The Snowshoe Experience


Copyright © 2004 Claire Walter
ISBN 1580175414
128 pages, $9.95
Published by Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts

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Snowshoes can mean the difference between loving and loathing winter. It is a passport to the joys of the winter outdoors that is within comfortable reach of anyone. It is winter’s answer to walking and hiking, which have been pegged as America’s most popular outdoor leisure activities. It crosses boundaries of age, fitness level, outdoor experience and personal ambition. Snowshoeing is just about the easiest and also most versatile of all sports. Basic technique is so simple that it really doesn’t require instruction. It essentially involves strapping on snowshoes, putting one foot in front of the other, and walking. In fact, most introductions are less about how to do it than how to adjust and adjust the gear.

With snowshoes, you can explore virtually anyplace where there is snow. These big feet attach to your own smaller ones for hassle-free access to the white world. The limitations are those you put on yourself, such how fit you are, your comfort level in the outdoors, and your feelings about guided touring versus the quiet companionship of just a good friend or two. It’s a tranquil activity, yet it can be a sociable one. The learning curve is minimal, the rewards come practically with the first step, and the risk of injury is one of the lowest of all outdoor sport. This multi-generational activity one which parents can do with their children—and adults can do with their own parents. Backcountry snowshoeing with a group of amiable companions is not just a winter pleasure, but a safety measure as well.

Pleasurable as snowshoeing is, a major collateral benefit is that snowshoers are literally out there. They are not driving around a parking lot searching for the closest entrance to the mall. They are not parked in a lounge chair, exercising their remote-control-operating fingers. They are not staring at a computer terminal, surfing for the sake of surfing. They are moving in the fresh air – and they are healthier for it. When Bruce Carey, a 40-year-old Vail, Colorado, attorney who thought of himself as reasonable trim, went for a medical check-up back in 1997, he got the scare of his life. “My internist said, ‘Exercise or insulin,’” he recalls. “I took up snowshoeing. I lost 3 inches from my middle – and I didn’t need insulin.” Carey became a snowshoe racing enthusiast and took a part-time job leading snowshoe tours at the Beaver Creek Cross-Country & Snowshoe Center. He is also one of the growing number of evangelists for the health benefits of outdoor exercise, in winter as well as in summer.

A lot of Americans would do well to heed the message. The current national trend to excess weight – even obesity – has been making headlines and causing much genuine worry in the medical community. Kids are getting fatter, teens are getting fatter, and adults are getting fatter. This is no place for a nutritional diatribe, but with our unfortunate predilection for processed foods and fast foods that are calorie, sugar, and fat bombs, we are, tragically, becoming a nation of super-sized citizens, with all the attendant health risks. The chance of contracting diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease are reduced when weight is reduced – and it’s no secret that exercise is a key component in weight control. Snowshoeing is an ideal activity for people who are overweight, out of shape, or simply uncoordinated.

In fact, snowshoes provide such a stable platform and snowshoeing is so easy that as a Winter Special Olympics event, it is manageable even by individuals with extreme physical and developmental challenges who can navigate a short, straightforward course. Whatever activity on the walking-to-running continuum that you do on bare ground in summer is possible in winter on snowshoes, from a quiet stress-busting winter walk to an adrenaline-filled run. If you are a casual walker who likes an occasional leg-stretch in the fresh air, you can strap on snowshoes and amble across a snow-covered meadow in a city park, up an unplowed country lane, or on an urban recreation trail. If you are a sturdy hiker, slip those hiking boots into a pair of snowshoes, and hit your favorite trail. If you are an ardent backpacker, outfit yourself with sub-zero gear and try winter camping, the epitome of backcountry self-sufficiency and solitude. If you are a runner, you won’t find a better way to stay in shape through the cold months than to run on snowshoes, and if you like to compete, there’s a full calendar of winter races in the north country.

Most of us are neither Special Olympians nor backcountry addicts or gonzo runners, and snowshoeing fills that large lump on the bell curve that represents most people’s interests and abilities. It is ideal for the proverbial ageing baby boomers who appreciate its low-key nature that provides an easy way to enjoy winter, to bond with nature, and get some exercise. Think of the options. As a snowshoer, you can follow a well marked trail at a cross-country ski center or Alpine ski area, amble along a hiking trail, or meander through a local park path, where it’s impossible to get lost or confused. You can roam around in the confined area of a snowed-in campground to get the feel of snowshoeing, or wander down a snow-covered logging or mining road that may be closed to vehicles in winter or at least has minimal traffic. You can enjoy snowshoeing with your family or a group of friends, or join a guided naturalist tour to learn about the winter world. And again, whatever your starting point, whether couch potato or endurance, plugging snowshoeing into your winter life will make your fitter, healthier, stronger, and fleeter.

My own introduction to snowshoeing came one winter when I signed up for a ranger-guided tour through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park. The snowshoes were classic wooden, tennis racquet-style models, which felt heavy and awkward for my height and weight. The wet snow, nicknamed Sierra Cement, wadded up between the snowshoes and my boot soles. It hardened under my feet and felt as if I had baseballs under my arches. I rolled along like the proverbial drunken sailor until I could hardly stand up. Then I would stop, remove my snowshoes, and chip away rock-hard snow clumps so I could continue walking – or, I should say, waddling, because that was how my awkward gait felt.

Even with the challenge of that equipment and that particular type of snow, I could feel the inherent advantages of snowshoes. After the ranger had explained the ecology of the sequoia forest, I stomped off alone, away from the group, to be awed by the place without worrying about sinking knee-deep into the snow. Looking up at those majestic trees was humbling, and so was snowshoeing itself. I felt awkward on those big, flopping snowshoed, but I gamely waddled along, chipping the snow clumps off my boots now and again. I ran out of steam just about the time that the tour, designed for neophytes like me, was over. Still, even in my discomfort, I felt intuitively snowshoes had great potential—if someone would only perfect them. The potential I felt has been realized, with the development of modern, lightweight, and easy-to-use snowshoes. What is probably the oldest ancient form of travel over snow has become an increasingly popular winter recreation. I still treasure the freedom and ease of snowshoeing that I sensed that first day, I treasure the sheer pleasure and good exercise that snowshoeing provides too. If you are a snowshoer, you will probably remember your first time too – and if you haven’t yet been bitten by the snowshoe bug, surely you will feel it when you are.