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Snowshoeing: A Walk on the Wild Side

Snowshoeing has quickly become today’s fastest growing winter sport, and no wonder. The learning curve is nil. Anyone, no matter what age—from children as bouncy as Tigger in the snow to 80-something seniors recovering from hip operations—can master the sport. Unlike skiing or snowboarding, the equipment is easily affordible, as low as $xx and sometimes guaranteed for life. It’s also great exercise. Many ski resorts are adding snowshoeing activities for non-skiing spouses or for aging baby boomers whose knees can no longer take five straight days of downhill skiing. Best of all, however, is with the new, lightweight, aluminum snowshoes, it’s effortless—and fun.

I got my first chance to try this new activity a few years ago when a bunch of gals traveled to the Ottawa area for a women’s winter adventure weekend. After skating down the world’s longest skating rink, cross-country skiing along Gatineau trails, dogsledding across a frozen Quebec lake and huddling under blankets on a horse-drawn sleigh, how could we not try snowshoeing for the first time? I had visions of us slogging along bowlegged on unwieldy tennis rackets. Top-heavy penguins in the snow.

So I was totally amazed when I strapped on a pair of new Canadian-made snowshoes at the Carman Trails Country Lodge (an international hostel bordering Gatineau Park) and hardly noticed the extra weight on my feet. Within minutes of striking out onto the snowy trails, I was hooked. Walking along the flat was as easy as well, walking along the flat. As for the hills? Trails director Ken Bouchard showed us how to press the metal crampons (serrated knife-like strips on the bottom of the shoes) into the snow and walk straight up. The feeling was like riding a bike for the first time—total freedom. Traveling downward was more precarious. We often ended up in snow and in giggles. I discovered that sliding down, feet in the air, was just fine. But my descent clearly needed practice.

I could hardly wait to try snowshoeing again and got my chance a few months later in Vermont, where snowshoe manufacturing has been a state industry for almost a century. The famous Tubbs snowshoe comes in assorted models and sizes—for heavy, wet snow or powder, for open spaces or forests, for aggressive walkers or sauntering . The tiny models for kids leave animal tracks in the snow. At the family-friendly Smugglers’ Notch Resort near Stowe, we was offered for nighttime walks. So on a dark night, our multigenerational group embarked on a Moonlight Mystery Tour. Half of us

wore minerís lamps attached to our foreheads; each of us carried one ski pole for balance. As we ventured up into the forest, the lights flickered around the snow, dancing like giant fireflies around the trees and casting shadows on the dusky white carpet before us. It was eerie yet magical.

Apparently, there were bears around, and cougars too, according to our guide, Brian Jenessis. Perhaps he was kidding us, but I kept an eye out just the same until we arrived back for hot chocolate at the centre.

It was just for that purpose, to hunt out wildlife, that biologist Sophie led snowshoe treks through Mont Tremblant Park in the Laurentians. Called 'Deer Observation on Snowshoes,' her guided walks for Yves Sports were becoming one of the most popular pastimes for guests. And I signed up immediately after a huge QuebeÁois snowfall last February. Sophie started by showing us pictures of what we might findóa large herd of white-tailed deer survived in the park as well as owls, small mammals and a ton of birdsóand taught us how to detect fresh deer tracks in the snow.

Finally, in the distance, a mother and baby deer standing, staring at us. We tried to tip toe over to them, but they vanished quickly. Sophie could travel fast and at times, we couldnít keep up with heróshe seemed to leap back and forth over logs and rocks chasing down the deeróand we begged her to show us how to run on snowshoes. Harder than it looks. For more than two hours, we hunted for wildlife, examined ancient tree trunks and boulders left over by the geological activity of the Ice Age and listened to the birds. No matter that we were not able to get close enough to feed the deer as the group the day before

had. We had a great time and got some exercise to boot.

So I was determined to try out the new snowshoeing trails at Mont-Ste-Anne resort a few weeks later. The sign over the rental counter showed Atlas holding up the world (as in the Atlas snowshoes that we were about to strap onto our boots). But my companion, and I were not out to conquer the globe. Rather, we simply wanted to lay claim to a small patch of snowy forest bordering the Mont Ste-Anne ski resort near Quebec City. Pierre was a beginning snowshoer, I still a novice, so we rejected the Shooting Star panoramic gondola ride to the summit

with the 9-km trek straight down to the base. Instead, we opted for the more meandering Trail A, a recently completed one-and-a-half hour 2-km loop above the golf course.

Thank goodness that Pierre had rented a ski pole. As we made our way along the dogsledding trails and around a too-cute litter of husky puppies, we soon saw that the recent spring-like weather had caused a meltdown on the hills leading up to the trail. How to travel up? Digging his crampons into the mud, Pierre poled his way up to a strong-looking tree, hung on at a tilt and lowered the pole down to me. I could make my up to the tree and hang on until the pole arrived again. It was fine once we reached the top. Stretching before us through the trees was a path of soft fluffy snow. Sun sparkled through the birches and reflected off small pools of water in the snow. Birds chirped. The course through the forest seemed to be well marked despite the confusing map of

concentric circles and loops that we had been given at the rental shop. So, off

we started. But what was that sound of rushing water in the distance?

The snow higher up the mountain had indeed been melting and as we progressed along the trail, we seemed to be walking around many puddles of water and jumping across small streams. It was warm and we stopped periodically for water breaks and survey the idyllic setting. On the way back to the beginning of the loop, the rushing water sounds became louder, and we hurried toward a small river, where some small rapids were coursing under a bridge made of snow. Using the pole, I edged my way along. No problem, until the snow bridge fell into the

river with me on it. Thank goodness for crampons. I scrambled out onto the bank in my snowshoes. And thank goodness for lightweight shoes. Pierre, caught on the wrong side of the river, decided to pole back down the hill. The pole to the rescue again.

When we met back down where we had started, I asked the dogsledding operators if they indeed offered guided walks for snowshoers. ìOh no, Madam, snowshoeingís over for this season,î the man replied. ìTodayís the last day. Thereís too much water up there now.î No kidding. Sign me up for next year. But book me early as possible, as soon as the white stuff hits the ground.

Snowshoe companies such as Atlas or Tubbs, who has been manufacturing snowshoes in Vermont since 1906, have come on board with new models for every sort of endeavourófrom hiking the back country as snowboarders are doing or running along trails for aerobic exercise (yes, you can run on snowshoes) to simply walking through the woods on a winter afternoon. Various snow conditions necessitate different models. If youíre negotiating the wet, heavy snow and ice

of an Eastern winter, you need smaller shoes with aggressive crampons; For the lighter fresh powder of the Rockies itís larger snowshoes with greater flotation. As for the kids, new tiny models leave animal paw prints in the snow.





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