TROUT LAKE - The clouds darkened, the temperature seemingly dropped, and the light sprinkle of rain transformed into a dusting of fresh snow.
Later, the snow reverted to rain, but by then it didn't matter: We were warmly situated in the cozy confines of Peterson Prairie Guard Station on the east side of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Built in 1926 on the site of an earlier structure, the three-room cabin is available for overnight rental through the U.S. Forest Service and www.recreation.gov , an online reservation system.
The cost is $50 per night. There's a two-night minimum on weekends (Friday and Saturday) plus a $9 fee per reservation. Reservations can be made up to a year in advance.
Winter is a great time to rent the cabin to enjoy a double dose of solitude and scenery.
Forest Service Road No. 24 leading west from Trout Lake is plowed only to Atkisson Sno-Park.
That makes Peterson Prairie Guard Station an approximately 2.5-mile winter trek by snowmobile, cross-country ski or snowshoes.
The road is wide and almost flat. There is about 300 feet of elevation gain between the sno-park at 2,760 feet and Peterson Prairie at 3,100 feet.
The guard station has a bedroom, small kitchen and living room.
A night at Peterson Prairie isn't really roughing it.
There are propane lights in all three rooms, two propane furnaces in the living room and a four-burner propane stove and oven in the kitchen. A nearby shed is stocked with firewood, and there's a clean vault toilet about 150 feet behind the back door.
The visitor register at Peterson Prairie is full of loving comments from guests.
"No mice. Nice that everyone keeps the place up so well,'' wrote Tom McGilvra and Sheri Melling of Scappoose, Ore., in late January. "We love it and plan to come up in summer. Wonderful memories for a lifetime. The food always tastes better out here.''
Paul Nylen and Chance Wooley of Portland spent Christmas eve in the cabin.
"The cabin is a special place,'' they wrote. "We were amid a lot of snow, and it really looks like a winter wonderland.''
Peterson Prairie can sleep six comfortably. There's a double bed in the bedroom, plus two futons in the living room.
The cabin is well stocked. Extremely so. Winter visitors need to bring little more than sleeping bags and food.
The kitchen has all sorts of pots, pans, skillets, plates, bowls, saucers, cooking utensils and silverware. There's dish soap, sponges, hand soap, coffee, tea, ibuprofen, hand sanitzer, seasonings and matches.
Carpets sweeps, brooms, mops, buckets and dust pans are available for clean up.
To make kindling, there's a splitting maul.
The living room includes a table with several chairs, a coffee table, ceiling hooks to dry damp clothing, playing cards and a jigsaw puzzle.
There's no water during the winter, but with several feet of snow outside, it's easy to melt and boil however much is needed.
Inevitably, needles, bark and other tree bits are included in snowmelt.
A small wire screen, or even some cheesecloth, for straining the water is handy.
Julie Knutson of the Mount Adams Ranger District said Peterson Prairie Guard Station has a 58 percent annual occupany rate - 48 percent on weekdays and 86 percent on weekends.
Eighty percent of the rental fee goes directly toward operation and maintenance.
"There's a real dead time in April and May when conditions are just wet and sloppy and the use is low,'' Knutson said. "Then it picks up again for summer.''
Homesteaders faced a harsh first winter at guard station site
John and Catherine Peters were born in Germany and likely emigrated to the United States in 1860s. They moved to Washington Territory around 1878.
Initially, they lived near Underwood, then Husum, then Trout Lake. In 1889, the Peters decided to homestead at the prairie west of Trout Lake at 3,100 feet elevation. Undoubtedly, they were attracted by the abundant grass in the area.
The Peters, plus eight children, built a two-room log cabin and barn at the prairie. They cut wild hay from the meadows to feed their cattle herd during the winter.
The winter of 1889-90 was a long one, with deep snow. The cattle consumed all the hay long before the snow melted. Hoping to find feed, Peters attempted to bring his cattle through the snow to the Trout Lake valley.
He was forced to leave the animals and hike through the snow, with boards tied to his feet, to ask for help.
Farmers broke a trail with horses as far as they could go, then tried to shovel a trail for the catttle.
"The snow was so deep that a trail could not be broken through for the cattle, so it was necessary to construct sleds, on which the cattle were securely fastened and by man power the sleds bearing their burdens of live beef were dragged over the frozen snow to the ranches at lower altitudes,'' according to a Forest Service report.
Peters lost a considerable number of his cattle and the family ultimately abandoned the home at what came to be known as Peterson Prairie.
By 1910, a two-room cabin at the site served as a headquarters for a fire patrol district. That cabin was replaced by the present cabin in 1926.
In the late 1930s, a registration booth was built at the road intersection. Thousands of campers and many gallons of huckleberries were registered annually. The late 1930s also saw the building of a tank to hold fish for stocking in backcountry lakes.
Peterson Prairie campground was built in 1938.
If you go
• Permits: A sno-park permit is needed to park at Atkisson Sno-Park between Dec. 1 and April 1. The permit is $9 per day or $21 for the seasons.
• Summer season: From spring until late fall, it is possible to drive to the cabin, which is at the intersection of Gifford Pinchot National Forest roads Nos. 24 and 60. Road No. 24 heads north toward Indian Heaven Wilderness. No 60 goes west to Goose Lake, the Big Lava Beds and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.