I turned 56 last week and took up snowshoeing three days later. The question is: Is this a wise thing to do? I've been told that recreation should become less strenuous with age, and the following morning I had a bad case of what French-Canadian fur trappers of yore called "mal de raquette" (more later). Aging is, of course, a main component of the existential dilemma, but the snowshoeing I can blame on the girls.
A few months ago I joined a local hiking club, and though there are roughly forty people on the e-mail list, I've only met a dozen or so, the latter group being regular hikers. We meet every Thursday morning in the Alco (a Salmon department store) parking lot, which happens to be behind my apartment building. From there we carpool a few miles to that day's designated hike. Cold weather doesn't faze us, but we do have a below zero rule. If it's below zero at 9 a.m. that day's designated hike is cancelled. And we hike in falling snow as long as it's not a serious snowstorm.
I describe the club as "the girls" because I've only met two other men and they're not regulars. The girls are of retirement age, married, and their husbands -- working or retired themselves -- don't hike. I would hazard a guess that if there is a singular American demographic group serious about regular exercise, it would be women who are Baby Boomers or slightly older. On snowshoeing day it was Barbara, Marlene, Mary and Sharon.
The five of us drove 45 miles north up Route 93 to Lost Trail Pass (El. 7,014) on the Montana line, and a couple of miles farther to the Chief Joseph Pass Cross Country (XC) Ski Area with its freely accessed miles of groomed trails on Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The snow was three or four feet deep and lined the perimeter of the plowed parking lot in much higher white walls. The lodgepole pines looked like collapsed white parasols. There at 7,000 feet a gentle light snow drifted out of wispily transparent clouds that promised a sunny day. It was a bucolic scene, and even the "vault" toilet next to the parking looked liked it might grace a Christmas card. Though when I used it I found it drafty from many directions. We strapped on our short aluminum-framed snowshoes and in single file headed up the trail, staying to the right side because we shared it with cross country skiers. Marlene -- who knew the trails from many skiing trips -- boldly led the group like Jim Bridger piloting a brigade of traveling trappers. Mary had a good identifying eye for critter tracks on the trail, mostly from rabbits and the spindly markings of birds. We didn't want to run into a cow moose and calf this day, or any day. The deer and elk were now in lower elevations out of the deep snow.
The trick to snowshoeing is to lean slightly forward and distinctly pick up your feet. And the ski poles we used were handy to maintain balance and assist forward motion. I fell only once, and that was because I walked over an odd sinkhole in the trail and sank a couple of feet. The trail followed undulating terrain atop a plateau on the pass. Uphill was strenuous; downhill easier, but harder on the legs. There were occasional mountain views, but mostly we traveled through that white forest of ten feet tall snowcrusted lodgepoles, and sweated despite the cold.
Archeologists tell us that humans have been snowshoeing for five thousand years, as stretched animal hide shoes that old have been found in Central Europe. But snowshoeing as we know it is North American in origin. In his 17th-century memoirs Samuel de Champlain wrote of Algonquin and Huron hunters who, "when there is much snow they make a kind of snowshoe… and thus go on the snow without sinking into it, otherwise they would not be able to hunt or go from one location to the other". The French "voyageurs" quickly adopted the long hardwood framed and rawhide webbed snowshoes that aided their trapping and trading forays into the Canadian wilderness. During the French and Indian War, a 1758 skirmish in the winter woods near Fort Ticonderoga has come down to us as "The Battle on Snowshoes".
I wonder if those guys while shooting muskets and ducking arrows had trouble keeping the damn things on their feet. Barbara -- who had lent me the snowshoes that I was wearing -- was behind me and coaching my initial steps. I kept losing my right snowshoe and wasn't even aware of it until I'd taken an extra step, my unshod foot awkwardly plunging deep into the snow. "There it goes again," she'd say. At her urging I finally remedied this by securing the heel strap farther up on my ankle. And walking slightly pigeon-toed felt more comfortable. Though this is probably why my calves, insteps, and Achilles' tendons ached upon rising the next morning. The mincing-step lameness of the "mal de raquette".
At lunchtime outside the comfortable warming hut three miles up the trail I took Sharon's picture with her digital camera. It was now a gloriously sunny day with the sun sparkling off the snow. Sunscreen and dark glasses mandatory. Barbara remarked that it was as if we were all on vacation at a ritzy Colorado ski resort.
But counting friendship and camaraderie, it was even better than that.