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Now that winter has come (and stuck) with certainty, it’s time to think of ways to make the most of it. After all, there’s no sense in fighting Mother Nature. We can rant and rave about it being too cold, too windy, too snowy or (as global warming fans like to say) too warm, but there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
In central Maine, winter means snow and that’s all there is to it. You can stay indoors and huddle by the heater if you choose to, but if you want to feel better, be more optimistic, get some exercise and refresh your spirit, get outside and do something!
I often talk about hunting or fishing in winter as diversions, but there are other things you can do to ward off the symptoms of cabin fever. At the top of my “
nothing else to do” list is snowshoeing, which is something of a lost art in Maine now. Most folks stay out of the woods entirely, or ride snowmobiles or 4-wheelers. Some go cross-country skiing and some downhill ski. Whatever gets you outdoors in winter is good, but if you want to wander around in peace and quiet with few interruptions, snowshoeing is the way to go.
For as primitive a form of locomotion as it is, snowshoeing can be made quite complicated, as you’ll see if you start looking for snowshoes in the various outdoor catalogs and Web sites. I have to laugh at some of today’s high-tech designs that, to me, seem to have been created by people who’ve never snowshoed in their lives! I guess these space-age designs may work in some situations, but any time I get on a snowshoe with an aluminum frame and solid plastic webbing I have problems. They slip, slide and skid far more than the old, reliable wood-frame shoes, especially on established trails, and the price for high-end shoes is outrageous – up to $300 a pair in some cases! The only traditional model I found (wood frame and hide webbing) sells for $200 a pair!
You can, of course, get shoes cheaper — down to $50 in some cases — but don’t go cheap for cheap’s sake. You won’t like the shoes, they won’t perform well in snow and you will soon retire them to the attic — right next to your Thigh Master!
When choosing snowshoes for hiking, do not go with the wide, short variety generally called “bear paw” snowshoes. These are flat, round shoes designed for trekking in thick forestland, where your steps are short and the snow is deep. These are, however, difficult to master at first because you’re constantly stepping on them, and that means a sudden nosedive into deep, fluffy snow. Getting back on your feet can be a challenge, too!
For long-range walking, go with a long, slim “pickerel” design. These don’t sink quite as deep into the snow and have a tipped-up toe to avoid plowing snow along the way. Once you get into a rhythm you can hike along with remarkable speed and cover a lot of ground (or snow!) in no time.
Generally, snowshoeing is most enjoyable when you can stay out of the woods and stay on level ground. Woodland snowshoeing is treacherous due to unseen rocks, logs, stickups and other obstacles that will put you face-first into the snow in no time. Snowshoeing in steep terrain is also tough because of the slip factor. Couple slippery snow with some elevation and the usual woodland obstacles and you’ll be too frustrated to continue after 15 minutes of struggle.
Walk tote roads, snowmobile trails or field edges, beaver flowages or lakeshores, and avoid thick cover as much as possible. You’ll soon get the hang of snowshoeing and, after a few trips, will be as capable of fast winter travel as any accomplished trapper of yore.
In new snow, snowshoeing can be a chore, especially when the snow is new and fluffy. If you think your stair-stepper machine is tough on your thighs, wait till you get out there on snowshoes in waist-deep snow! But, the bright side is that after a couple of trips across the same trail, you’ll have the snow packed down like a sidewalk. Subsequent trips will be easier, smoother and faster, and if you stay with it all winter you’ll have a clean, wide trail that’s nicely packed and nearly good enough to walk on without snowshoes!
What I like to do is start out early in winter with the first major snowfall and make a trail that leads into my favorite haunts: a beaver pond, a swamp, some secluded fields, a lake shore and an alder patch. This way, I can take a tour of the area after each storm and see how things are going in a variety of habitats. I might decide to bring a .22 and hunt rabbits along the way, maybe stop and do some ice-fishing, or even go out near dusk and try calling in a fox or coyote.
It’s fun to walk a familiar trail and start to see animals signs nearby, such as deer tracks, bobcat tracks, turkey sign and the like. I often see where various animals have crossed my trail – a weasel or mink, maybe a fisher or porcupine. It’s fun to see what’s new out there, and at times the evidence is a harsh reminder that life in the wild is no picnic. I’ll see the remains of mice eaten by owls, a bit of fur left by a hapless rabbit that was ambushed by a coyote, or a puff of feathers where a luckless songbird met up with a hungry hawk.
As more snow falls and your snowshoe trails become established, you can make connecting trails into other areas, probe new cover that requires deeper snow or just head for the hills to see how far you can snowshoe in a day. I’ll often bring a daypack with some food and hot tea and just head for a scenic spot somewhere for a quick lunch while admiring or photographing the winter scenery.
Rather than rebel against the long, cold winter, strap on your snowshoes and embrace it. There’s a lot going on beyond your frosted window panes – get out there and see what interesting things you can find!
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