To The Winter Woods
Reflections on Snowshoeing
Late last winter, I was stoking the fire in the woodstove and listening. The wood was wet after a late-afternoon melting spell, and the sound it made was a nasal burr that was familiar from some other context that I could not place. I sat listening to it for a minute or two before I realized it was a bee’s frequency. It had been five months since I had heard any insect languages, the last being a cricket trapped somewhere in the basement in the fall. I had listened to it stridulate while I ran on the treadmill, staring at the row of snowshoes hanging from the floor joists above me.
I used to consider the end of the warmer months to be the end of my substantial hiking adventures. The list of equipment required for winter outings was daunting and expensive. Water bottles froze. Stories of people delirious or dead from hypothermia and found semi-clothed in the mountains kept me to short walks on local paths. Most of the parks and conservation land around here don’t pose such dangers; within a day or two of a snowstorm, the trails are well packed by human and dog feet, and, except for a few icy patches, easily traversed without special gear. I owned a pair of hand-me-down snowshoes, but hardly ever needed them, and on most of my walks left them strapped to my backpack. Over the years, I got antsy for trails less traveled and for longer hikes. I got myself a pair of snowshoes with aggressive teeth and forward-lunging claws at the front, and little bars that locked in place under my heels for climbing the steeps, and my sister and I began winter hiking in the White Mountains.
Even up there, most of the popular trails are broken out within a day of a fresh snowfall. A trough only as wide as a single human’s stance and with steep sides would lead off into the trees, and all of us subsequent walkers would keep to the exact trace of where those pioneers had gone, often setting our snowshoes precisely into their prints, following their ghosts. Once in a while, we would break trail ourselves, a grueling job of high-stepping and sinking thigh deep sometimes, and feel virtuous and benevolent looking back at the path we’d made for unknown hikers to come.
There are difficult things about snowshoeing no matter where you do it. Breaking new paths, postholing into unexpectedly deep drifts, losing your balance and falling off the made trail, then wallowing awhile in the loose snow for purchase. In the mountains, the snow can get so deep that it hides smaller evergreens, creating “spruce traps,” where the concealed branches can give way underneath and you fall into a pit of the tree’s making. But there is a benevolence to snow-covered trails, too. The rocks, mud and raised roots that make summer hiking treacherous in its way are all smoothed over by the snow. You can adopt a more regular cadence over the softened landscape. In fresh snow especially, every step is cushioned, and though the thighs still burn from the effort, the knees and hips are spared the concussive forces of a walk on dirt and stone. If you ever lose the way, you have a breadcrumb trail of your own shoe prints back to where you came from.
Even in a winter without much snow, we spend so much time feeling tyrannized by gravity, shuffle-stepping on poorly sanded stairs, tentatively testing the sidewalks for black ice. Skiers give in to gravity, flinging themselves into its arms. Snowshoeing is something in between. On borrowed claws and splayed feet, we get a little of the hare’s float, a little of the lynx’s grip. At first, it’s hard to trust how certain and steady snowshoes can make you feel. Accustomed to the nervous teetering of an upright mammal not adapted to snow, the first steps bring a sensation of disbelief. Even on a weathered, packed trail of ice, even on an incline, the metal teeth do their work and the expected backslide doesn’t come. Gradually you feel secure enough to look up and around from time to time. Winter is quiet, without the thrum of insects or the seethe of bird and frog song. The only sounds are the wind and the hydraulic creak of half-downed trees sliding against each other, but there are visible highways’ worth of tracks in the snow. The leafless winter woods are expansive, open. Rabbit, squirrel, mouse, vole, deer, moose, dog leave traces that, unlike the conversations they carry on with each other all year in scent marks, urine and musk, we can actually hear. On the shoes, we go to our listening posts.