Retracing legendary trekker’s route
March 10, 2003
HOPE VALLEY — A group of outdoor enthusiasts paid homage to the origin of extreme skiing this weekend, taking to the snow to raise awareness and money to keep the memory of Snowshoe “John” Thompson alive.
The legendary mail carrier traveled over mountain passes between Placerville and Genoa in the 1850s, cutting through treacherous winter conditions with a 90-pound pack on his back and 11-foot oak planks on his feet.
He died at age 49.
“You can’t imagine. He was carrying such a heavy pack. Give me a break,” event leader and ski instructor Nina MacLeod said, retracing the Hope Valley section of his historic route with a group of snowshoers and cross country skiers.
Donning a long dress with a common rose pattern of the era, the 63-year-old Norwegian native kicked off the jaunt for the dozen eager skiers and shoers on a trail named after Thompson at Picketts Junction — where highways 88 and 89 intersect.
She and Joyce Coker of the Hope Valley Outdoor Center — where the group met that morning — frolicked in the corn-snow- covered hills, demonstrating telemark turns in dresses under bright sunny skies.
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Thompson didn’t perform the turns, instead opting to negotiate the slopes with his skis together, MacLeod explained.
“See this snow. This is the kind of snow Snowshoe would have made good time in,” she said, puncturing the softening top layer with her pole.
Along the way, MacLeod whipped out a book to urge the captive audience to appreciate the mail carrier who died in 1876 without any compensation from the U.S. Postal Service.
Coker doled out fudge and cookies at the halfway point, as the group basked in the warm temperatures.
The conditions proved a dramatic departure from Thompson’s life of hard knocks. He endured tough winters growing up in Tinn, Norway, before he started taming the Sierra Nevada.
When the weather turned sour, he found refuge in a cave along the Horsethief Canyon Trail near Highway 88.
More than 500 people in his homeland turn out to honor the man every Palm Sunday. In their fourth year, organizers for the Lake Tahoe event try to coincide their celebration with Norway’s ceremony. Tahoe’s history buffs chose to stage the event earlier because they feared there would not be enough snow next month.
This year’s proceeds are aimed at maintaining the Snowshoe Thompson memorial in Genoa.
“One year we didn’t have snow, so we hiked it,” Lynne Bowersock said, adding how the glorious spring-like day proved a dramatic departure from Thompson’s “scary” experience.
She has come out each year with her husband, Bill, for the low-key event to honor Thompson.
The couple helped organize the installation of the memorial during “the most hectic week of our lives,” she said. After raising $50,000 with donations of $100 per brick, the statue was erected in June 2001.
The group wants to expand its efforts to include a commemorative stamp of Thompson.
First-timer Wendy Latham came from Reno to fund the effort to maintain the memorial and take the historic kick steps.
“I’m quite fascinated by him because in those days it would be hard. They didn’t have the same stuff we have now,” Latham said, referring to the evolution of the equipment.
Thompson was nicknamed “Snowshoe” for the skis he crafted to slice through the snow. He balanced with a long wooden pole carried in both hands.
Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org