Snowshoe redemption

Not long ago, snow + shoe was an oxymoron for me. Once snow fell, shoes stayed by the back door until absolutely necessary for getting back and forth to the car. For all other activities inside the house and around the yard, I relied on slippers (with emphasis on slip). The fact that I now keep a pair of snowshoes leaned up against my porch and put them on because I want to, not because I need to, is nothing short of an evolutionary miracle.

I’m in good company these days, I know. Used to be that only game wardens, trappers or other seriously snowbound folks wore them. Everyday business shoes, they were, the wing tips of the Great North Woods. But now it seems all manner of people are strapping on a set and trekking across the deep drifts for fun. And, for staying in shape and blowing off the cabin dust once in a while, you can’t beat snowshoeing for a cheap, easy alternative to skiing. No lift tickets,  gas money, or fancy cross-country technique required, just pop ’em on and get out there! Fortunately, snowshoes’ widespread evolution from necessary footwear to desirable athletic gear has paralleled my own personal journey out of the Dark Ages of winter exercise.

As I pointed out in Ice Road Tracker, I’m not the most graceful girl in the bunch. I went downhill skiing once (as in one run) on the bunny slope at Gunstock back in the mid-70s. I did it so my then-boyfriend/private ski tutor, Tom, would be impressed. He wasn’t. Later, as my husband, he soon accepted that he wasn’t getting a snow bunny as any part of the deal. He did help me graduate to cross-country for a while. One Christmas, he gave me my very own pair—waxless, new-age jobs with the latest step-in bindings and, in theory, nothing to stop me from gliding away toward new horizons. He even gave me countless lessons on cadence, stance, and how to, basically, not fracture my tail bone. But, not being particularly ambidextrous with my lower limbs, what should have been “step-glide, step-glide, step-glide” was, for me, more like “step-drag, step-mini-glide, step-drag.” I was OK on vast, open, flat surfaces with relatively light snow, which I found twice in about five years before giving up skis for ice fishing cleats and a seat by the hot dog fire.

The first time I tried snowshoes, I was hopeful. They looked like a way to elevate me from a wintertime waste of skin to passable year-round New England wife material. Old “modified bear paws” they were, with rawhide-laced bindings. Compared to Tom’s huge tear drop models they were streamlined, but I still managed to drag snow, rocks, dog poop and an occasional squirrel nest on the back of mine till the laces loosened up and I had to stop and re-calibrate. I soon realized why old-fashioned snowshoes made such good wall decorations. They deserved to be hung way up high in the peak above the fireplace, out of reach.

Thank goodness I eventually got a pair of new, high tech Tubbs. Unlike my previous pair, which just felt like bathtubs strapped to my feet, these snowshoes are named for their simple oval shape.  Strapping these on and keeping them strapped on is a breeze! No more nearly useless rawhide one-size-doesn’t-fit-all lace-up bindings. Tubbs nifty rubber straps actually bind to my boots, cinching and uncinching efficiently without the need for cussing or contortion. Once on, the Tubbs actually gripped onto the ground. They had some serious snow traction—a vast improvement over my old bear paws, which had no claw-like properties whatsoever and left some terrain slippery like, you guessed it, walking across the bottom of a bathtub with shellacked wooden shoes. Thanks to the marvels of modern frozen footwear technology, I could get out there, on top of the snow, and stay out there! Finally, I could participate in a popular, self-propelled winter sport that was supposed to make me walk like Quasimodo!

Even so, for several years, I remained an infrequent weekend warrior. Snowshoeing was  something I did as an alternative to sitting around or sorting laundry. It let me watch the beagles romp and gave me occasional verification that, yup, it was still winter outside. My seasonal exercise of choice was indoors, on the elliptical at the gym, watching Dr. Oz. Last year at this time, it was a winning combination. I trimmed down and toned up. I learned  answers to all the medical questions women like me want to know but are too embarrassed to ask—so they tune in while acting like they’re exercising. When I moved to Rangeley last spring and switched to good, old-fashioned outdoor walking, I was ready for fresh air and pumped to outdo my “personal best” from previous summers. I still loved Dr. Oz, but I loved the balsam-lined terrains of my own backyard even more. By late fall, I’d met my goals without the gym and had moved into maintenance mode.

First snowfall came, it seemed, before the Thanksgiving meal was cleared from the table. Suddenly, maintaining my optimal body mass required more than just Nike’s and will power. My beloved Yaktrax were OK for most daily road trips, but what would I do when rum cake, cabin fever, and perhaps rum with no cake forced me to take my workouts to the next level?

Turns out, I only had to ponder that dilemma for a couple days back in January. With my Tubbs strapped on, my everyday routes put me in the cake burning cardio zone again. Add the ski poles necessary for me to maintain lateral stability, and I’m working my arms and pecs better than any elliptical. Or, I should say, better than any elliptical I ever programmed. I’d choose “moderate,” not the heart-throbbing, or Mt. Washington climbing settings. And the only thing that might have stopped me from powering down after an hour would have been Dr. Oz going to a 90 minute show. Compared to virtual gym walking, real Rangeley snowshoeing provides all I need to literally “kick it up a notch.” There’s no hopping off a machine when I’m an hour out on the trail and I’m ready to quit. There’s only me and my tracks leading home. And the scenery and sounds of nature are so much more sensational than Dr. Oz even on his best day! I am, however, still learning how to ease into my new routine safely, how to turn around even if I’m feeling “in the zone.” On a recent snowshoe across the Big Lake, for instance, with the windswept snow glistening for miles around and Bald Mountain’s blue dome beckoning me like the Hope Diamond, I was pretty far from home before I remembered I was alone and it was late afternoon. “Wouldn’t want to get stuck on Toothaker Island overnight and have to eat my shoe laces like the snowbound pioneers of long, long ago,” I said to myself as I turned around. “Oops…no more rawhide, anyways. That’s on the old snowshoes hanging on my cabin wall!”