A Natural Winter Wonderland That’s Just a Car Ride Away
by Angus Phillips, Courtesy of the Washington Post
“What can I get youse to drink?”
Outside the 200 year-old Casselman Inn, snow swirled and temperatures hovered in the teens. Inside, the brick fireplace throbbed red-hot and the smell of fresh-baked pies and breads wafted from the basement. Our cheerful young waitress was no outcast from the Bronx but a modestly dressed Mennonite employing the local idiom for “you-all.”
It’s winter in Garrett County, a unique place in Maryland where plain folk speak plainly and winter means winter. Last year 192 inches of snow fell here; already this season more than 50 inches have hit the ground. My wife and I made the three-hour drive last week to spend a few days savoring the chilly bite that in some years we never get “back East,” as folks here call the Washington area. We were not disappointed.
For two days we plied the snowy mountains on cross-country skis, on snowshoes, by snowmobile and on foot, wearing knee-high gaiters to keep our boots dry. I even rode an inner tube down the sculpted slope at Wisp, the ski resort overlooking Deep Creek Lake — along with the other screaming eight-year-olds.
It’s axiomatic that most people in the Washington area come from elsewhere. Those of us who moved from a cold climate (I, for example, from central New England and my wife from upstate New York) get misty about winter sometimes, even if we came here to get away from it.
Those with means get their cold-weather fixes by flying to Vail or Breckenridge, Lake Placid or Stowe. But what about the rest of us? Oh, you can get a taste by making the short run to south-central Pennsylvania to ski at Whitetail or Liberty, where machines fill in for what Mother Nature won’t provide.
But the nearest place for the real thing is far Western Maryland, just across Dan’s Mountain on the Allegheny Plateau, where winter runs from November till March and the snow comes ghostly silent from on high, not from the nozzle of a noisy machine.
“We don’t really belong in Maryland,” said George Pettie, a D.C. home inspector who owns Lake Pointe Inn, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the featureless ice sheet that is Deep Creek Lake in winter. “If you go by climate, Garrett County ought to be in Vermont or someplace like that.”
“Our temperature is generally eight to ten degrees lower than it is east of here,” said Mike Dreisbach, who built the elegant Savage River Lodge at Finzel, “and we get two to three times as much snow as they do just over the mountain in Cumberland.”
The anomaly results from Garrett County’s location on the far side of the Eastern Continental Divide, says Dreisbach. The 3,000-foot ridge stands in the path of weather systems moving east, and as winds carrying moisture from the Great Lakes rise to pass over it, they cool and drop that moisture as snow on the western side.
The upshot is the only place within reasonable driving distance of the Washington-Baltimore megalopolis where you can consistently go cross-country skiing in the woods on natural snow. City dwellers for decades have enjoyed the trails at New Germany State Park, where routes range from easy to difficult. Savage River Lodge now offers 15 more miles of cross-country trails in the high woods around Savage River State Forest and has its own Nordic Center with rental equipment and lessons.
The long-suffering Mrs. Phillips was looking for a holiday, not an adventure, so we opted for one of Savage River Lodge’s fancy new log cabins rather than the cheapest accommodations we could find, which would always be my choice. Dreisbach, a certified ski instructor, provided an introductory cross-country ski lesson and grudgingly agreed to lead us on the public trails at New Germany State Park, while insisting his own trails were better groomed and superior. I had once hiked the Poplar Lick Trail at New Germany and wanted to see it in winter, gliding along effortlessly on cross-country skis.
It’s still a gorgeous trail and was utterly empty at midweek, with only tracks from the previous weekend to hint at human intervention. But effortless it wasn’t, and you’d have to stretch to call anything I did “gliding.” At one point, Dreisbach laughingly compared my gait to Herman Munster’s.
Cross-country skiing is hard work and not for the meek. Even on easy trails on a frigid day at New Germany, we quickly worked up a sweat and had to stop frequently amid the frozen wild rhododendrons to catch our breaths. You’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier place to catch your breath, and after a gourmet dinner at the lodge, we slept the sleep of the righteous weary.
For our other big outing we arranged a two-hour ecotour on snowshoes in the Savage River State Forest with a pair of naturalists who do business as Elk Ridge Nature Works. Liz McDowell, who wrote her master’s thesis at Frostburg University on bats, and Ron Boyer, a retired science teacher, are refugees from “back East,” she from Philadelphia and he from Anne Arundel County, and enthusiastic lovers of Garrett County’s winter woods.
In truth, there’s not too much going on in the woods this time of year. The only wildlife we heard was a pair of ravens squawking overhead but McDowell and Boyer stopped often to point out signs of beavers at work, tracks of deer and other animals, and to identify herbs, fungi, trees, shrubs and woody vines. That evening they sent a two-page e-mail listing all the things we’d seen, part of every ecotour they do, complete with Latin names for every species.
For the missus and me, just plodding along on snowshoes through the trackless waste was adventure and exercise enough, and that night we once more went to sleep without no rocking, as the old-time trappers used to say.
Driving out through a blinding storm next morning, we wondered if we’d get buried in snow on the long drive home. But sure enough, as soon as we crossed Dan’s Mountain the clouds broke and by the time we hit Hagerstown it was a mild, sunny day back East, as if we’d crossed to a different planet.
• Cross-country skiing should remain good into March at New Germany State Park, where cabins, rental equipment and lessons are available . Check the Web site for latest conditions at www.skimaryland.com or call the park at 301-895-5453.
• Savage River Lodge offers skiing, snowshowing, ecotours and lodging. Check www.savageriverlodge.com or call 301-689-3200.
• The Casselman Inn in Grantsville has lodging, home-cooked meals and a memorable bakery. Call 301-895-5266.
• Wisp Ski Resort in McHenry has downhill skiing, tubing and snowboarding and a hotel. Call 301-387-4911.
• Elk Ridge Nature Works offers ecotours, skiing and snowshoeing. Call 301-895-3686 or check www.elkridgenatureworks.com.
• The Lake Pointe Inn overlooks Deep Creek Lake and is the oldest hotel in McHenry. Call 301-387-0111.
A Natural Winter Wonderland That’s Just a Car Ride Away