SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — We were gliding downhill along a river buried in snow, our skis skimming a thin layer of fresh powder toward the setting sun and a wall of darkening clouds.
In minutes, gray fog enveloped the granite peaks and frosty pine trees lining the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Flurries began to fall.
A year ago, our annual ski trip to a remote cabin in Sequoia National Park was nearly browned out by California's historic drought. But this time, it was as if we had awakened in a white dream. Snow had returned the way we remembered it.
The state's snow survey results will provide the official word Wednesday on whether El Nino has delivered the drought-busting blow promised a year after authorities ordered water rationing, homeowners tore up lawns and farmers came under fire for soaking their crops.
When conditions were dry, we trudged up a dirt-and-rock trail for miles, carrying heavy skis and boots strapped to our packs. Now we buckled up and stepped into our bindings for a shuffle up a white carpet between tall pines and firs.
Four miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain later, we stood atop a feature known as "The Hump" and were greeted with a view of majestic peaks cloaked in snow rather than a sea of exposed gray rock.
In California, snow isn't just for skiers.
The 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada, Spanish for snow-covered mountains, is the state's main source of water. Winter precipitation is frozen as snowpack, which thaws in spring and flows through streams and rivers to reservoirs in the foothills below.
The depth of snow affects everything from how many acres of rice, cotton and beans are planted to how much electricity dams can produce to whether you should think twice about flushing your toilet.
The snowpack appears to have recovered significantly considering how dire it was last year, with snow lingering only at the highest elevations or on north slopes or patches of forest shaded from the sun. All signs are that the state is above average, but the southern Sierra that is home to this park has not fared as well.
At the trailhead at 7,200 feet above sea level, we didn't find large snowbanks that typically line the parking lot, and snow was patchy in the woods where it had been hit by sun or melted by lower-elevation rains.
We learned last year that it's hard to have a ski trip without snow. We were forced to tote heavy, unwieldy packs up the hiking trail that meandered around rocks and fallen logs. Skis poked 3 feet overhead from our packs and snagged branches that halted progress.
Snow made all the difference this year, and we were able to step into our skis after hiking about a half-mile. The landscape had virtually been graded for easy travel. Boulders and downed trees were softened into gentle-looking bumps and lumps, allowing a more direct approach. Instead of skirting a lake that had begun to melt last year, we resumed our normal shortcut across the ice.
If last year's experience had brought the drought into clear focus, this year reminded this group of close friends that a backcountry ski adventure is always at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Each year brings challenges. Storms roll in, and powder can be too deep or pose an avalanche hazard. Snow melted under blue skies on warm days can freeze overnight and remain icy if temperatures drop or clouds appear.
So this year, in many ways, was no different than previous years since we first trekked here in 2001.
We arrived under sunny skies with good spring skiing conditions in the offing, only to find that clouds and possibly snow or rain were on the way.
Fog and low clouds forced us to turn back from an ambitious climb to find a new ski run the first day. When we headed for a familiar slope, we found conditions that had softened earlier in the day had firmed up under colder temperatures and cloud cover, making for a rougher run.
Just over an inch of snow fell overnight, creating dreaded "dust on crust" conditions. We holed up for the morning in the rustic cabin that serves as a summer ranger station, waiting for it to warm up a bit before heading out for a long trek east for an expansive view of the Sierra crest where jagged peaks soar above 13,000 feet.
When we turned back, the undulating landscape that rolls from the barren alpine area known as The Tablelands offered a peaceful cruise along the Marble Fork.
It wasn't the exhilarating skiing we usually seek, but it felt magical as we passed from the golden hue of sunset through an inky cloud scattering light snow and then rounded a corner and dropped to the hut, making wide turns.