“A bit like Jesus walking on water; only it’s winter,” my father used to say with a grin on his face and his head tilted to one side as he held back a sacrilegious laugh.
Now that I think about it, you are walking on water but the water is in one of its solid forms. Nevertheless, snowshoeing is one of winter’s most unique activities. Of course you need snow and lots of it. There is absolutely no point in snowshoeing in 8 inches of snow. It’s easier to just walk around in your winter boots. Snowshoeing should be reserved for deep snows, perhaps 16 inches or more. I see people when I’m ice fishing hiking around on snow shoes and using ski poles for stability. Not on deep snows, but on the frozen ice. True, modern snow shoes have crampons built onto the bottoms of the platform, but holy moly, just a pair of winter boots with traction cleats would suffice. There was this one guy, he was dressed in an orange and yellow Nordic skiing suit, you know, the kind that reveals every ripple in your body. Only this guy didn’t have ripples, rather, he had rolls. Anyways he was wearing snow shoes that were at least 30 inches long. Each one was bright red. He had two long ski poles, also bright red. He thrust the poles forward alternately like he was skiing. Only he wasn’t. He wasn’t even walking effectively. Each snowshoe drooped down to the hard ice with a big “clank” every time that he lifted his foot to take a stride. He was making forward progress although you would have a hard time calling it fast. The pond was about three eights of a mile wide and at the rate he was travelling the ice would likely be melted during the next spring thaw by time he made the middle. But that was okay. The orange and yellow suit would mark the position of his body in the event there was a sudden cold snap and the pond froze up again.
Snowshoeing requires a modest amount of agility. On trails the art of picking up the webbed platform attached to your feet is not too difficult. With only modest coordination almost anyone can get the rhythm of trekking in snow shoes, and if you are using poles your balance is not even challenged. But in deep snows through forest floors where sticks and brush hide underneath, snowshoeing can be a bit of a challenge. The trick is to not take too long of a stride, and to make sure your other foot is firmly planted when lifting the opposite foot. Poles are helpful, and can really help in deep snows, but outdoorsmen (and woman) have gotten along without poles for centuries. In the old days when wooden snow shoes came in only a few different styles (the two main designs being “bear paws” which were big oval platforms webbed with rawhide, and “Chippewa’s” with their long wooden tail) navigating in deep snows could be difficult. Icy steep hills were even more difficult before the advent of cleats. The fact is that snow shoeing on the old style equipment took skill, proper technique, and perseverance, the most important quality being perseverance.
Once when I was a teenager I was snowshoeing in snows that were 3 to 4 feet deep on the old “bear paw” style of shoes. I kept tipping over as the snow gave way on one side of the shoe or the other. I eventually learned that keeping my weight centered and taking a second to really plant each foot kept me upright. I also learned that the “Chippewa” style of snow shoe with long tails prevented you from tipping over. For the most part I used the “Chippewa” style after that, unless I was snowshoeing in thick brush. The advent of the modern snow shoe, made out of aircraft aluminum or rigid steel tubing with space age plastic webbing and cleats to grab onto ice surfaced snow, has made snowshoeing immensely easier and safer.
One lost art that cannot be done on modern snowshoes that have cleats is “skiing” on snow shoes. For a good part of the winter in New England snow has an icy crust on it. With practice on an old wooden pair of snowshoes one can master gliding down a hill which can save a good deal of time. The idea is to lean back on the shoes, elevating the tips, and let gravity do the rest. I must warn you that steering is not too easy and I have wrecked more than one pair of snow shoes, and my noggin, while running into a hardwood tree. All adventures come with a price, right?
Now I’m a pretty big guy. I have lifted heavy weights for my entire adult life. I’m built like a linebacker and have heavy, thick legs. At six foot three and two hundred and seventy pounds no one is going to confuse my with a ballet dancer. My snow shoes need to be large to support me in deep snows. I’ve had the same pair for about ten years; they are nearly indestructible. I’ve logged hundreds of miles on these shoes. But the fact is that they are big. They are thirty six inches long and about a foot wide. This very large platform is necessary to disperse the heavy load that sits on top of them. Oh, and they are bright red. I have no idea why snow shoe companies make their shoes in such unnatural colors, at least unnatural for the white, gray, and occasionally conifer green winter forest. But they do. Bright red seems like such a strange color for trekking in winter.
A few years back I had gone for a winter journey on snow shoes. The snow was deep and my tracks were very big. An acquaintance, who was also trying to enjoy the winter day on snow shoes, came upon my tracks. He couldn’t imagine who had snow shoes that big. This fellow weighs in at about one hundred and twenty five pounds soaking wet and so his snow shoes are like sixteen inches long by eight inches wide. Hell, my feet are fourteen inches long. There would be almost no point in my wearing something that small. Anyways, he laughed and laughed when we crossed paths. To this day whenever I see him he gets a chuckle thinking about my snow shoes. I’m happy to have provided him with such a good laugh.
Certainly one of my favorite activities in any year is hunting with a primitive firearm on snow shoes. Staying on top of the snow while moving about quietly and with relatively little effort is just the ticket for late season deer success. Biting cold air being drawn into my lungs as I labor up a steep mountain with a black powder rifle in my hands gives me that feeling of being a pioneer. Everybody has to have a fantasy!
Just the other day I was checking my snow shoeing gear. My snowshoes looked to be in good shape. I just replaced the bindings last year. The cleats are a little worn but still very serviceable. My pack is ready to go; thermos, first aid supplies, flashlight. What am I missing?
Oh yeah, deep snow.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in December 2010.