Yon have to strut!” my girlfriend, Michelle, hollered at me from the bottom of the hill, pointing at her hips and waving her ski poles around. How had she gotten down there so quickly? We were deep in Vermont’s snowbound woods, on a mountain at Mad River Glen. Every thing was white and icy, all slumbering trees and prehistoric boulders. The only sound consisted of a rusty leaf rattling between two branches—and our voices echoing through the frosty air. “Strut?” I yelled back, still trying to get the hang of going downhill on the tech-y, lightweight aluminum snowshoes we’d rented. “Like a model on a catwalk,” she said, shimmying encouragingly. Easy for her to say, radiating glamour in her Jackie O. sunglasses. The only way I could figure out how to descend the hillside was to let the tail end of the frame touch down first, then slide forward until the crampons—the fanged grip on the snowshoes’ bottom—kicked in and provided some traction.
This lurching method meant I had to lean back while executing high, wide knee lifts, resulting in a form that wasn’t so much Gigi Hadid as Robert Crumb’s Keep on Truckin’ character—wearing snow pants. Natural though I wasn’t, I still loved my first grown-up snowshoeing hike. As soon as we set off on the Mad River Glen trail, we were immediately ensconced in the Vermont wilderness. To snowshoeis to experience the landscape from within in away you never can when you’re zooming down groomed slopes, or even bushwhacking off-trail. A snowshoer is simply one with the elements, tramping through the frozen countryside in a state of calm exhilaration.
You can’t really hear over the crunching of the snow, so unless you stop to communicate, you are essentially alone with your thoughts. Within a few minutes, all your senses start collapsing into one another, into a single, trilling sensation of tranquillity. Pretty soon, you find yourself wondering whether there is any greater sense of peace than that found perambulating over hills and meadows blanketed in snow. This mellowness only applies when the terrain is flat, however. Once you get into hill country, it becomes an actual workout: like being on an elliptical machine, but a great deal more inspiring. Snowshoeing up an incline isn’t too different from walking on tiptoe, Michelle said, an insight that helped me immediately. But when we hit that first steep gradient, and my ineptitude became laughably apparent, I started to doubt whether I had what it takes to become a real uphill-downhill snow-shoe kind of person.
It doesn’t matter that I grew up skiing with my family, or that I used to love snowboarding as a teenager. My participation in winter sports has gradually dwindled to a token game of ice hockey on an outdoor rink every year or two. My long-standing strategy for dealing with the frigid months in Montreal, where I live, can be summed up in a single word: avoidance. I’m not alone: most of my friends also consider winter an ice-cloaked evil from which to escape. Unfortunately, it snows for half the year in French Canada. Some consider Quebec the Siberia of North America: a permafrost-encrusted realm of primordial cold and darkness epitomized by a classic folk song declaring “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, e’est l’hiver”—my country isn’t a country, it’s winter.
Ideal for Under Armour-wearing winter-activity nuts, but not really for anyone else. Certainly not for people like Michelle and me, whose idea of embracing the cold involves gluing ourselves to the fireplace, cooking French food, and deepening our expertise in the wines of Burgundy. Every winter, I remind myself that the Canadian dream isn’t about becoming rich or successful; it’s about finding a way to be in the tropics in February. Or so I thought, until last year’s holiday season came around and I decided that Michelle and I should walk to dinner one night. It was one of those 30-degrees-below-zero evenings, the kind where your eyes immediately tear up and your eyelashes freeze together and then, when you try to pry them apart, fall to the ground like tiny broken icicles.
The restaurant was only is blocks away, but about 30 seconds in, Michelle gave me a reproachful, frozen-over-eyelashes look and asked, “Why are we doing this again?” “Because,” I explained, scrambling up an eight-foot snowbank to cross the street, “not being able to go for a walk feels like surrender. We can’t keep letting winter win. We walk to the restaurant in the summer, don’t we? A little windchill shouldn’t change that.” She ignored my outstretched hand and requested an Uber.
“Nobody goes for a city walk in winter,” she retorted. “Can’t we just go snowshoeing?” I hadn’t been snowshoeing since I was a child. In fact, I had no idea that people actually went on snowshoeing expeditions, let alone that snowshoe technology had evolved from the wooden, tennis-racket-like, beaver-tailed objects of my childhood. But I learned all that a few days later, when my younger brother posted some photos of himself and his wife wearing futuristic aluminum contraptions over their winter boots somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
“We all spend too much of winter freezing because it’s so cold outside,” he enthused, when I called him to discuss. “Snowshoeing is a way to go out there and breathe fresh air and be active in the cold. ”Then again, my brother is the sort of titanium-spork-owning outdoor enthusiast who goes on three-week hikes from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, so I wasn’t fully convinced. “Start easy,” he advised.
“Beginner trails are really fun. You won’t even need gaiters for that.” My lack of awareness about the very existence of gaiters (leg covers that help protect your pants when wading through knee-deep snow, he explained), Yaktrax (devices for footwear that help you gain traction on slippery terrain), and “high-performance toe socks” (that prevent moisture and blisters) made me doubt my ability to tackle even a beginner trail.
“Anyone can snowshoe,” he insisted, laughing. “It’s just about heading out there and having some quiet time, enjoying nature.” To prepare, I checked out the site, which covers everything you could possibly want to know before getting started, including a list of snowshoeing clubs across the country.
An article on the site, “First-Timer’s Guide to Snowshoeing,” provided a list of the best places to experience “the world’s fastest-growing winter sport,” and the first destination it mentioned was Vermont, a two-hour drive away. I go there often to visit family and friends, to enjoy the leaves changing color in autumn, and to explore swimming holes on summertime day trips.
As fun as those experiences always are, I soon learned that there’s something incomparably rewarding about snowshoeing—not just finding the holy grail of deep, unscathed powder, but also something as basic as climbing over the limbs of a fallen tree and coming across secret pockets of sphagnum moss poking out from under their veils of snow. On snowshoes in the woods, you are simply “surrounded by the raw material of life,” as Thoreau once put it.
He loved walking in the winter, to such an extent that he often marched “eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” After I finally slid-walked to the bottom of the mountain, Michelle and I brought our rented snowshoes back to the Mad River Glen pro shop. Noticing our post-hike bliss, the employee there offered to let us keep them overnight at no extra cost, so that we could go on a late-night trek.
Snowshoeing through the darkness of Wiessner Woods ended up being even more transformative than our daylight hike. At an outdoor outfitting company in Stowe called Umiak we hired a night time guide, who taught us how to handle the ski poles correctly and use the snowshoes’ risers to walk up hills more effectively. (He also gave me a lesson in how to go downhill without looking like a dub step dancer.)
Midway through the tour, we stopped in at an old sugar house for hot cider and local Cabot cheddar cheese with pepperoni. Aboriginal deer-hide snowshoes were mounted on the wall, are minder that this tradition dates back to long before Europeans arrived in the New World. In earlier times, snowshoes weren’t for recreation— they were a vital means of transportation in an era when there were no roads. Using them today not only connects us to the land but to a sense of its past, as well.
Having warmed our insides, we headed back out into the cold night. It was a strange, new feeling to be out there at such an unlikely hour and time of year: a combination of runner’s-high-like elation, magnified by the sedentary urbanite’s sense of accomplishment at having participated in the natural world during wintertime. The wind picked up, causing the shadows cast by the spindly, creaking trees to take on an otherworldly quality. Michelle gazed up at the starry firmament and marveled at the extent of its brightness, so far from light pollution and civilization. An infinite universe of stars above lit up the path as we made our way slowly, happily, through the snowy February night.