The cold creative hands of winter continually freeze, thaw, powder, and mold familiar landscapes into new terrains. A magical aspect of winter hiking is that conditions vary so starkly from day-to-day, even hour to hour, that returning to the same location evokes a continual appreciation of nature’s artistry. Surprises come in the changing depths of the snow, the evolving shapes of trees and hills, or, maybe even, encounters with monkeys.
For a few years now, I have been snowshoeing a few times every winter and early spring around a high mountain dam and its surrounding mountains. Each trip feels like being in a familiar but different world. The dam’s name is Uchinokura (内の倉). It is located in the high outskirts of Shibata City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan.
Few people venture up the steep winding path to the dam. After parking where the plowed road ends, the half-hour ascent to the dam begins. Once you cross a silent one-lane bridge that spans frosted trees bending toward a swirling river, all man-made noise disappears except for the slosh or crunch of your snowshoes. During heavy snowfall, wind and clumps of snow falling from trees are all you will probably hear. On other days, you might hear the screech of hawks or eagles or the caws of territorial crows. Keep moving upwards. If you turn or look behind, you will see white razor-edge peaks above scattered trees and trees bereft of most leaves. Finally, you will arrive at an ice-rimmed tunnel whose aperture beckons like a secret passageway. Look inside. A small speck of light in the distance hints at the other opening.
The tunnel is one of only two openings into the valley behind the dam, whose construction started in 1953. The shadowy tunnel entrance gapes from a steep cliff. Depending upon the snowfall and season, you might be able to stroll right in after removing your snowshoes. Sometimes, you must scramble over several meters of snow, rocks, and tree debris—the result of small avalanches. The concrete tunnel is unlit. Why waste energy in winter when no cars, only snowshoers, enter? The old, dark concrete walls are wrinkled with deep cracks from which water drips and long icicles hang like ancient stalactites. Locals say that the tunnel is haunted by a ghost. Walking through the narrow, wet, cracked tunnel is always thrilling and unnerving. To lessen our unease, we whistle, sing, or shout stupid things and marvel at the echoes traveling down the long tunnel.
After around five minutes, the speck of light on the other end has grown almost blindingly strong. As your eyes adjust, a wide soup-bowl-like valley becomes visible. During normal winters, the top of the lake is frozen and smothered with a creamy base of Boston-clam-chowder white snow. Thick forests of scattered cedar, walnut, chestnut, pine and other trees circle the lake, except where the lip of the dam spills plumes of water.
Protruding from the snow, just before the lake, is a yellow triangular sign that shows a black monkey silhouette and admonition to be wary of animals. On various occasions, close to the dam in winter, I have seen ferrets, hawks, eagles, crows, and a large troop of Japanese macaque, sometimes called snow monkeys, as well as the fresh prints and scat of bear and other creatures. Encountering monkeys is always a rare pleasure. Either my dog senses them or they sense our presence before I do. So often, we just hear or barely glimpse them.
However, once when silently snowshoeing while a heavy snowfall was pushing our scent down into earth, we swiftly rounded a curve and saw at least thirty or forty members of a troop of grey and black thick-furred macaque close in front of us on the white snowy road. There were pink-faced mothers clutching their babies, mid-sized juveniles, and loud protective males. All of the macaques immediately expressed a volley of vocalizations as they fled into the forest. Some squawking noises sounded like the sounds of crows. Other calls were more like aggressive barking.
The soft deep snow did not hinder their movements as they ran over the snow, scrambled up trees, and jumped across branches. A large male, exuding power, faced us just five meters away. Hostilely shaking branches and barking in warning, he waited until all the others had escaped. His pink face turned red with anger, and his eyes moved toward ours. We had learned not to stare back. Direct eye contact is a sign of aggression among most primates, so we kept our eyes low. I was worried about my dog running after him, but she listened to our commands and stayed by our side, or maybe she was afraid. After all the other macaques had entered the deep forest, he snarled, displayed menacing teeth, and vanished behind brush. It all happened too fast for me to remove my mittens, dig into my pack for my camera, and take photographs.
Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) became known to people worldwide after National Geographic Magazine published a story about a troop who love soaking in hot springs in nearby Nagano Prefecture, which is a few hundred kilometers from Shibata. The macaque in that article and in this fantastic National Geographic video are accustomed to people approaching and taking photographs, but the ones in the forests of Shibata are wild. They mostly avoid contact with humans, but when hungry, they are infamous for stealing ripe fruit and vegetables from nearby farms and then escaping into the woods. Coming so close to wild macaques is a rare experience, so we are grateful for our lucky timing.
On another visit to the same dam when no snow was falling, and the snow on the ground was hard, we heard macaque cries coming from a slope above us. Wanting to see them again, we rushed upward until we were sweating despite the cold. Once again, we heard their sounds. My dog picked up his air and stared in one direction. Our breath steaming the cold air, we climbed over fallen trees, squeezed between branches, and continued until we gave up. We did find hundreds of handprints and footprints in the snow, as well as the discarded outer pods of some bean-like plants that they had been feasting upon. I placed my hand in the snow next to theirs and marveled at the similarity of my prints and those of my distant relatives, who are also my neighbors in these mountains.
Snow conditions have varied tremendously in the last four years. On my first visit, the earth was layered with meters of snow. Last year, on the same date, I returned to the exact location my wife and I had previously walked on snowshoes. We saw just a few piles of snow melting in the heat. With our snowshoes in our hands, we walked away, discussing global warming and worrying about its effects on the monkeys, the birds, the bears, and other forest animals, the creatures who cannot sign petitions, who cannot compel government and company officials to take corrective actions, and who cannot reduce fossil fuel usage. We can. We should. I will. Will you?