The sky is of white talcum as a midday ground squall overtakes the small city of Winooski, Vermont. It is late winter in the Lake Champlain Valley, and a February storm has passed, leaving wind and a deposit of powdered snow.
This is the first significant snowfall of the season. For Vermont this has been a winter of ice, of broken trees and metropolitan blackouts. The ice scraper has supplanted the snow shovel, and the landscape has been painted in clear gloss.
Today the ice is subsumed to a depth of six inches beneath a fine white dust. These are not the floppy flakes of winter mythology, each a perfect pattern unique from all others. This snow is sharp, crystalline, as if someone has run a belt sander over an enormous block of ice. It is also perfect for trying out my new pair of Tubbs FLEX TRK snowshoes, which are designed for harder and less ideal snow. I have called out from work and left the car parked in my driveway. I will not go to the mountains today. Today I will descend into the city center and from there go in search of snow.
The Winooski River rises first in the town of Cabot, from which the famous creamery takes its name. From there the river meanders northward for ninety miles, passing from the capital of Montpelier into Richmond, and out of the Green Mountains into Essex. Along the shores of Burlington and Colchester it spills its contents into Lake Champlain. Sixteen miles short of its terminus it flows through an old mill town, and it is to this place that it gives its own name.
Winooski. The word is an Anglicization of the Abenaki “Winoskitegw,” translating to “land of the wild onion” for the edible plants that grew along its banks. For this reason we often call the river the Onion River, and the city the Onion City. It is a strangely fitting moniker for a place seemingly so out of proportion to itself. In Vermont the term ‘city’ is used loosely; Winooski is a city because it decided to call itself one. At seven thousand the population is hardly metropolitan, but that number is distributed over an area a mere one and a half square miles in size, yielding the highest population density in the state. The old mills stand tall over the city center, but they have been hollowed of their factories. Instead their ceilings hang awkwardly high over restaurants and apartments. Along a rerouted traffic circle patrons of the best in local food can dine in rooms built for titans, and where textiles were once produced, single riverfront apartments rent for two thousand a month.
Along the riverfront walk I lean against a snow-covered picnic table and bind into my snowshoes. It is a Friday, and I am the beneficiary of the calendar; few have come before me, and the snow remains unbroken. This section of the path closest to the city has been set in concrete, making it fit more for sitting and reading than for going for a hike. But shrouded in powder it has been converted, and in snowshoes it is experienced as something tenably adventurous.
At the edge of a hardwood forest I pause to look over the river rapids and back at the city. It was here that in 1979 city leaders proposed, in a way that could only be done after too many glasses of wine, to enclose the entire city in a plastic dome. The plan gained federal support in the form of a US Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. For a year the plan progressed through the approval process as proponents appeared on national talk shows to promote it. It wasn’t until the Carter Administration came under fire for its support that the plan was permanently scrapped. A Japanese textbook mistakenly printed that the dome had actually been constructed, prompting Japanese students to write Winooski pen pals and ask, “what is life like under the giant dome?”
It is fortunate that they did not build it, for a dome would detract from the snowshoeing. There is no dome above me; there is only the empty tree limbs and a flat white sky. From the riverfront I have picked up the wildlife trail, following the river back toward Essex. Here the swiftwater of the gorge opens in a lazy arc of wetlands and shallow water, and the dead cattails that line the water’s edge remain upright markers in the snow. A few more steps and the city is left behind me.
The trail weaves around the pillars of the gray interstate bridge, upon which the brightly colored insignia of urban graffiti art vibrate in the dim winter monochrome. The snow forms a thinner hard pack with the frozen river mist, and the FLEX TRK snowshoes have no trouble finding grip and room to float where my Wilderness snowshoes would be too aggressive.
Beyond the bridge the trail rises abruptly as it climbs atop the gorge cliff walls, where a handful of scraggly evergreens lean over a perilous edge. I lean over and peer down at the river below, green-gray and only slightly frozen as it races through the funnel of the gorge. The Winooski is an antecedent river, meaning its course predates the topography around it. As bedrock hills and mountains rose beneath it millions of years ago, the river did not change direction, but cut deep through the folded granite. From my place atop the gorge that work is clearly discernible in the well defined sedimentary layers of the opposing rock wall, exposing granite first formed when the North American and African tectonic plates collided 250 million years ago.
I carry on further along the ridge to where the trail terminates at an old train bridge. From here I can look back along the gorge and the river, snow in the foreground, the interstate bridge in the background, and the city in the distance, barely visible around the bend in the river. The river carries on to the city, and so now must I, content in having found good snowshoeing amidst the civilization in which I reside.
Day Hiking Ambassador