and other symbols of their accomplishments – buttons, stickers, patches, and medallions.
Bragging rights mean a lot, in the cycling community.
During the “off-season”, many cyclists take to the trails by foot. Columbus does have an extensive trail system, which welcomes snow shoes and cross-country skis, alongside hiking boots, and the occasional equine transport. (Take Note: Some cyclists would question whether there is a cycling “off season”. Amongst the most dedicated riders, with the fattest tires, and the most winterized clothing options, it’s always a great time to hop on your bike!)
In 2016, the Friends of Metro Parks challenged hikers to complete every one of the hikes in the Winter Hike Series. Their reward would be an exclusive wooden hiking stick, branded with “Columbus Metro Parks”. The challenge was enthusiastically accepted, by many dedicated hikers. (See my recap of the 2016 hikes, and the evolution of the “Stick People” here: https://kathleenodowd.com/2016/03/01/the-stick-people-columbus-metro-parks-winter-hike-series/.)
In 2017, those who had previously earned their hiking stick were awarded a special metal medallion, to attach to the wooden hiking stick. This year, there are hikers ready to do it all over again, to earn the 2018 medallion. Of course this requires successful completion of all 13 of this year’s Metro Parks Winter Hikes.
Luckily, the Friends of the Metro Parks understands that it might not be possible for hikers to be present for each and every organized hike, weekend after weekend. Even the most dedicated hiker will occasionally have other weekend commitments.
Missed hikes can be completed as a “make-up” hike, acknowledged by park rangers, after the date of the organized hike. There won’t be soup at the end of the hike, but the scenery is just as beautiful! Hikes can even be completed as a “pre-hike” if one knows she’ll miss a hike, and wants to complete the series without delay.
This year, having completed the series for the last two years, I’ve set a loftier goal for myself. There are 19 Columbus Metro Parks, in total, and I plan to hike them all. This will take me beyond the Winter Hike Series, and I welcome the challenge!
The parks have so much to offer – winding trails, dramatic overlooks, active wildlife, and educational resources, including staffed nature centers, interactive displays, and takeaway resources. I was fortunate enough to experience several of the parks over the 3-Day Martin Luther King weekend, as the snow fell steadily through the weekend. It was beautiful, and it’s my pleasure to take you along. . . !
Hike #3: Prairie Oaks Metro Park
Although it was the 3rd scheduled Winter Hike of 2018, Prairie Oaks was the first park of the season for me. After two weeks of illness – the flu really has hit hard this year – coupled with a demanding work travel schedule, I welcomed the chance to lace up my hiking boots, and hit the trail!
Fellow hikers were coordinating their plans the evening before, scheduling their unified start time, determining the number of miles they planned to hike, and coming to a consensus on which park entrance they should use. Getting a group of 10 hikers moving in the same direction, literally, is no easy task, but Facebook messenger is a bit help. Message alerts were going off for several hours!
The Columbus Metro Parks system wants to get folks out into the parks during the winter months – that is the overarching goal of the Winter Hikes Series! The soup at the end of every hike sure helps! I think about the number of hikers who would otherwise wait until March or April, to head out on the trail. Instead, they add an extra base layer, and head out in the snow, in January and February.
As it happens, I myself am not much of a “fair weather” hiker – I’m too busy logging miles in the saddle, doing charity bike rides, bike camping, and heading out on moonlight bike rides, during the warmer months. So, the Winter Hike Series is my time to be in the parks, out on the trails, getting mud on my boots, breaking in the hiking stick, and learning the layout of the parks.
It’s no surprise that I’m a group hiker – I’m a social person, to begin with! When I’m on a bike, catching up with friends, chatting about the latest book for book club, or raising funds for an upcoming charity ride. . . well, I’m engrossed in the social aspects of the activity, without feeling like I’m exercising, in the traditional sense. Logging miles, building stamina, and burning calories are bonus perks!
So I decided I’d join my tribe at the Prairie Oaks hike! There was a 1 mile route, which seemed just right for a 1st hike of the season, especially for someone still recovering from illness. The temperature was in the teens, but it was nothing that couldn’t be countered by a hat, scarf, gloves, arm warmers, thick socks, boots, and a winter coat long enough to cover your behind.
In the company of friends, we skipped rocks along the frozen pond, and fell into the blanket of snow, to create snow angels! There was plenty of hot chocolate at the end of the hike, and the customary meal of chicken and noodles, which Prairie Oaks is known for.
New in 2018, hikers are encouraged to bring donations of non-perishable foods, for the “13 Hikes of Giving: Winter Hikes Food Drive,” to support the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. A commemorative mug is handed out, in exchange for a food donation.
Hike #2: Sharon Woods Metro Park
Last Saturday’s hike at Sharon Woods Metro Park took place during what turned out to be a Level 1 Snow Emergency, in Columbus and the surrounding areas. Under such circumstances traveling on the roads is not prohibited, but it is strongly discouraged. Motorists are instructed to stay off the streets, if at all possible. Snow had begun to fall early the day before, prompting schools and businesses all over town to release early, so their people could get home safely, before the roads were to sloppy.
There was a bike ride scheduled that morning as well, the first Year of Yay! monthly ride of 2018. Many of us wanted so badly to be out on an adventure, but instead made the decision to stay curled up on the couch, with a mug of coffee and a good book. Watching the snow come down, in front of the living room window, seemed adventurous enough, under the circumstances.
So, I took advantage of a Monday off from work, in celebration of the work of Martin Luther King Jr., to head out to make up the missed hike. Friends had pre-hiked this park, anticipating being out on the Yay! Bikes monthly ride, so I was on my own. More snow was falling as I hiked; it was beautiful, and quite, and felt rather secluded.
