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Keeping a Natural Silence on Snowshoes in Vermont

About 4,000 B.C., historians believe, people in Central Asia grew tired of sinking thigh-high in the snow. It was around then, roughly the same era the wheel was invented, that humans first strapped some kind of flat extenders to the bottoms of their feet and traversed the winter landscape by floating atop the snow.

Six millenniums later, snowshoeing is, of course, no longer a matter of mass migration and survival. But it is exploding in popularity, having evolved from a utilitarian way to get from your cabin to your fur traps into a recreational winter sport with rapidly growing participation.

On a recent Saturday, Dave Hardy, director of field programs for the Green Mountain Club, led a group of a dozen snowshoers on a two-hour trek up Willey Hill, a modest, thickly wooded summit about 10 miles from Stowe in central Vermont.

There were frequent stops to drink water, to trade off the strenuous front position in the single-file line and to peel off layers of clothing as bodies warmed. Once or twice, a particularly steep ascent or descent required a short strategy session. Usually, the college-age members of the group would hot-dog their way up or down, sometimes leaping, snowshoes first, off a six-foot drop into a cushion of fresh powder. The more cautious walked the extra few feet to go around the obstacle.

Several inches of snow had fallen in the night. Fresh deer tracks were in abundance. Fallen trees presented their upended root systems, the intricate feathery root hairs and the tunnels bored by small animals exposed to view. The relative quiet of a secluded Vermont back road had given way to the profound quiet of the forest.

Quiet is a word snowshoe enthusiasts use over and over. Snowshoeing offers a meditative alternative to the noise of the snowmobile. Even cross-country skiing makes a certain audible swish, and it tends to be a more aerobic activity, causing the body to make an internal racket of pulsing and panting that can drown the silence of the woods.

But snowshoers can stop and hear that silence, taking in the gentlest call of a far-off black-capped chickadee.

“I like the stillness,” said Kevin Burke, who repairs telephone systems in Beacon Falls, Conn. Mr. Burke, who was at the Green Mountain Club’s Snowshoe Festival in Waterbury Center, Vt., last month, is a newcomer to snowshoeing. In summer, he has enjoyed hiking the Appalachian Trail, which has a 150-mile section in Vermont, as well as the Long Trail, a 272-mile path between Massachusetts and the Quebec border. After joining the Green Mountain Club, he learned that the same trails could be used year-round with snowshoes. Going over familiar trails in a new season, he found the scenery took on a new beauty.

“The sky seems different,” Mr. Burke said. “There’s a blueness you don’t get any other time of year.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, 2.8 million Americans age 16 or older went snowshoeing at least once in 1998; by 2005, that number had risen to 5.5 million. Pete Antos-Ketcham, education coordinator for the Green Mountain Club, said that the sport’s popularity is spiking in Vermont, with miles of trails that were blazed for hikers now getting increased use in winter by snowshoers. (The club maintains the Long Trail as well as most of the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail; the trails are the same in the southern part of the state.)

“It’s completely radical,” said Megan Davin, a journalism major at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., who was also among the 125 people at the Snowshoe Festival. There, elderly New Englanders in plaid woolies mingled with dreadlocked college students in high-tech synthetic winter gear and small children in puffy pink parkas.

The evening before the festival, Ms. Davin went on a guided nighttime snowshoe trek to Sterling Pond, Vermont’s highest trout pond, cupped in a natural hollow near Smugglers’ Notch.

“It was the first time I’d ever done that,” she said. “At first, we used our headlamps. Then our leader told us to shut them off.” Although the moon was full, she said, it was snowing the whole night, transforming the bright moonlight into a diffused glow.

“I had never seen the mountains look so pretty,” Ms. Davin added. “After a while, we preferred hiking without the headlamps.”

SNOWSHOEING may lack the adrenaline rush of snowboarding or downhill skiing, but the adventure of being able to explore in winter almost anywhere, anytime and under any conditions makes it the seasonal sport of choice for many.

Lynn Coeby, an emergency room physician in Ripton, Vt., is a snowshoer, hiker and cross-country skier. But while cross-country skiing offers speed, she said, snowshoeing offers freedom from the beaten track.

“With snowshoes, you can go anywhere,” Dr. Coeby said. “It’s physical. It’s beautiful. It’s invigorating. After I snowshoe, I feel strong. I feel like I can do anything. It’s by far my favorite winter sport.”

That go-anywhere feeling can present dangers, though. Freed from the constraints of a trail or even of daylight, some snowshoers have been known to overextend themselves. Mr. Antos-Ketcham urges snowshoers to have fun but be safety minded, too.

“The thing is, it’s winter,” he said. “Be prepared. We recently had to go find somebody who just took off into the woods behind his house in the Morrisville-Stowe area and got very lost. He had a cellphone but no map, no compass and no plan for what happened if it became dark. We followed his tracks in and found him. He probably could have turned around and followed his own tracks back out, if he’d brought a flashlight.”

Snowshoes themselves have been transformed from their classic wood-and-rawhide forebears into a dizzying array of colored aluminum tubes, flame-shaped molded composites and space-age plastic forms, about a quarter-million of which are sold in a strong winter season. A trip to the sporting goods store for a pair of snowshoes can be a bewildering experience, with a wall of choices facing the shopper.

There are backcountry snowshoes and running snowshoes, snowshoes with spring-loaded bindings that keep the shoe from dragging, big snowshoes for big people and cute little snowshoes for children. There are red snowshoes for men and lavender snowshoes for women, designed to suit the different gaits of the sexes. There are snowshoes with detachable tails that can be snapped on when snow conditions change, Darth Vader-ish ultra-light sleek black plastic snowshoes, and for the purist, a few companies still make old-fashioned steam-bent white ash snowshoes with rawhide webbing.

Good snowshoes can cost less than $200; the wooden models are about $100 more. Hiking boots are usually adequate as footwear, especially if gaiters are worn to keep snow from creeping down the ankles. Trekking poles are recommended, though not necessary.

But once the snowshoes are strapped on and the trail is ahead, all that design recedes into the background. Nobody’s looking down anyway.

IN “The Snowshoe Book,” William Osgood and Leslie Hurley say that when some ancestors of the North American Indians crossed the Bering Strait from Asia, they brought their primitive snowshoes with them. They would widen them into broad ovoid frames and weave rawhide strips through them for traction, while those who remained behind preferred to slide across the snow, and their devices would grow long, narrow and slippery — precursors of the modern ski.

From time to time on Willey Hill, Mr. Hardy and his trekkers encountered a recognizable cross-country ski trail, and he would instruct the group not to disturb the nicely groomed ski ruts.

Here the allure of the snowshoe was made palpable: those poor cross-country skiers, proceeding in their straight lines. The members of the snowshoe party respectfully stepped over the tracks and were on their way, meandering through uncharted Vermont territory to the next good view.

VISITOR INFORMATION

IN Vermont, the Green Mountain Club maintains the Long Trail, which is divided into sections. Visit www.greenmountainclub.org and go to “GMC Sections” to find listings of guided snowshoe walks.

The Dartmouth Outing Club (www.dartmouth.edu/~doc), which maintains a section of the Appalachian Trail from just north of Woodstock, Vt., to Kinsman Notch in New Hampshire, offers snowshoe-friendly winter hikes.

On the Tubbs Snowshoes Web site, www.tubbssnowshoes.com/trailnet, users post their favorite snowshoeing spots. The database contains thousands of trails, ranked by difficulty, with driving directions and, in some cases, user reviews. The site has nearly 240 trails in Vermont.

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