One cold, crisp Saturday, Jim Koury led a group of 15 hikers on an eight-mile trek over rocky terrain in Patapsco Valley State Park near Granite. That accomplished, Koury, 72, took a few gulps of water, greeted another pack of hikers and set off with his walking stick on a faster six-mile jaunt over those chilly woodsy trails.
It’s nothing the Ellicott City resident hasn’t done before, even in the dead of winter, when he has tromped as much as five miles in nearly two feet of snow.
“It keeps you young,” said Koury, a retired philosophy instructor who leads hikes year-round for the Mountain Club of Maryland. “I’m in better shape now than when I quit work.”
Koury is one of a number of local outdoors enthusiasts who enjoy the benefits of winter hiking. Traipsing through a wintry landscape warms his heart, if not his toes.
“When it snows, the woods are absolutely gorgeous. There’s a peace, a serenity that draws you in,” said Koury. “The vistas are better than in summer because the leaves are gone. There are no mosquitoes, gnats or deer ticks. And there’s a real camaraderie with others in your group because, initially, we’re all cold together. Hikers aren’t automatons; we feel the chill. But after 15 minutes, you heat up, remove a layer of clothes and feel invigorated.”
Formed in 1934, the Mountain Club sponsors more than 300 day hikes a year, from southern Pennsylvania to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Most are in the Baltimore area, including Howard County sites such as Rockburn Branch Park and Centennial Park.
Of the club’s 850 members, about 125 live in Howard County, the majority of whom are 40 or older. Nine years ago, in the wake of a crippling blizzard, he and three other hardy souls — all over 60 — drove to Annapolis Rock in Washington County and sloughed five miles on the Appalachian Trail.
Bill Saunders understands the urge to hike, come winter.
“It’s addictive; miss [an outing] and you get cabin fever,” said Saunders, 69, of Ellicott City. "Then you go out in the morning to start a hike, and the snow is coming down and the wind is blowing and you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing here? I must be crazy.’ But there’s no one there to tell you that you’re nuts because all of us gathered there are nuts.
“Then you get moving, in among the trees and out of the wind, and the [exercise] warms you up, and you come back sore, but it’s a good soreness, and you drink hot cocoa and bask in the warmth of something very special after a winter hike.”
A retired federal manager, Saunders used to jog until, at 62, his knees balked. Hiking proved more to his liking — “a low-impact exercise with relaxing psychological benefits that get you away from the daily grind, and with people you’ve come to know.”
Trekking single-file over oft-frozen trails, between huffs and puffs, Mountain Clubbers do gab a lot.
“We talk about our kids and grandkids, the places we’ve been and the books we’ve read,” said Karen Ohlrich, 77, of Columbia. “Mostly, we just chat. It beats doing it over the phone."
Like the others, Ohlrich, a former librarian at Centennial High, took up the sport in middle age. She was 50 and living in Aspen, Colorado, with her then-husband, who wrote hiking trail guides, when she chose to lace up her boots, don several layers of clothing and start climbing the snow-covered peaks.
“Out there, people hike up and down a mountain on their lunch hour,” Ohlrich said. Now she exercises every week with the Mountain Club, which itself is barely older than some of its members. Easy, moderate and challenging hikes are offered. Ohlrich prefers the latter, hustling along at a clip of three miles an hour over oft-steep terrain.
“On a sunny winter day, it’s heaven,” she said. “There are fewer people. The fresh snow is clean. The cold air feels thin; it cleanses your spirit.”
There are caveats. Taking extra gloves and socks are a given, Ohlrich said: “If you’ve got cold feet and hands, you’re going to hate [hiking]. And if you have food, keep it close to your body. Three years ago, I did a 12-mile hike with a friend in 25-degree weather. When we stopped for lunch, the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in my backpack was near frozen.”
At the start of each hike, Mountain Club members “circle up," count off and choose a designated “sweeper,” who trails the group to watch for stragglers.
“We joke that we allow for a 10% loss [in hikers] but, seriously, we don’t,” said Janine Grossman, of Columbia. At 70, her senses are honed to appreciate the nuances of winter walks.
“We’ve seen wild turkeys through the trees, and rock formations that are hidden in summer by mountain laurel,” Grossman said. “Snow brings a quiet to the woods that lets you hear other things in a breeze, like the creaking branch of tree that is partially dead. Nobody wears earphones on our hikes, I’ll tell you that.”
For a family-friendly hike, the Conservancy’s four miles of trails feature a live owl in an outdoor enclosure and several goats in pens. Trail maps at hcconservancy.org.
Rockburn Branch Park
6105 Rockburn Branch Park Road (West) and 5400 Landing Road (East), Elkridge
From the east entrance, Rockburn’s parking lot is more accessible in winter than summer, when the adjacent ball fields are crowded. The park’s nine miles of trails can also be accessed from the west entrance is alongside Rockburn Elementary, whose parking lot is usually plowed. Trail maps at howardcountymd.gov.
Winter hike packing list
GPS. A GPS is a given, especially if you’re new to the trail and the path is snow-covered and difficult to follow.
First-aid kit. In inclement weather, it would likely take longer to get help in an emergency.
Insulated food and water. Pack a supply of food (power bars, fruit, sandwich) and water. In cold weather, keep both close to your body to keep them from freezing. A Thermos filled with hot tea is a treat on the trail.
Extra layers. Bundle up in winter, but wear several layers of clothes that you can remove easily as you warm up on the hike. Also keep a couple of extra pairs of sock and gloves in your backpack.
Ski or collapsible hiking pole. These can help you maintain your balance on steep or uneven terrain.
Space blanket. A lightweight space blanket makes a good wraparound during snack breaks on chilly days.