As with most people, my time is not always my own. To a degree, my day is molded around my two dogs, whose hikes in the winter have been limited by the recent extreme cold and the balls of ice that built up in between their toes.
Booties are not an option since their breed, Bouvier des Flandres, goes by the nickname of “Bouncing Bouviers,” and getting them into footwear would be like trying to put mittens on a hummingbird. They have this characteristic that Alan Greenspan would call irrational exuberance, and while this can be endearing at first, putting up with it for extended lengths of time turns into something of a challenge.
If I drop the animals off in the morning for an appointment, I will usually be told, “Sure, pick them up at the end of the day if you want.” But invariably my phone will ring at about 1:30 in the afternoon and a harried voice on the other end of the line will say “COME GET YOUR DOGS!”
So while one of the first items on my Adirondack to-do list has been to learn to snowshoe, it’s taken a while to work out the logistics.
A couple of weeks ago, hoping for an uninterrupted three-hour window for a hike, I dropped the dogs off at the groomer, turned the ringer off on my phone and headed to Poke-O-Moonshine, where two wonderful trails wind their way to the top. Well, one winds, one barrels straight up the masif by way of rock staircases that make the monoliths of Stonehenge look like pea gravel.
My hat is off to whoever did that all that work, but of course even a rookie like me was smart enough to know that, for snowshoeing, the more modest trail was the pony to bet on. I had practiced on snowshoes a little bit around the house, but had yet to tackle any real-live trail. For that matter, save for skiing a few downhill slopes in Western Maryland, the winter sports are alien to me. In the Mid Atlantic, winter is a dull, colorless time, which explains the survival of television shows such as Hot Bench.
And I also know that to seasoned veterans of the winter-sport arts, my observations on snowshoeing are going to seem like a child describing a particle accelerator, so if you want to just roll your eyes and go off to read some other blog about railroad tanker cars I fully understand.
My dad spent the prime of life cruising timber for the Forest Service in Minnesota, so he lived on snowshoes for the better part of the year, (up there it was nine months of winter, three months of poor sledding, as the saying went) and often talked of them with fondness. Even after we moved south, where snowshoes were no more useful than a cog railway in Nebraska, he would never be without a pair. To my knowledge, he never used any of them, including the last pair he purchased at age 85. This was at some point in the last century, when snowshoes still resembled tennis rackets with a thyroid problem, including the wooden frame, long tail and catgut strings.
So I figured there had to be some mystical appeal, and indeed there is. It only took about 10 minutes to get hooked, if that. After ascending the first ridge, the mountain’s icy summit was, unlike summer, visible through the trees. I had a pileated woodpecker for an escort, as well as some testy little bird that I couldn’t identify, who flew in circles, rasped hoarsely away and seemed to be dissatisfied about something.
Animal tracks told of many unseen forest romps, and the low sun through the trees created phantasmic ribbony black shadows on the white snow, as if the forest were wearing a tuxedo. The monochromatic landscape was accented with frosted evergreens, and I noticed interesting deviations in the topography that would go unseen under a summer canopy. There were no bugs, no rocks, no mud. Just a glide through a frozen forest that didn’t seem dead at all, but very much alive and vibrant.
I began soliloquizing aloud about the poetry of it all — this might have been what made the bird testy, come to think of it — and admonished myself for failing to discover the sport earlier in life.
Just after the first beaver pond, I happened upon a couple of women who were making their way up the mountain and seemed to be as enchanted as I was. I told them I was new to snowshoeing, but had not found the going to be difficult at all.
They laughed and said, “That’s because we’ve been breaking the trail for you,” and I said “You’ve been breaking the what now?” They said, “Oh, it’s nothing,” and politely let me pass. A little too politely, I thought. And of course, all was immediately made clear to me when I plowed into the first 18-inch drift without having the benefit of someone packing the snow down before me.
Winter climbing was also a curiosity to me in that the more elevation I gained, I became simultaneously hotter and colder. Hotter from the exercise, and colder from the ambient air temperature. It is also interesting to discover how much sound is deadened by trees that are in full leaf. The sound of vehicular traffic on I-87 stayed with me far longer than it would have in the summer.
I did not make it to the top, having established a one-hour turnaround time. I was loath to leave, having finally discovered why people here root for snow storms and panic at a forecast of 50 degrees. But, sad as I was to leave, I had to get back. No sense getting murdered by a couple of frazzled dog groomers.