Snow Queen

A new book and a reissued classic from the world's leading connoisseur of snow.

RUTH KIRK, THE septuagenarian author of more than two dozen books, drove up to Mount Rainier the other day and strapped on a pair of snowshoes to celebrate two more additions to the catalog. Earlier this month, the University of Washington Press published a gorgeous trade paperback edition of Kirk's long out-of-print classic, Snow; in early March, the press will bring out her From Sunrise to Paradise, which accompanies the Washington State History Museum's exhibit on the 100th anniversary of Mount Rainier National Park. Although she warned me that she was still breaking in a "nifty" new pacemaker, Kirk agreed to shoulder her old canvas backpack and spend an afternoon tramping around Paradise, talking snow. "Ooh, this is great," she gushed, striding out of the iced-over parking lot. "Feels like I haven't done this for a thousand years." Below us the Paradise Valley lay hushed under a 20-foot comforter of snow. Subalpine firs, looking more black than green, spiked through the grayish crust. ("Snow is rarely pure white," Kirk said.) At a bridge over the Paradise River, she stopped to admire the sculpted snow drifts, and asked, "Is there any other substance to match snow for its beautiful contours?" Snow

by Ruth Kirk (UW Press, $17.95) Kirk spent the better part of the 1970s researching the white stuff—how humans adapt to it, survive its blizzards and avalanches, fight it in the city streets, and die in its most extreme accumulations. The resulting book, published in 1977, proved a fascinating and surprisingly gripping read. The Wall Street Journal reviewed Snow on its front page, and during the bitter winter of '77 Kirk logged dozens of radio interviews as snowstorms raged across the country. Though the book eventually dropped out of print, it remains one of the last quarter-century's finest works of natural history. The book is a trove of anecdotes. Kirk discovered the origins of the snow cone in medieval Japan, where the shogun's court enjoyed syrups poured over summer snow portered from Mount Fuji. She turned up archaeologists in England who "read" the land after a light snowfall. (The snow melts at different rates over disturbed and undisturbed earth.) She spoke with Sir Charles Wright, one of the two last living members of Robert Falcon Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition, just a few weeks before Wright's death. She dropped in on Inuit villages above the Arctic Circle to see how the snowmobile had changed the way they dealt with snow. "The finest snow I ever found fell along the Kobuk River," she said on our trek, without breaking stride. (The Kobuk runs about 450 miles northeast of Nome.) "It was like sugar. I stepped off the dog sled and sunk up to my waist in it. Ended up half-swimming, half-walking back to the sled. "It was nothing like this Cascade concrete," she added, glancing down at the white glop pasted to her snowshoes. But whether she likes it or not, Washington state's notoriously heavy, wet snow is her natural milieu. She and her husband, Louis, a National Park Service ranger, first discovered its intricacies when they moved to Mount Rainier in the 1950s. "I was terribly impressed to find when we got to Rainier that there's snow, and then there's snow, and then there's SNOW, all these different kinds," Kirk said. The Kirks had previously been posted at Death Valley. "The first day we got here, a ranger had to yell at me to stand back from a 30-foot cornice above the Paradise parking lot. That's how ignorant I was about snow." Kirk's writing career had begun a few years earlier when she was asked to collaborate with a young photographer who was shooting Death Valley's stark desertscapes. "Louis pulled this fellow over on a traffic stop," she said, "and he saw cameras sitting in the back seat. 'Oh,' he said, 'you must be interested in photographs.' "'Well,' the fellow said, 'I'm Ansel Adams.' "Ansel ended up using our old CCC shack as a darkroom, and one night he and his wife stayed for dinner. Afterwards Louis showed slides he'd just taken using his new wide-angle lens. 'Behold!' he said. 'The entire Panamint Range, south end to north end.' "'Well, so it is,' Ansel said. And he paused and added, 'And sometimes it's wise to get in less and do a better job.' "And you know," Kirk said, "that has stuck in my mind as a cosmic principle ever since." Kirk collaborated with Adams on Death Valley in 1963, and went on to produce a number of natural histories on her own, including Desert: The American Southwest, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1973. Kirk leaves her readers with wonderful snapshots of snow's profound social and cultural effects. A group of African dignitaries, in Seattle for a conference, once came to Mount Rainier and, upon seeing the snow, immediately staged a snowball fight. This connection between snow and play is so universal, it transcends continents and species. Eskimo children, surrounded by the stuff half their lives, still delight in snowball fights—as do Japanese snow monkeys (although the monkeys prefer rolling them and sitting on them to throwing them). Sir Charles Wright emerges as the book's most memorable character. In one chapter, he recalls slogging through deep Antarctic drifts with only one eye open, keeping the other in reserve in case he went snowblind. We left Paradise around 2:30 that afternoon, swaddled in down jackets and polar fleece. The four wheels below us gripped the compact snow and ice with dozens of metal studs—until, rounding the 34th innocuous turn of the afternoon, they didn't. "Well, here we go," I said. "Hold on, Ruth!" We completed a graceless 270-degree spin that planted the car's bumper in a 4-foot bank of snow. "You OK?" I asked. "Oh yes," she said, and smiled. "I hate to admit I rather enjoyed it." "Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park" opens March 2 at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Ruth Kirk's book of the same title will be published simultaneously.

 
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