Walk this way

Break trail or trail animal tracks, all you need is a pair of 6,000-year-old shoes

Just under 4,400 feet in elevation on a ridge in the northern Presidential Range, Antos-Ketcham was the man who oversaw the Randolph Mountain Club's Gray Knob, and it was during his time there that he became quite familiar with the nuances of snowshoeing.

''I started snowshoeing 10 or 12 years ago," said Antos-Ketcham, 30, of North Starksboro, Vt., now the education coordinator for Vermont's Green Mountain Club. ''I always wanted to travel in the snow and never quite got the hang of skiing. Once I was introduced to light aluminum snowshoes, I never looked back."

People used snowshoes long before aluminum was introduced to their construction. Archeologists figure the snowshoe has been around for about 6,000 years, starting in central Asia. It certainly is storied. The shoe's long, wooden frame was used by various peoples and cultures, including, only centuries ago, hunters and trappers in the Americas. Native Americans are credited with coming up with a bear paw design that was able to handle many varied conditions.

Quebec was home to a number of snowshoe clubs with a military history going back over 200 years. Such clubs, which eventually crossed into New England and combined competition, pot luck suppers, and snowshoeing, added to the activity's recreational flair.

In the 1970s, aluminum snowshoes were introduced and eventually evolved into smaller, lightweight frames with easier step-in bindings, crampons underfoot for grip, and swivel-like decking for ease of movement.

The sport's popularity exploded and has grown more than threefold in five years, according to one study. Snowshoers are out in backyards, state parks, national forests, school grounds, and cityscapes. Hiking trails of summer morph into snowshoe trails of winter with their own personality and obstacles. Rushing creeks freeze. Cool lakes become flat, frozen platforms. Downed trees become covered in snow. Cross-country ski centers have accepted snowshoeing and offer trails to explore. Country inns and bed-and-breakfasts market snowshoeing as quaint and quiet, while hiking clubs pitch it as a means of winter travel to backwoods lodging in the shadows of mountains.

They say if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Just dress for it, because winter is always cold. Layers are the rule; they help regulate the body temperature like a thermostat. And plan ahead: Snowshoe travel takes longer than hiking a trail. But it's also affordable and locations can be close by.

In a perfect world, Stephanie Brochu, of Winchester, would be able to leave her Joy Street office and walk to Boston Common on her lunch hour to do some snowshoeing. The Blue Hills aren't that far away either, reachable by public transportation, but the past couple of years the snow gods have not shown much favor for city-bound snow lovers.

''Snowshoeing is an easy activity to get started with," Brochu said. ''You can lash them to your pack or put them in your bag."

Brochu is the Appalachian Mountain Club's youth program director and provides outdoor training and support for professional youth workers. So if there's no snow downtown, she heads for New England's northern mountains.

''It's definitely a sport that more people are getting into," she said. ''Snowshoes aren't something you grow out of in a year like ski boots."

They can fit in the overhead compartment of an airline or be kept in the trunk of a car all winter. After about six to eight inches of snow, it's off you go.

Whether you choose weekend workshops or daylong seminars, clubs like the AMC, Randolph Mountain Club, and Green Mountain Club have lodges, huts, and lean-tos in snow country, including the AMC's Lonesome Lake Hut in New Hampshire's Franconia Notch State Park, and Vermont's GMC-run Taft Lodge on Mount Mansfield, and the wood-heated, rustic Wheeler Pond Camps at the edge of Willoughby State Forest in the Northeast Kingdom. Learn about snowshoeing Jan. 8 on Winter Trails Day at places like the GMC's Snowshoe Festival in Waterbury Center, Vt., or with free demos at Weston Ski Track in Weston.

Up in Pinkham Notch, N.H., this winter the AMC will host workshops ranging from snowshoeing for families, including building snow shelters and learning animal tracks, to more advanced navigational classes combining snowshoeing with map and compass skills.

Want something upscale? Go gourmet on snowshoes. Umiak Outfitters in Stowe, Vt., has a wine and cheese tour to a sugar house, a fondue dinner tour to an inn, and a gourmet dinner at the end of the trail, all on snowshoes. They even have a snowshoe tour outside Ben and Jerry's.

Cross-country ski centers, too, have gotten into the snowshoe business with nearly unanimous acceptance.

''It was easy and an inexpensive sport to add on," said Alec Morris of Franconia Village XC Ski Center. ''At first, it was an experiment to see which trails to designate for snowshoeing."

It's not much fun to snowshoe on groomed cross-country ski trails. Besides, skiers get upset if you bust up their tracks. So, many touring centers have designated snowshoe trails, ungroomed, where snowshoers can plop around either breaking trail or taking advantage of what has been packed down by usage, like by their buddies in front of them.

Downhill ski areas -- including Smugglers' Notch in Vermont, Sugarloaf in Maine, and Wachusett in Massachusetts -- also have gotten in on the action and offer guided walks, night tours, and nature outings to identify animal tracks.

''We have found that the sport is highly social," said Kathy Murphy, general manager at Tubbs Snowshoe Co. in Stowe. ''People want to share, in a very grass-roots manner, places to go, whether it be a formal destination like a ski area or less formal settings like public lands, state forests, and golf courses."

Tubbs has a website where snowshoers can type in the state they wish to visit, the difficulty of the trek they're looking for, and a length. Voila! -- suggestions appear. Guidebooks, maps, and outdoor clubs are resources too. Just follow the snow.

Marty Basch is a writer in New Hampshire.

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