On a snowshoe tour with A.J. DeRosa, guests meander like a mountain man, then dine in luxury in a riverside tipi.
By Jim Stanford:
The snow crunches underfoot as our party hikes through the woods, plodding like penguins over the undulating curves of the river bottom. A pack on my back and snowshoes strapped to my boots, I feel like a trapper tracking beaver in the early days of Jackson Hole.
It’s late December, and three friends and I are following A.J. DeRosa on a tour of the forest surrounding his camp on the Snake River, about eight miles south of Wilson. A Christmas snowstorm has blanketed the valley in a cushion of white, a relief after several depressing rains. Trip and Susan, visiting from South Carolina, were looking for an activity off the slopes. Knees sore from pounding the powder, I welcomed the change of pace. Robin, who usually glides along the river on cross-country skis, was eager to try a mellow snowshoe trek.
DeRosa, breaking a shallow trail, pauses in front of us at a set of tracks. “Moose,” he says, tracing the outline of the hooves. The dotted line circles the trees where the ungulate likely stopped to feed. A little farther, we come across another set of prints. “These are from a coyote,” DeRosa explains, showing how the steps proceed in a straight line, following an old snowshoe trail. “A coyote is very purposeful,” he says. Because food can be scarce in winter,” They will do anything they can to save energy.”
The cottonwoods, leafless and more than 60 feet tall, loom above us as the sun dips low in the sky. DeRosa calls this grove the “black forest,” and the grainy, dark gray bark, contrasted against the snow, brings to mind an Ansel Adams photograph. A stocky Chicago native who talks with a hint of a Ditka accent, DeRosa knows these woods well, having guided clients on fishing and float trips along the Snake since 1973. This is his third winter leading snowshoe tours after twenty-seven years of ski patrolling at the Jackson Hole and Snow King resorts.
On our feet we are wearing Alaskan-style wooden snowshoes, long and narrow and designed to float a heavy load, even in light powder. DeRosa explains that snowshoes have been an effective mode of travel for more than two thousand years. Native Americans used woven branches or wood and hides for their shoes, he says, and passed on the technology to the explorers and fur traders who ventured into these mountains in the early nineteenth century. Some of the various styles of snowshoes are named for the tribes that wore them, such as Huron and Michigan. DeRosa calls them “four-wheel-drive for your feet.”
He prefers wood shoes instead of the more modern metal designs because he’s old-fashioned at heart. The choice is in keeping with the fleet of McKenzie River-style wooden drift boats he uses for his outfitting business in summer. He appreciates craftsmanship and tradition. He keeps on hand wooden Swedish mountain rescue toboggans for clients who wish to tow their kids through the snow.
A wisp of breeze blows through the trees, stinging our rosy cheeks. DeRosa leads us into a clearing where the panorama of the Tetons stretches to the north. We climb and stand on a bank overlooking the Snake River, black as onyx against the snow. Below us the mouth of Taylor Creek meets the Snake, and in a pool of water float four trumpeter swans. They notice our presence and explode from the eddy in an alarum of trumpets, their black webbed feet slapping the surface of the water as they scurry into flight. DeRosa shuffles upstream along the creek, and as we follow he points out a beaver lodge and piles of branches and willows the beavers have stacked for their winter food cache. Farther upstream, a bald eagle circles with wings outstretched, riding a current of air.
The days are short at this time of year, and we can feel darkness fast approaching. The tips of the peaks are pink with alpenglow. DeRosa leads us down the bank, which has been lit with lanterns, until we see white smoke trailing from the top of a tipi. Holly, his cook, greets us with hot spiced cider at a spot beside the river DeRosa calls Campfire Point. There are imprints on the snow where otters frolicked the day before. The cider warms our bellies as we rub our hands in front of the crackling flames and nibble from a plate of cheese and vegetables. Trip lends a hand chopping wood, and I take the women for our first glimpse inside the tipi.
“Wow!” exclaims a wide-eyed Susan as she ducks and peers into the twenty-foot-tall cone. The floor is carpeted, and three futons with blankets and pillows line the perimeter. A woodstove makes for a toasty, cozy atmosphere. “This is nicer than most of the rental places in Jackson,” quips Robin. We plop down on the futons. DeRosa soon joins us, and he points out some of the design features of the tipi: Snow runs off the exterior, and the hole at the top makes for a natural chimney. The heavy-duty canvas is supported by a frame of lodgepole pine poles, sanded smooth and oiled. Turns out DeRosa lived in a tipi on a friend’s land one summer to save money. With his tanned skin and encyclopedic knowledge of nature, he could pass for an Indian, were he not a jazz-loving Cubs fan with a taste for gourmet food.
Holly announces it’s time to eat, and we delve into a feast of grilled beef tenderloin and salmon, asparagus with lemon butter and toasted almonds, and potatoes baked in a dutch oven atop the woodstove. We pop open two bottles of Cabernet we have brought in our backpacks. DeRosa retreats to the cook tent, leaving us to laugh and drink heartily around the fire. A short while later, Holly arrives with dessert and coffee. The homemade chocolate cake with whipped cream and powdered chocolate leaves our heads spinning.
After an hour or so of relaxing, we wish we had brought down-filled sleeping bags to spend the night. The stars twinkle magnificently above, the air is crisp, and the camp is quiet, save for the whisper of the river. Reluctantly, we make our way out, trudging back to our car under the glow of moonlight. It will be well below zero tonight, too cold for a sleepover, but my inner mountain man wishes I were back in the forest with the coyotes, snug inside the tipi and dozing off to the sound of the rushing water.