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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Off-Season? No Way!

Weathering Winter in Style —
Exploring the Frozen World

By Farwell Forrest

January 18, 2005

Canoe country. It's also snow country, and General Winter's annual invasion marks the end of the paddling season for many canoeists and kayakers. Many, that is, but not all. Brazil has as much claim to the title as, say, Ontario, and it doesn't often snow in the Amazon Basin. But the "canoe country" that I'm thinking of is mostly a state of mind, a place whose boundaries were defined in the birch-bark chronicles of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers like Nessmuk, Calvin Rutstrum, and (more recently) Bill Mason. In any case, round about December, give or take, a fair bit of the northern hemisphere starts to look like the scene described so evocatively in Christina Rossetti's "Mid-Winter": Earth…hard as iron/Water like a stone. From then until ice-out, millions of canoes and kayaks languish in their storage cradles, collecting dust or shrouded in snow. And by January their owners are getting stir-crazy.

What's a snowbound paddler to do? I've explored options for the home front in a couple of earlier columns. Now, however, it's time to think about ways to engage General Winter on his own territory. There's no shortage of alternatives, and some are heavily promoted. Downhill skiing and snowmobiling, for example. But these won't interest paddlers who prize silence, solitude, and independence. Many turn to cross-country skiing, instead, though here, too, solitude is hard to come by. Most cross-country skiing is done on trails, and many trails are crowded, particularly on weekends. Worse yet, an increasing number are multi-use highways, shared with snowmobiles and ATVs. The result? Skiers looking for a chance to stretch their legs and breathe deep in cold, crisp, clean air — "straight from the North Pole," in the words of one hopeful, if naive, neighbor — find themselves slogging through a stinking miasma of unburned fuel and two-stroke oil instead, coughing and gagging and longing for the comparative tranquility of their morning commute in rush-hour traffic.

Of course, cross-country skiers can always leave the trails and strike out…well…cross-country. It seems only natural. But it isn't as easy as the pictures in the catalogs suggest. Off-trail travel in unbroken snow is hard work, for one thing. And much of canoe country is forested. Skiing through dense stands of cedar, hemlock, and spruce is a sweaty, scratchy business, periodically enlivened by the snow-covered hollows that form around the trunks of big trees. Every backcountry skier eventually learns just how hard it is to climb out of a hole wearing six-foot-long shoes.

Sooner or later, though, the forest gives way to an open slope, and gravity takes control. In seconds, the sweat-soaked skier is sliding downhill, going faster and faster as the gradient steepens. It's hard not to be exhilarated. This is what skiing's all about: freedom and speed. But freedom isn't free, is it? There's a price to be paid, and the bill comes due when the plummeting adventurer skids on a patch of ice and slams into the only tree on the slope, or soars over an unexpected drop, invisible in the white sameness of the winter landscape — or when he simply catches an edge and takes a tumble. And then something snaps. Painfully. Suddenly, the crowded trails that the skier left behind don't seem so bad. Even a passing pack of snowmobiles would be welcome. Yet none appears.

You get the point, I'm sure. Backcountry skiing can be dangerous, and even expert skiers suffer occasional misadventures in the brooding hills. The novice is best advised to stick to gentle, groomed trails and take the crowds in stride. Does this mean that only experts and daredevils can find silence and solitude in the depths of winter? Happily, things aren't this bad. Skis aren't the only way to explore the frozen world. You can also do it…

On Snowshoes

They're an increasing popular choice. Not only are snowshoes easier to master than skis — it's been said that if you can walk, you can snowshoe — but they're much more at home in the woods than their skinny cousins. You'll find it harder to break your neck on snowshoes, although "harder" isn't the same thing as "impossible." And there's a bonus. Snowshoes are cheaper than skis. One of the many catalogs that litter my desk shows adult cross-country ski packages — skis, boots, bindings, and poles — at anywhere from US$230 to US$370. By contrast, the snowshoes offered for sale on other pages cost as little as US$80. Even the most expensive "mountaineering" 'shoes are only US$280 a pair. Add poles at US$30 to US$60 and you're in business. Unlike modern skis, most snowshoes can be used with just about any type of winter footwear: pacs, wellies, insulated hiking boots, even (in dry cold) high-top moccasins, worn with thick wool socks. You certainly don't need special snowshoe boots, and you won't have to choose from a limited selection that fit only one particular type of binding. Use what you have. You can get along pretty well without poles, into the bargain. Beginners often find that having at least one pole increases their confidence, however, and old hands soon discover that a pair of poles permits them to jog briskly along, at a pace that's the envy of many skiers.