Schrock lake was frozen. Signs warned that the ice could be thin, and visitors should keep their distance. At the edge of the dock, I could see that one brave (careless?) visitor had sat on the edge of the fishing dock, tested the ice with tentative steps, then decided the ice would hold his weight. Footprints inched several feet from the platform; I could read the hesitation in the steps.
Several feet out, the tracks through the snow gained some confidence. They turned into a shuffeling step, preoccupied with stamping a message in the newly fallen snow. The ice was slick under the powdery snow, and there was no way of knowing how thick the frozen water was. With sliding steps, a message was tramped into the snow. . . “MARTY, 2018” was spelled out, in 6 ft. uppercase letters.
At the end of the message, there were footprints back to the dock. The snow at the transition onto land was disheveled, as the author scrambled back onto the wooden structure. Snow was still falling, so the letters were being filled in rather quickly. In an hour or so, there would be no evidence of the risky behavior.
With actively falling snow, and on a holiday when there is no organized hike planned, I seem to have the 1.1 miles of the Edward S. Thomas Trail to myself, as it winds through the dense woods. I take a 0.2 mile detour, on Oak Openings Trail, to gaze up at the tall trees that line the path. There are around three miles of Hiking Trails in the park, along with another 4 miles of Multi-use Trail, where bicycles are welcomed.
Sharon Woods is also know as the Edward Thomas State Nature Preserve, preserving 320 acres in Franklin County, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Signs and plaques honoring the preserve’s namesake are covered in snow, but the preserve is named after a renowned Ohio naturalist, and curator of natural history at the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society in Columbus, Edward Thomas.
“In the remainder of the preserve, the mesic [containing a moderate amount of moisture] areas support an oak-hickory assoiciation, with scattered beech, while wetter areas support excellent recovering elm-ask swamp forest associations – red elm, white, green and blue ash with silver maple. The mesic woods contains eight species of oaks, some more than 250 years old.” (ODNR Division of Natural Areas & Preserves website)
The park is wedged between I-71, on the north side of town, and I-270, the city’s outer belt. I’m a bit disappointed that I can hear the sound of traffic, in the distance, to my left, as well as following behind me, as I walk deeper into the woods. The falling snow muffles the sound, but the bird songs are competing for my attention, with the high pitch of 4-lane highway traffic. I remind myself that these are Metro Parks, and I am very fortunate to be given the opportunity to explore these preserved lands, close to home.
Hike #1: Blacklick Metro Park
Not wanting to fall behind in checking off Metro Parks, with the goal of earning the 2018 walking stick medallion, I visit Blacklick Metro Park on the same day. (This means I’m all caught up, and ready to head to Scioto Audubon and Inniswoods next weekend.)
There were two staff members at the Nature Center, and they were eager to assist me. I suspect I may have been the first human soul they had encountered that morning. A variety of colorful birds and squirrels were keeping them company, greedily eating at the buffet outside the nature center window, providing the day’s entertainment.
While one of the young men ran to the back, to find a hole punch to document my completion of the day’s hike, the other pulled out a park map, to ensure that I knew what the official Winter Hike route was. There was a 2-mile and a 4-mile option. I was at the turnaround point for the 2-mile route, so I made the Nature Center my 1/2 way point, and headed back to the parking lot from there.
On the way out of the Nature Center I ran into a fellow hiker, who said: “It feels like there are just the two of us hiking the trails today – isn’t it wonderful?!”
It certainly was!
The parking lot was nearly empty – I saw one woman glide past the few cars on cross-country snow skis, with her tongue sticking way out, catching snowflakes. “Wow – isn’t this just beautiful?” she asked me, shaking her head appreciatively, as she gazed up at the overcast sky.
It certainly was!
There were moments when I wished I had a couple of members of “my tribe” along with me. Perhaps we’d make a snowman, although I don’t think the snow was the correct type, of a successful attempt. One friend, a grown adult, had tried to make his very first snowman this winter, and questioned whether he was lacking in the required skill, or could blame his failed attempt on the quality of the snow. In either case, it sounded like he had fun trying.
During other moments, I halted my hike and just gazed around me. There were birds everywhere, standing out against the snow that surrounded us, covering the ground and falling through the air. Bright red Cardinals dotted the landscape, and if I looked closely for just a moment I could easily find their female partners. The females blended in, against the tree trunks and crisscrossing branches, with their dusty brown feathers. It was their playful chirps and chatter that gave away their location.
On my way out of the park, I noticed that the only footprints leading into the woods were created by my own hiking boots. I took another moment, to stand in silence, feeling the gentle brush of snowflakes against my cheeks and my eyelashes. This was going to be a great year, of hiking the Columbus Metro Parks. I wouldn’t stop at the 13 official Winter Hikes in the series. This experience was just too good!
“Woke up this mornin’, feelin’ fine! There’s somethin’ special, on my mind. . . Somethin’ tells me I’m into somethin’ good!” (Herman’s Hermits)
Join me on my next adventure,
Sharon Woods Metro Park: http://www.metroparks.net/parks-and-trails/sharon-woods/
Blacklick Woods Metro Park: http://www.metroparks.net/parks-and-trails/blacklick-woods/
Prairie Oaks Metro Park: http://www.metroparks.net/parks-and-trails/prairie-oaks/
Friends of the Metro Parks: http://www.metroparks.net/about-us/friends-metro-parks/
13 Hikes of Giving: https://www.facebook.com/events/1153776531425731/
ODNR Division of Natural Areas & Preserves: http://naturepreserves.ohiodnr.gov/sharonwoods
Herman’s Hermits – Peter Noone: https://peternoone.com/shop/underground-t-shirt/