WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. - I had never been snowshoeing and wanted to give it a try. But preliminary research in a few basic sporting guides had not been encouraging.
"Don't worry if you develop "mal de raquette" (French for pain of the snowshoe) during your first jaunt or two," advised the author of "The L.L. Bean Guide to the Outdoors." "Undue straddling and excessively long strides stretch muscles and leg joints, resulting in pain in the hips, thighs, and sometimes in the knees."
This didn't sound so great.
Plus, according to the guide, there were all sorts of snowshoe styles to choose from. I could try the Maine or the Michigan models, both suited to the woods and similarly shaped, except that the Michigan is a bit bigger. Or the Pickerel, which is longer and narrower. Or the Bear Paw, also known as the Beavertail, which is lighter and more compact. And there were many variations on these styles, as well as different kinds of bindings.
The guide continued, "No matter which model you choose, there will be days during which you'll wish you'd chosen another style."
Right. Doubting whether I'd enjoy any of them, I was reluctant to invest in equipment straightaway. I also knew that I needed help to get started. I decided to look for an inn that provides snowshoes to guests and has good, easy trails close by.
When an Internet search turned up the Inn at Weathersfield in east central Vermont, it seemed as good a place as any to launch my adventure. The inn is situated on 21 wooded acres with trails suited for beginners. I could experiment on paths that started almost at its back door. And overnight guests get to use the inn's snowshoes for free.
Intriguingly, the inn is a historic 1792 stagecoach stop renovated with an eye toward accentuating its cozy, rustic charms. It has a tavern, a restaurant, and a well-stocked bar. After my experimental trek, I could relax with a soothing libation by one of its many fireplaces.
It all sounded convenient and appealing to this reluctant novice and in the end turned out to be even better than I had imagined.
When a friend and I arrived at the inn, he wanted to read by the fire. I was eager for my first taste of snowshoeing. To my surprise, Jane Sandelman, who owns and manages the inn with her husband, David, offered to join me. "I'm always ready for a walk," she said.
The inn's snowshoes were sturdy, oblong, aluminum discs with slightly upturned toes. Wearing boots or any warm walking shoes, you slip your feet into simple nylon riggings, tighten them, buckle a leather strap around each heel, "and you're good to go," Sandelman said.
We set off on a half-mile trail just behind the inn, at the foot of Hawk Mountain. I felt like a clodhopper as the big shoes clanged a bit on the hard-packed snow, but walking was surprisingly easy, as long as I kept the toes up out of the snow.
The trail led down to a pond where beavers had felled quite a few pines. "Before long, the inn will have waterfront views," Sandelman said.
As we walked, she talked about what brought her and David to the area. They had been living in New Jersey, where he was chief technology officer for an Internet company and she did marketing research. Both wanted out of the corporate world. They started looking for property in Vermont, where they loved to summer.
"When we saw this old inn, it was completely dilapidated, ceilings collapsing, bathrooms in shambles," she recalled. But they loved the wide pine floors, the exposed beams, the unspoiled forest just outside. And they were thrilled to find a large number of gifted farmers nearby - making cheese, pressing cider in an antique mill, growing organic produce, humanely raising veal, quail, highland cattle, lamb, and more.
The Sandelmans bought the inn in 2002, renovated rooms, and converted an 1880s carriage house into a dining area. They created the half-mile trail "as a nonthreatening way for guests to see some of the area and try snowshoeing without making a commitment to it," she said.
At breakfast the next morning, I met Lorraine Vernola, 54, her husband, Anthony, 55, their cousin Phil Palazzo, 60, and his friend Terry Turza, 59, all from Long Island, N.Y. They had gone snowshoeing for about three hours around nearby Grafton Pond on the previous day.
"I wasn't sure what I was getting into. I'm not an aerobics queen," said Lorraine Vernola. "We'd skied before. But when you get older, you start feeling hesitant about racing downhill, maybe breaking a leg or a hip." Snowshoeing seemed to offer "more control, and a slower pace so you can appreciate the surroundings."
"But you can get a good workout," Palazzo added. "You can make it as hard or as easy as you want."
"We all thought it was wonderful," Anthony Vernola said. "It's in my blood now. I want to do it again." The others nodded in agreement.
After breakfast, my friend and I headed to a North Springfield Reservoir nature area, about four miles away, to try our luck on some longer trails. To make the trek more interesting, David Sandelman suggested that we try "geocaching" as well.
This is a kind of outdoor treasure-hunting game, he explained, in which players use a Global Positioning System to hide or seek a container (the geocache) with little toys or other objects and usually a logbook inside. The thrill of the game is finding the container itself, hidden "somewhere that someone considers especially interesting or beautiful, a place you might not know about if you weren't looking for the geocache," he said.
He lent us a handheld GPS device loaded with the coordinates for two geocaches at the reservoir, and off we went.
It was a bright, sunny day, and we immediately felt the freedom snowshoes allow. We could follow icy trails or bushwhack over sloping terrain we would not have attempted in hiking shoes or boots. We puzzled at tracks left by other creatures - deer? raccoons? foxes? - and enjoyed ambling through pristine meadows and woods, searching for the geocaches. Walking in snowshoes seemed surprisingly natural. They were easy to maneuver, even in slick areas.
In the end, we could not find either cache. We did get within a few feet of where they were stashed, several yards off the regular trails. One was somewhere on a lovely promontory that looked out over the reservoir. The other was hidden in a glen by a pleasant little waterfall.
Some people say the best thing about skiing is après-ski, relaxing by a roaring fire. I liked snowshoeing, but not as much as the hot chocolate the inn's chef, Jason Tostrup, fixed for us afterward. And our dinner that night - several little courses highlighting local ingredients and what he called "the flavor of the area" - is among my most memorable meals.
I never got mal de raquette. I enjoyed snowshoeing and would try it again, although I can't say I was wowed by it. But I was wowed by this fabulous inn, and snowshoeing is what led me to it.
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.