A Walk in the Woods: Winter hiking safety

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By: John Griffee

Staff Writer

Signs of spring have begun to creep into the projected weather forecasts, with temperatures rising and snowdrifts shrinking. While the weather is beginning to turn around after a period of strong winter storm fronts, hikers still need to take precautions when heading out to local parks.

With the snow piles beginning to get lower towards the ground, it can be enticing to finally get some fresh air with a hike or walk in a local park. The snow may be melting towards roadsides and parking lots, but the tree cover in many parks and nature preserves prevents the sunlight from reaching many trails. 

At Chamberlain Lake Nature Preserve, the rising temperatures have hardly made a dent in the layers of snow that fill every inch of the wooded area. The traditionally vibrant cerulean of the lake has been blotted out, frozen over and covered with a large pile of snow. Chamberlain Lake’s trails present a prime example of the unpredictability of hiking in this transitional period. Portions of the snow have more give than others, raising the risk of slipping and injury.

The park’s main trail leads through a short loop that includes a small deck overlooking the lake. Adjacent to the deck is small wetland sections, that become highly unpredictable with the current weather. Large bodies of water are more resistant to temperature change, leading to sections of the ice being less stable than others. While it may be enticing to head closer to the lakefront, it is incredibly dangerous to risk walking through the section, especially as the ice begins to melt. 

Anyone unfamiliar with a park’s trails and layout should stick to the trails as best they can, should they choose to risk hiking under the current conditions. Heading off the trails is ill-advised unless the individual is intimately familiar with the area. Large snow piles may give the impression of a compacted surface, only to collapse and reveal steep slopes. It is crucial to remember that the snow only covers the ground and that objects may remain under the snowfall that can still pose a risk. 

An understated issue that faces anyone who chooses to visit a smaller neglected park area is the lack of maintenance. Larger parks have the benefit of more funding or donations, allowing roads, trails, lots and facilities to be maintained for the safety of parkgoers. The thinly veiled impression of a shallow mound of snow in a side lot quickly dissipates and reveals thick sheets of ice protected from the heat of the sun. 

Trails at smaller parks do not have the benefit of being manicured or preserved as well as others might receive. If you are unfamiliar with the area, it is safer to avoid the risk of hiking in blindly altogether. That said, if you should choose to go forward with hiking under current conditions, snowshoes can assist in displacing weight. 

Hiking during this time of year in the Michiana area still requires patience and caution. This area is joked to be able to experience all four seasons in one day, making hiking an activity that can be highly unpredictable at times. 

Is there a park that you want to see covered? Email me at jgriffee@iu.edu with suggestions.

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