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Winter Wonderlands Eugene Rec offers snowy adventures under the leadership of longtime guides with decades of experience

Ben Schorzman | Content Coordinator, Eugene Rec

The day starts like many snowshoe trips. An early wakeup call followed by an hour and a half drive past Dexter Reservoir, through the old logging town of Oakridge and through a dense forest of Douglas firs.

Amidst falling snow, trip goers clamber out of the River House Outdoor Center’s bus, donning jackets and strapping into snowshoes. The first hour of hiking is meant to acclimatize to the jarring surroundings. Not two hours previously everyone had been in gray Eugene. Now they’re surrounded by powdery white. Vistas of snow-covered trees fade in and out as snow showers blow through.

At lunch time, trip leader Dave Walp calls a halt. If people followed the pre-trip instructions, they’ll have something to sit on, a warm Thermos of coffee or tea and a nourishing meal. It’s during the relative quiet of lunch the snowshoe trip elevates from a simple hike to memorable day in the wilderness.

“...Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sage brush desolation?”

The beginning lines of Robert Service’s 1916 poem, “Call of the Wild” break through the sounds of the forest. Walp, reading from a heavily creased and worn piece of paper, shares verses he memorized when he was a sixth grader, more than 60 years ago.

“That particular poem struck home with me,” Walp says. “It offers a great juxtaposition of listening to a poem in the outdoors, where you’re in the environment it’s talking about.”

Walp, in the middle of his 43rd year as a River House guide, is retiring from snow trips at the end of the season. He’s spent his entire life outside and has become a fixture of River House trips during the winter. His trips are so popular they always sellout in the first week of registration. From his classic apparel choices (wool pants, green flannel and wooden snowshoes with rope bindings) to his inexhaustible knowledge of the outdoors, he’s helped establish a diverse, experiential outdoor programs for Eugene Rec.

Eugene Rec guide Dave Walp, who is finishing up his 43rd year guiding snowshoe trips into the Willamette National Forest.

“(Dave) is iconic,” Eugene Rec outdoor programmer Aimee Goglia says. “He’s just always in the woods. He has so many stories. He knows it so well.”

The Call of the Wild

When Walp leads a group snowshoeing, it’s more than just guiding people through the woods. Providing interpretive details of their surroundings brings things alive. He’s an encyclopedia of knowledge. He’ll rattle of the names of the trees lining the trail. He scours the snow for animal tracks and then points them out. At one trail sign he stops, pointing at scratches on the post.

“That,” he says after everyone has gathered around, “is bear sign.”

People open their eyes in surprise. Walp nonchalantly adds sometimes if you’re lucky you can even find leftover hair from the animals.

Eugene Rec guide Dave Walp speaks to the group on the trail around Salt Creek Falls

“Once you get people out and walking around, now what do you do?” Walp says. “Long ago I started talking about natural history, people history, trees, animal tracks ... A lot of times I just watch people light up.”

Walp is the archetype of what River House guides are. They’re experienced in the outdoors, practice leave no trace, are comfortable navigating in all sorts of terrain and provide a fountain of knowledge they pass along to trip goers. Walp’s resume of outdoor experience could easily take up its own story:

  • Grew up in Blue River and McKenzie Bridge, early on becoming a camp counselor for Prince Helfrich’s boys camp. The Helfrichs, local royalty on the McKenzie River, taught him horse packing, fishing and river guiding.
  • Worked as a hunting camp guide on Steen’s Mountain, in Idaho and on the Owhyee River.
  • Worked for nine years with Outward Bound, eventually becoming program director in Eugene. He led climbs all up and down the Cascades, climbing all the big peaks from Mount Rainier to Mount Shasta in Northern California.
  • Worked with the Student Conservation Association running trail crews of teenagers in national parks throughout the West.
  • Trapped animals in the winter.
  • For 16 years he worked for the Lane County Sheriff’s department on the marine patrol on local rivers.
  • After retiring went back to guiding for Helfrich River Outfitter Inc. He spent his summers in Idaho on the middle fork of the Salmon River. Then he’d come back and day fish on the McKenzie River and guide on the Rogue River in the fall.

