Some walks go better when there's snow

Vermont: Snowshoes, with space-age lightweight design and rugged crampons, can take you where skis could never go.

February 27, 2000|By Jack Otter | Jack Otter,Newsday

After spending a sunny morning hurtling down Vermont's highest mountain with no limits on my speed other than physics and fear, I was having trouble getting excited about a walk in the snow.

But part of the reason we'd headed north recently was to go snowshoeing, so I turned in my rental skis. It was hard to let go of that equipment. Not only were they brand-new, but even the label change was painful. The skis were Atomic. The snowshoes were made by Tubbs.

On the bright side, Tubbs is based in Stowe, so I was experiencing local color -- sort of like drinking the local microbrew. And snowshoeing, unlike skiing, is an old sport, but also a hot new one. I wanted to try something before James Bond did it.

On the recommendation of our bed and breakfast, we rented skis from Pinnacle Ski and Sports, so we also got the Tubbs there: $10 for a half day.

The first thing you'll notice is that these aren't Grizzly Adams' snowshoes.

They're not wooden, and there's no rawhide. It's all aircraft-grade aluminum, nylon and materials that look like plastic but have names like Hypalon and ArcTec and are guaranteed to minus-40 degrees and colder. They are very light.

If you know how to walk, you can snowshoe. Any place there's snow on the ground is fair game, but in my opinion, the hard-to-get-to places are the most fun.

An employee at Pinnacle suggested a nearby section of Vermont's Long Trail that would be an "easy stroll." Some resorts are beginning to add snowshoeing to their roster of activities, and offer group hikes, lessons (although I'm not sure why you'd need one) and one -- Topnotch Resort and Spa -- even makes a bonfire and serves hot chocolate in the woods.

For our route, my fiancee and I relied on friends: a college buddy who lives in Montpelier, Vt., with his wife and their 5-month-old son, Nelson.

Swathed in fleece and bouncing in a high-tech backpack, Nelson slept through most of the expedition. Strapping the Tubbs onto our boots was easy, and soon we were headed up a snow-covered mountain road closed to traffic for the winter. After a half mile, we turned onto the Long Trail, a 270-mile path that runs the length of the state. Suddenly, we were headed up, and the fun began.

In addition to keeping you from sinking too far into the snow, snowshoes are equipped with crampons that dig in and hold your feet in place on the hills.

Terrain that would be tough to walk on even without snow was a breeze with the Tubbs.

Snowshoeing is really nothing more than hiking with a cool gadget strapped to your feet. Before long we were above 3,000 feet, elevation that had required a ski lift earlier in the day.

Snowshoeing offers the chance to get exercise without really noticing. Though it was just a little over 20 degrees, no one was cold -- except Nelson, who was letting his mother do the work while his little feet were getting colder and colder. So having hiked about an hour, everyone turned back, except me.

When everyone else started walking down the mountain, I started running up.

Technically, it got tougher, as I demanded more of the crampons, and running up a steep incline in the snow is a good way to get out of breath fast. When I stopped, I really began to appreciate what the Tubbs had done for me:

The sound of the Stowe chairlifts and snow-makers had faded into the distance, and there were no snowboard dudes shredding past. It was just forest and dramatic views of frosted peaks in the distance.

I found a broken branch to use for a staff. (If you plan to run, consider renting ski poles.) My friends were getting farther away. I started uphill again, dreaming of reaching the top, wherever that was.

My Thoreau-like trance was interrupted by voices. A couple was coming downhill, and I asked how far I was from the summit. At least an hour's hike, they said. In other words, way too far, considering I had the car keys.

With the assistance of my stick, I ran down the mountain. When I reached the bottom, I still had not overtaken the group, so I kept on running along the mountain road. I caught them just before they reached the parking lot.

I had squeezed the most hike out of the afternoon.

CLOSER TO HOME

If you own your own snowshoes, all you need is a wintry landscape to test your snow legs. If you'd like to rent a pair of snowshoes and take designated trails, try these places:

Herrington State Park, Oakland, 301-334-9180: All the Western Maryland park's trails are open for snowshoeing. There is a $2 per car entry fee to the park, and rentals cost $13 a day, $11 for a half-day. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Deep Creek Lake State Park, Oakland, 301-387-7067: There's no entrance fee, and rentals are available at the park's Discovery Center (301-387-7067), which is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Prices range from $7 to $13.

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