Snowshoes provide new way to enjoy wilderness in winter

Ralph Seeley snowshoes in the Quehanna Wild Area last winter.
Ralph Seeley snowshoes in the Quehanna Wild Area last winter. For the CDT

With a pair of snowshoes hanging from the rafters, you will be eagerly waiting for snow.

Deep snow will be even better. With a pair of snowshoes you can be walking in a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Snowshoeing may be your way to a better appreciation of winter.

The earliest snowshoes were little more than slabs of wood tied onto early man’s feet, and it was only after crossing the snow-covered Bering Strait that snowshoes were perfected in North America. Each Native American tribe that lived in areas where deep winter snows made getting around difficult perfected a style of snowshoe that worked best for regional conditions.

Different conditions led to different shapes. The basic shapes share the names of the Native American Tribes: Huron, Yukon, Ojibwa and Cree.

Snowshoeing, once essential to winter survival, can get you out and enjoying the winter woods. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. The easiest way to learn is to put a pair on and walk. Initial awkwardness will disappear by the end of an afternoon on the snow.

Snowshoeing is appropriate for the entire family. Beginners and those with more experience can enjoy being out together. The pace can range from a stroll to an aerobic workout.

With sufficient snow — six inches is minimal, but 12 or more is best — the woods are open for your adventure. Floating a foot or two over the forest floor eliminates the need for staying on a trail. Places inaccessible to a cross-country skier or to a snowmobile are accessible on snowshoes. Steep mountain sides or thick woods — no problem with enough snow and snowshoes.

The experience of walking into the whiteness of a landscape covered with a blanket of new snow stretching for miles into the wildness is accessible to most of us.

Choose a place that you are familiar with, or travel with an organized outing. Once you get the feel for snowshoeing, the winter world is open for exploration. If you are comfortable, ease your way into bushwhacking.

To avoid getting lost, choose an area that has very obvious boundaries formed by streams, roads, utility right of ways, or the edge of mountains. In central Pennsylvania we are surrounded by a large amount of public lands.

The Moshannon State Forest is one such area and it tends to get more snow than the valleys. State Route 504 between Black Moshannon State Park and the end of the mountain above Unionville offers nearly seven miles of roughly east-west highway.

Try walking for 30 minutes or so north of 504, and then turn around and walk back. With a long straight boundary to come back to I have found it impossible to get lost as long as I was comfortable with a compass and a map, used the sun, or used my tracks.

Once you are comfortable wandering around in the woods, each day offers unique adventures. The white unspoiled world of a new snowfall will eventually contain the tracks where many animals have written their story. The story is often filled in by following those tracks. Some days are pure fun — “skiing” down steep inclines with the higher comfort level snowshoeing offers compared to cross-country skiing.

Winter safety can be enhanced by following a few basic precautions. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Dress in layers, adding and subtracting them as your comfort level dictates. Drink plenty of fluids. In winter it is easy to overlook the fact that you need to replenish what you are losing as you perspire.

On winter outings, include a daypack with items such as a dry layer of clothing, dry socks, a headlight with lithium batteries, matches and fire starting material, an emergency bag (”space blanket” material), whistle, sunglasses, first aid kit, duct tape and bailing wire (snowshoe repair).

One last emphasis on a compass and map: Even if you know where you are going they could be needed if you become disoriented. Winter is no time to be lost in the woods.

Dressed in layers, safety concerns addressed, snowshoes strapped on — it is time to head for the woods and enjoy winter. Snowshoeing offers a way for each of us to explore the public lands that are there for all of us. Snowshoeing is way to enjoy winter, a season that is often underappreciated.

And remember, snowshoeing can be as simple and enjoyable as a walk in the woods.

Gary Thornbloom is the co-chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club. He can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net.

If you go

Directions: The seven miles of State Route 504 east of Black Moshannon State Park offers a well defined east-west boundary. Bureau of Forestry roads and utility rights of way offer additional landmarks to aid orientation. Trailheads along this section of highway have parking areas that are usually plowed.

Resources: Appalachian Outdoors in downtown State College has snowshoes both for sale and for rent. And they have the staff that will put you on snowshoes that will work for you.

The Moshannon State Forest public sse map is available for free at the park office.

If you are not comfortable venturing off trail on your own, consider joining a local outing with Sierra Club Moshannon Group (www.sierramsh.org).