“What’s the hardest part of snowshoeing?” I ask the well-bundled group of kids circling in front of me at the trailhead. “Putting them on!” someone shouts. “Running!” another cries out, beginning a stream of consciousness brainstorming session that I encourage with a nod and an inquisitive pause. “Falling down!” “Getting up!” “Going backwards!” The cogs are turning now as this crew prepares themselves for a quick lesson on proper snowshoe technique and a rowdy trek in the fresh powder.
Conditions have been near perfect this season with new batches of cold powder snow delivered weekly and temperatures consistently cold enough to keep it light and fluffy. Snow like this can be a real headache (and backache) on the streets and sidewalks in town, but out on the trail and in the woods it’s beautiful and deep. Folks come from all around to enjoy themselves on cross country skis or snowshoes here in the Driftless region and it’s well worth the trip. Local ski trails have been in very good condition and exploring off track with snowshoes is a great way to discover the mysteries of the deep woods or the back hayfield. Modern snowshoes and cross country ski gear can be rented locally and if you don’t have a friend to show you how it’s done there are a few classes, clubs and coaches around who would be happy to kick and glide with you for a few hours on a sunny winter afternoon. Only one complaint comes up during classes like this; “why do we have to end so soon?”
The truth is that snowshoeing is pretty easy if you can put one foot in front of the other and keep your tips up. Just for fun the class practices falling down, making snow angels and getting up with the snowshoes on. I demonstrate how to step a 360 degree turn and kick a 180. Some of the skaters in the group get pretty good until they snag a tail attempting an “ollie” and tumble head first into the drifts. Everyone laughs and the skaters enjoy the attention. I talk about the fall line and get a good laugh with an exaggerated and goofy looking demonstration the herringbone uphill technique. And that’s fine with me because we are all out here to try something new, learn a few things and get some good exercise. If all that is gained for the cost of acting silly, I’m up for the task.
By most measures we have met our goals during this snowshoeing class at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge. In the classroom we talk about the 4,000 year old history of snowshoes and how they have been an important survival tool for many early cultures around the northern hemisphere. By observing animals and their tracks in winter traditional snowshoe builders came up with the “bear paw” and the “beaver tail” shapes that we know today. Modern materials made for lighter and stronger snowshoes, discarding (according to some builders) the beauty and tradition of the wooden snowshoe for the convenience and ease of the modern variations. We discuss cold weather safety and talk about dressing in layers and how the snow itself can be an insulating layer. This principal is put to the test on the trail when one student performs a belly flop and buries his nose in the powder. I watch him for a few minutes before asking him what he’s doing. His frosted head pops up, ears clogged with snow as he replies, “I forgot my scarf so I’m using the snow to warm my face.” Many smiling and snow warmed faces make their way back to the road with a new idea of what winter really is all here in the fields and the woods of the Driftless.