“Four-wheel Drive for Your Feet”: Snowshoeing offers accessible outdoor exercise

Several times a week during the winter months, Mary Jo Maffei steps into her snowshoes and heads out the back door of her Shutesbury home and off along a trail that was cut by her son. The red-blazed trail, which the family calls the Quackenbush Connector, leads uphill into a forest of hemlock, maple, and birch.

She hikes quickly, usually accompanied with her dog, a poodle-bichon frise mix named Walter, working to get her heart rate up, keeping warm in just a polypropylene shirt, wool sweater, hat and water-resistant pants.

“I’ve gone from absolutely despising winter to loving it,” said Maffei. “I don’t like being cold, but I love the feel of the cold on my cheeks. It’s really invigorating.”

The Quackenbush Connector was cut by Paul Quackenbush, 23, who started the Amherst Regional High School Nordic ski team six years ago. He and Maffei’s other family members, daughter, Lenna, 20, and husband, Jeff Quackenbush — are all avid cross-country skiers. But for the past dozen years, Maffei has stuck to snowshoes.

“I like being outside, and used to downhill ski,” Maffei said, “but snowshoeing is more my speed.”

Snowshoes, which mimic the larger hind feet of the snowshoe hare, allow their wearers to walk on top of the snow instead of sinking in through soft powder.

“I go places on snowshoes that I can’t on skis,” Maffei said. “They bring me closer to the natural world.”

Maffei is one of a growing number of people who have taken up the sport enthusiasts say offers the freedom to trek wherever they want in all types of conditions.

“Put on a pair of snowshoes, and you can go anywhere,” said William Gabriel, manager of the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center in Northfield. “It’s like four-wheel-drive for your feet.”

Some people also find it less intimidating than skiing, skating or sledding which involve more gliding, higher speeds and a greater risk of falling.

“There are many people who don’t have that appreciation” of sliding, said Gabriel. “Snowshoeing has opened up the options for them.”

“Snowshoeing,” Maffei pointed out, “is absolutely simple to learn.”

Numbers growing

Since 2008, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, snowshoeing has grown 40.7 percent.

Gabriel, who has been at his job since 1987, said he has seen the popularity of snowshoeing rise in the last decade, with children, who can quickly learn to do it, as well as adults.

“People are getting more active in the winter,” he said.

Maffei exercises almost every day. A couple of times a week she swims at the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst. When the weather is really bad, she’ll exercise in the gym. But snowshoeing, she said, is special because it brings her directly in contact with nature.

“There’s a sacred quality to it,” she said.

She often brings guide books on tree bark or mushrooms with her to better identify the specific characteristics of the woods around her. On her snowshoe hikes, she will look for tracks of deer, moose or coyote, or notice a new woodpecker hole in a tree trunk. Once she saw three moose right in her own backyard.

The combination of being out in nature and exercising vigorously sets her mind at ease.

“It’s a time for my brain to work through things creatively,” Maffei said. “Problems don’t seem so monumental. There’s a huge psychological benefit to it.”

Trekking in a pack

For those seeking a little guidance on their nature hikes, Northfield Mountain offers environmental education programs that lead visitors — often school or other children’s groups — out on snowshoes. This Saturday Northfield is offering an educational tracking program, On the Trail of the Fisher and Porcupine. Next Saturday it is holding a Winter Family Sunset/Moonrise Hike and Snowshoe for ages 6 and up. Families will have a chance to build a small fire on the mountain and boil water for hot cocoa.(See http://www.gdfsuezna.com/recreation for registration information.)

The majority of visitors at Northfield Mountain are cross-country skiers, like the Quackenbushes, who pay to use the recreation center’s groomed trails. But Gabriel says a growing number are snowshoers like Maffei, who head into the woods on the center’s marked hiking trails. Snowshoeing is not allowed on the groomed trails. But snowshoers can hike for free.

Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton also uses snowshoes to enhance its programs.

“There’s been a big surge of popularity in the last decade or so,” said Arcadia’s education coordinator Patty Steinman, who has been at Arcadia for 11 years . “People used to have little or no experience with snowshoes. Now it seems like everyone has a pair.”

Arcadia has a few pairs of snowshoes people can borrow for participating in the programs there, but most participants bring their own.

Throughout the winter, Steinman and other educators at Arcadia lead snowshoe hikes at a variety of locations throughout the Valley, including the Laughing Brook Reservation in East Longmeadow and Graves Farm in Williamsburg. They also have programs, such as its pre-school and February Vacation camp week, on site on Combs Road.

This Saturday Steinman will lead her favorite program, Owl Moon, which is based on Jane Yolen’s children’s book of the same name. The program, one of Arcadia’s most popular, begins with a shadow puppet performance, and then brings families outdoors on Arcadia’s trails for an hour or so, as participants try to spot any of the seven owl species native to this area. (See http://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/arcadia for registration information.)

Snowshoeing adds a unique aspect to programs like Owl Moon, Steinman said, and offers another way for Arcadia to get its clientele, whether kids or adults or families, outdoors and onto the snow.

“Kids love snowshoeing,” Steinman said. “They love staying on top of the snow, learning how to walk differently, and getting off the trail.”

“And the little kids,” continued Steinman, “once they learn it, it’s like second nature.”

Wide range of choices

With snowshoes’ rise in popularity has come an increase in equipment choices offered by outdoor companies. Snowshoes are made for all ages and abilities, from children just starting out in their own backyard to adults looking to hike to a mountaintop summit in the dead of winter.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is the actual materials of the snowshoes,” Gabriel said.

Traditional snowshoes were made of wood, while newer models use a metal framework. Today’s snowshoes are less cumbersome than they once were, and the sharp metal crampons on their underside allow for a better grip on ice and snow.

Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters on Route 9 in Hadley, for instance, carries a dozen or so snowshoe models, in a variety of lengths, with the largest being 3 feet long.

Salesperson Ian Hamel says it is most important to get a pair that is large enough for both your body and the winter activities for which you will use the snowshoes. The more surface area a snowshoe covers, the more pressure — be it weight or motion from activity — the shoe can withstand while staying on the surface of the snow. “If you get snowshoes too short,” he cautioned, “you’ll sink in the snow.” Those planning to use snowshoes while wearing a heavy backpack or while hunting, he said, should consider a larger-sized snowshoe, regardless of body size.

“Go for more buoyancy,” Hamel suggested.

Smaller snowshoes (a little larger than the sole of a heavy boot) are used primarily for wintertime trail running. Larger ones are used for backpacking to the summit of a mountain. But most snowshoes are medium sized for walking on a trail.

Models made for walking on mostly flat surfaces cost around $130. Mountaineering snowshoes can cost $180 or more. The most technical models, which offer a more flexible binding and crampons that grip better on ice, can cost over $200.

“Snowshoeing allows you to climb steeper stuff,” said Hamel. “I can walk right up to the Summit House (on the Holyoke Range), cutting stairs right into the snow.”

But most of his customers are just looking to get out on a trail, Hamel said. “A lot of them just want to get out there, or walk their dog.”

Like Maffei, who says she routinely returns from her backyard snowshoe expeditions tired but rejuvenated.

“Snowshoeing really changes how you perceive the winter,” Maffei said. “This time of year, the snow on the mountain laurel is just beautiful.”

(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)

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