On the second-to-the last day of 2012, our Fir Forest & Tree Bridges Tour in Upper Silverado was promoted in the Orange County Register. The article coincided with the tail end of a series of storms. Maple Springs Road, our national forest access point, was closed to vehicular traffic due to muddy conditions. The road closure meant that we would have to hike an additional three miles to arrive at the printed tour destination.
The newspaper's publicity attracted considerable attention, and I received an influx of tour reservations by phone and email. When I explained about the road closure and the extra mileage, many inquirers canceled their reservations. A cloud of disappointment amassed over my grand hiking plan.
Despite the cancellations, I was pleased to meet eleven friendly followers at the Canyon Market on Sunday afternoon in downtown Silverado. I did not worry about their modest attire because I only expected clear skies and a winter breeze (ne bold gentleman wore a hooded sweatshirt, board shorts, and tennis shoes). I explained that the extended tour length might prevent us from reaching our destination. No one was discouraged by the daunting news, so we hopped in our vehicles and drove to the Maple Springs parking area.
There was a chill in the air and a collection of ominous clouds swirled beyond the closed Maple Springs Gate. We swiftly entered the forest in an effort to warm our bodies and accommodate the extra mileage. The temperature steadily decreased. When we stopped to identify a bigleaf maple tree, I noticed the shivers, `pale faces, clenched fists, and bobbing motions of my freezing followers. We could not afford to stand still, so I picked up the pace. Our speed walking left one individual behind. I was down to ten followers.
Along the way, we encountered a hiking couple that was surprised to see that we were dry. They explained that there was a massive downpour of hail just upstream of our location. This sounded improbable since we could not see any evidence of nearby rain or hail. We chuckled at the idea of such an extreme and isolated weather event. After a few more bends in the road, it started to drizzle and two more followers retreated. I was down to eight. I don't typically lose followers, but I figured the unpredictable weather scared them away. I laughed nervously.
The temperature plummeted as we gradually gained elevation; it was probably forty-some degrees. I knew that we only had a few hours before sunset, so I suggested Spruce Canyon as an alternate destination. It required a departure from the main road and a scramble up a rugged tributary of Silverado Creek. My younger followers were psyched to go up Spruce, but not everyone shared their gung-ho attitude.
We left the road and tromped into a thicket of sopping wet shrubbery. One of the participants noticed a small pile of pale pebbles in the grass and asked what they were. I bent down to inspect the pile and realized that it was leftover hail refrigerated in the shade. We began to traverse Silverado Creek towards the mouth of Spruce Canyon. We stumbled along the slippery rocks. Ahead, there was a deep rock pool and a jungle of vegetation. I turned to gauge my followers and found most of them stumbling along in hesitation. I was convinced that this was probably not a good idea. At that moment, the clouds unleashed a heavy curtain of hail. Soft white pebbles of ice quickly accumulated over every surface.
We took shelter under some oaks and alders. With a frozen grin, Cindy (a volunteer with Naturalist For You) excitedly pranced around to photograph the whole experience. A mountain biker slid down the slushy road and briefly spoke to her. She turned to us and announced that the mountain biker had observed snow a little bit further up the road. The rumor of snow was enticing enough for us to embark on a new quest. We scurried back to the road and trudged forward through the relentless hail. "Maybe a quarter mile to go!"
The glistening piles of ice crunched under our feet. I carefully picked up a fallen sycamore leaf and ate the fresh hail off of its surface. As tasty as it was, the hail still managed to intimidate two more followers who trailed further behind and eventually turned around. We exchanged long distance goodbyes through the roar of falling ice. I was down to six. I remained optimistic because the young gentleman in shorts and a sweatshirt was still with us. He beamed with energy and determination.
The road was entirely covered in mushy ice, except for a mysterious scrape mark that extended up the road It looked like a miniature snowplow had scraped a two-foot wide stripe along the center. We followed the mysterious scrape to avoid slipping in the slush. As we pondered the scrape, a lanky jogger promptly appeared in front of us. He galloped past our haggard team of snow seekers with a car tire tethered behind him. With a rope tied around his waist, he tugged the tire on its side and scraped the road. He revealed a horse-like grin and merrily quipped that he was clearing the path for us. We stared at the jaunty fellow in disbelief.
"Just a little bit further!"
Our hands were numb, our shoes were soaked, our noses were runny, and our pace was sluggish, but our hearts yearned for the Holy Grail of OC weather. Finally, after three momentous miles, we arrived at our destination. The paved road ended and the fir forest began. The hail fell on our exhausted weather-beaten faces and clumped on the towering fir trees. Even though our spirits were high, our clothing no longer protected us from the bitter cold. A steep dirt road continued for many miles, but it was too difficult to determine how much further we had to go to find snow. Shaken into submission, we took group photos and reluctantly turned back.
On our return, we could see that the higher slopes of the canyon were dusted with white powder. It seemed so close, yet so far away. We hurried down the road as fast as possible. Our shoes slid on the ice. Our race to beat the cold was underway. The temperature dropped to the lowest level of the afternoon--30-some degrees! The sun dropped in the sky. My snot dropped on my wet mustache. My cold tolerance dropped. My attention dropped to the slippery road. We dropped in elevation.
I had just about given up any hope of snow when I sensed a change in the air. I lifted my head to scrutinize the weather activity above. The hail seemed to float instead of fall and the white noise dissolved away. In the silence, snowflakes gently fell upon our stunned faces.
"That's not hail...that's snow! It's snowing!!! Look at the size of those snowflakes!!!"
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The Holy Grail had found us. We were whisked away to a winter wonderland. It was hard to believe we were still in OC.
The snow fell dreamily for about a mile of our descent before it changed to a light rain. The rain subsided and the sky cleared before we finished the journey. We looked back up the canyon and saw that the entire mountain range was dusted with snow. With numb hands and warm hearts, we celebrated our triumph, thanked each other, and reflected upon one of the most memorable hiking experiences of 2012.