Nature, exercise, companionship converge for the happy snowshoer. But just who all is walking?

Email|Print| Text size + By David Maloof
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2004

LYNDONVILLE, Vt. -- Snowshoes on feet and poles in hand, my daughter, my wife, and I take our first steps into the expanse of white leading toward miles of unknown woods. Our long-anticipated snowshoe outing in the fabled Northeast Kingdom of Vermont has begun.

My 6-year-old expresses the sentiment that has lingered since I began snowshoeing last winter: "This is just like regular walking, only with big shoes. And snow."

I'll hear a similar description several times during my three days in Vermont, visiting a snowshoe-friendly inn, a Nordic sports center, and a ski resort. But that was certainly not my first response to the activity.

The hushed, three-toned world of white, brown, and green; the cold air meeting warming body; the growing satisfaction of tiring muscles -- I loved snowshoeing from the start. But I've never discarded the thought that it is, in fact, just walking with big shoes in snow.

Downhill skiing isn't just skiing downhill -- it's the clothing, the socializing, the archetypal characters. Snowboarding also has its own allure.

But snowshoeing? To elevate snowshoeing in my mind, I needed to discover its culture and provide it a larger context and meaning.

. . .

The Wildflower Inn's 570 acres and available snowshoe rentals make it a promising family venue.

Robert Gottlieb, 51, of Brookline, and his family are Wildflower regulars. He and his wife, Margo Rosenbach, have been snowshoeing for three years.

That's soon after the start of the relative boom in snowshoeing activity: According to the trade organization SnowSports Industries America, participation increased from 1.7 million people in 1998 to 4 million in 2000.

Gottlieb attributes the surge to aging baby boomers. "Older people can snowshoe," he notes, adding that his wife "is not athletic" yet enjoys snowshoeing.

The boomer theory sounds plausible to me, but disturbing. I don't want my winter pursuit to be associated with aging. I'm also not crazy about the familiar slogan, "If you can walk, you can snowshoe."

Advanced age. Limited skill. When Rosenbach later tells me that she first became interested in snowshoeing as she read about it in a magazine, I ask which magazine. "Better Homes and Gardens," she says.

Dave Gwatkin, who through his Vermont Adventure Co. in Westmore offers guided snowshoe tours, says that his customers are "a lot of women, ages 35 to 65. Generally there aren't that many women who want to venture into the woods on their own, but they love going in a group."

Great. Sounds like my wife's book group, on snow.

That evening, I head out into the rolling fields behind our room. This solitary snowshoeing experience is what I know best. The half-moon above has cast thousands of blinking diamonds onto the surface of the snow. I walk through the field, the rhythmic "whoonch-whoonch-whoonch" of shoes in snow the only sound I hear. Unfamiliar animal tracks wind in and out of the nearby woods. After 45 minutes I reluctantly head back for dinner.

Gwatkin understands my enthusiasm. "Snowshoers like finding animal tracks, like a fisher cat [a weasel, related to the badger] or seeing a ruffed grouse blasted out of the snow because you've scared it with your snowshoes."

In the subtle world of snowshoeing, where appreciation can be as much aesthetic as athletic, such moments are rich.

But where are the snowshoer's lingo, outfits, characters, and customs? According to Gwatkin, such cultural traits "tend to be the trendy stuff [of] teens and [people in their] early 20s. Snowshoeing is probably not on-the-edge enough for them."

. . .

The next day, still searching for a window into the elusive snowshoe culture, we check out the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, which is best known for cross-country skiing but also offers snowshoeing.

In her three years working at the Touring Center at Craftsbury, Danika Johnson has witnessed snowshoeing's increasing popularity. Yet Craftsbury is no snowshoeing mecca. "People tend to come here to ski and will snowshoe for a change a pace," she says.

Indeed, snowshoeing's status is evident from the contrast in trail maps: the Nordic ski trail map is glossy, multicolored, two-sided, and over 10-by-14-inches in size. The snowshoers' map? A one-sided, black-and-white, 8-by-11-inch photocopy with trail designations highlighted by hand.

"Snowshoeing is a completely non-glamorous sport," says Johnson. Downhill skiing has "glamour and hipness. Cross-country does, too," she says, thanks in part to its Olympic status.

What about a snowshoe culture? "I don't know," Johnson says. "Here that's a lot harder to pick up."

. . .

At Smuggler's Notch ski resort, I'm immediately struck by the colors of ski gear and clothes, the congestion and noise as skiers clomp by. Signs announce weekend apres-ski parties at the Black Bear and Bootlegger lounges.

The Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Adventure Center isn't bustling with activity on the late Tuesday afternoon that I'm there. But this place actually puts the word "snowshoe" in its name, and offers an impressive (if somewhat troubling) menu of options, ranging from family snowshoe walks to a one-hour fitness run. A snowshoe dinner sponsored by the ski school (you ride the chairlift to a mountaintop restaurant, then snowshoe back down) has depleted the center of 42 of its 100 rental snowshoes.

Erik Remsen of the center, who estimates that 60 percent of its business is skiing, 40 percent snowshoeing, says, "A lot of the snowshoers are new to winter sports in general and are looking for something to do rather than spend a day in the condo."

So again it's snowshoeing as one step away from inactivity. And while the center's efforts to market snowshoeing are promising, what's troubling is that you don't have to come up with gimmicks to sell skiing or snowboarding.

A woman who overhears our converstaion says she has been thinking of snowshoeing. "Somehow snowshoeing doesn't sound like you get a lot of excitement," she says. "It's just walking, right?"

Nevertheless, there is a boom, which Zeke Zucker, the center's director, attributes to the old "tennis racket" snowshoes having given way to aluminum shoes with ice-gripping crampons. In New England, he says, that provides an advantage over skiing, where "conditions change and cross-country skiing is dicey when it's icy. But if you can't cross-country, you can snowshoe."

Zucker calls snowshoeing "a chance to get out in the woods where, if you tried it in your shoes, you'd be postholing and would be exhausted."

"Postholing" -- a good candidate for my nascent snowshoeing lexicon.

Maybe there is a snowshoe culture, after all?

"Not yet," Zucker says.

. . .

Back in Lyndonville, the local snowshoeing evangelist might be Hilary DeCarlo, who has been snowshoeing for 20 years. "I go snowshoeing at night with a headlamp. I go into the woods alone. I have never met anybody who likes to snowshoe as much as I do."

The next day, she joins a midday excursion at the inn led by Gwatkin. Ten of us first head over the rolling fields I had wandered two nights before.

In daylight, ascending the first hill rewards us with a panorama of distant trees, snow, and rising mountains. We soon pick up a snowmobile trail, which is so flat that all we need of the snowshoes are the crampons to grip the icy covering.

The crunch of shoes in snow is magnified by both the number of trekkers and the hard glaze left after yesterday's rain. Gwatkin later calls the trek "the loudest snowshowing experience you could ever have."

The trek is not strenuous, most of it running along the snowmobile trail. But people pair up and talk, then find another partner, as if at a low-key party.

By the time we turn around at a sugar house and head back toward the inn, I've figured it out.

Snowshoeing means access -- for people to easily get into the sport, and then to go where others cannot: into the deep winter woods, through the crisp quiet, and across a field of diamonds on the snow.

David Maloof is a freelance writer who lives in Belchertown.

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