“It was a great life,” Walps says of his early career. “I was out there doing what I wanted to do.”

Have you heard the Great White Silence?

Snow covered trees along the Salt Creek Falls loop in the Willamette National Forest.

The River House wants people to see their surroundings differently.

“We want people to connect with the outdoors and have physical activity,” Goglia says. “Overall health and well-being is a key — mental and physical health.”

To Goglia, the outdoors is the antidote to many ails. The River House aims at empowering more people to find that out for themselves.

“The great thing about these classes and trips, they demystify the outdoors,” she says.

The Eugene Rec snowshoeing group walks along the trail.

It starts by setting a tone in the pre-trip meetings days before heading out on the bus. Gear lists are dissected and how to properly use key pieces of equipment are taught.

“The River House is just totally different,” says Anne Borland, who has been guiding for Eugene Rec since 1994. “It’s a complete-circle experience. We take them somewhere, and it starts the minute they meet during the pre-trip. It’s a big package for a little price.”

Preparedness and leave no trace are gospel. Borland walks patrons through everything they might need to know in intimate pre-trip meetings at the River House. As people sit around mismatched couches on the first floor of the building, she’ll lecture about proper layering, the different types of cross-country skis you might use and how to keep a fix-it bag stocked with essentials.

Borland, who has taught everything from cross-country skiing to sailing for Eugene Rec, says the trips to the mountain passes every winter are her favorite.

“I just love teaching,” she says. “All of these things are just so fun to enthusiastically show people how to get involved with their environment. We just make it easier for people and empower them.”

Diamond Creek Falls

Goglia and Borland want to push awareness beyond snowshoeing as well. Both agree the perception of skiing as a sport with a high barrier to entry is something holding people back. That’s why the River House has tried to slowly build back its cross-country skiing offerings. It even partnered with Berg’s Ski Shop for the first time this winter to offer better deals for more people to get to the mountains.

“In the past we had a really vibrant cross-country skiing program,” Goglia says. “I think people would be more inclined to try it with a little push. … It doesn’t seem as accessible as snowshoeing, but with some basic instruction you can really propel yourself.”

Borland puts it in even more partial terms.

“Once you get people past the fear of sliding,” she says, “they ask themselves, ‘Why did I ever bother with snowshoeing?’ It’s more efficient. There’s so much joy when you’re sliding along a smooth track.”

The beefed up offering of cross-country skiing trips is part of the River House’s top goals of providing access to wilderness. Throughout its history, Eugene Rec has tried out dozens of different classes. Walp talks about teaching a winter camping class where patrons built igloos and snow caves. Each spring he taught a camp cooking class at the shelter at Hendricks Park.

“Of course it would be an all-day affair,” he says. “And you’d better be hungry.”

And the Wild is calling, calling. Let us Go

Walp started at Eugene Rec more than four decades ago after a friend asked him if he could teach people to snowshoe.

His response is classic:

“Well yeah. If they can walk.”

Dave Walp, Eugene Rec snowshoe guide.

But even after he wraps up his final snow season, he won’t be calling it quits. He still will lead Eugene Rec’s First Saturday Park Walks, offered year-round. And he’ll still go out on his own. He couldn’t ever leave the outdoors like that.

“I won’t quit until I tip over or have to quit,” he says. “It’s what I do. It’s where I get my energy and my inspiration, somewhere out there.”

Eugene Rec offers a lot of snowshoe and cross-country trips each winter. Campbell Community has six snowshoe trips this January and February. You can check them out here.

The 2018 Winter-Spring Rec Guide

All photos and text by Ben Schorzman

Created By
Benjamin Schorzman
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Ben Schorzman/Eugene Rec

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