But none of us starts out as an old hand, does he? So let's get back to the "if you can walk, you can snowshoe" claim. Somewhat surprisingly, it's not much of a stretch. New-fashioned snowshoes are distinguished from their wood and webbing predecessors by high-tech metal frames and solid fabric decks. Newer 'shoes also have rigid, hinged bindings. These are a far cry from the floppy cat's cradles found on many traditional snowshoes, and they shorten the learning curve dramatically. The fundamental principle of walking on snowshoes — any snowshoes — couldn't be simpler: don't waddle, and don't try to take extra-long steps. Walk as normally as possible, lifting each shoe in turn over its mate, rather than around. Turning is best done incrementally at first, though athletes will soon master something like the skier's kick turn, permitting almost instantaneous 180s. Difficult? Not really. You're bound to fall a few times before you get your snow legs, but a half-hour's practice in backyard or park should suffice. Then you'll be ready to head for the woods.

Shoes for the Snow

Perhaps, however, you already have a couple of traditional snowshoes hanging in the garage, or maybe you've found a pair on sale in a local store at a price that's too good to resist. Do you have to relegate them to a place over the mantle? Not at all. Some folks — I'm one — prefer the old-fashioned 'shoes, on both aesthetic and functional grounds. It's true that the floppier bindings take some getting used to, though. Your first steps will feel curiously uncertain, as if you're connected to your snowshoes by an elastic cord. And you'll probably fall down more often than you would if your feet were strapped into rigid bindings. But an extra hour's practice in the park will see you striding boldly along. It's a bit like sailing a small boat right up to its mooring in a crowded harbor. It's not as easy as piloting a jet-ski, but it's eminently do-able. You just have to plan ahead.

Moreover, traditional snowshoes have real advantages. For one thing, they can be repaired with materials drawn from the "closet of the woods" or purchased at the local lumber-yard. For another, the longer 'shoes are fast, even in deep unconsolidated snow. I can travel as far off-trail in an hour on my 56-inch Ojibwa snowshoes as I could on skis — much further than on my 30-inch aluminum-frame mountaineering 'shoes. And the advantage increases as the load grows larger. Skis come into their own on open downhills, of course, and the mountaineering 'shoes live up to their billing when I discard my poles for an ice ax. But for everyday rambles in the forested hills that make up so much of canoe country, nothing I've ever strapped to my feet beats my Ojibwas. Their Viking-longship-like prows slither effortlessly through powder and slice through crust, while the tapered tails help keep me on course. They don't toss too much snow up on the backs of my legs, either.

Is there a downside? Yes. Old-style snowshoes require a little more maintenance than their high-tech, aluminum-framed counterparts. But it's not exactly onerous. I varnish the frames once or twice a season. That's it. The webbing is neoprene-coated nylon scrim, so it requires attention only on rare occasions. Rawhide webbing — the traditional babiche — needs frequent varnishing, however, particularly in wet conditions. Once soaked through, it stretches, and you don't want your 'shoes to let you down in the backcountry. It can happen. The crusty snow and overflows that accompany a prolonged thaw will defeat almost any attempt to keep babiche taut. And winter weather is notoriously variable. That's why old-time woodsmen spent much of the year plodding painfully along on sagging webs. It's also one reason that the marriage of wooden frames and impervious neoprene-nylon lace is such a happy one.

There's another reason, too. Neotraditional 'shoes can be made from scratch with comparative ease, thereby combining two enjoyable pastimes in one. If the idea interests you — if you're the DIY type, say, or maybe even if you're not — get hold of a copy of the second, revised edition of William Osgood and Leslie Hurley's The Snowshoe Book and head for your workbench. Before the last of the winter's snow has melted, you'll have a pair of Ojibwas ready to carry you into the woods, and you'll have made them with your own hands.

Whether you're planning to explore the frozen world on aluminum or ash, however, take it easy at the start. Choose familiar terrain, and stay off steep slopes and ice-covered lakes until you've learned the ways of the winter world. Even on short outings, carry spare clothing (synthetics are best in cold, wet weather, though wool is good, too), food, and plenty of water. Winter air is dry air, snowshoeing is hard work, and thirst is a dangerous thing. To avoid being iced out when your thirst heats up, turn water bottles upside down. Better yet, carry a thermos filled with something hot and sweet. And travel with a companion or two, at least a first. This is just common sense. General Winter has only cold comfort to offer careless or poorly prepared wanderers. Mishaps and errors of judgement that would merely inconvenience someone traveling with a companion can easily be the end of the trail for a solitary explorer. You didn't learn to paddle by tackling Class IV water alone, did you? Treat the winter landscape with the same respect.

Ask any voyageur. Canoe country is also snowshoe country. And paddlers who are eager to see how their favorite woods and waters look when they're blanketed in a mantle of white have only to strap on a pair of snowshoes and go. You don't have to take General Winter's invasion lying down. Bring the battle to the enemy, instead — a new world awaits you. There's no better way to turn the off-season on.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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