“Bring your toes all the way forward, Grant, up to the clip of this binding, and then pull the strap across the top of your foot as tight as you can.”
So advised my guide, Jack Newkirk. But when it’s twenty degrees with a wind chill making it much colder, and the snowflakes are buzzing circles around your head like an angry hive of hornets, stepping into and strapping on a pair of two-foot-long snowshoes isn’t the easiest of winter activities.
Yet with Newkirk’s patient tone and simple instructions, it was but a matter of minutes before I and my companions were set and ready to follow his lead into the snow-covered hills of the Deschutes National Forest near Bend, Oregon.
Newkirk is a guide who works for Wanderlust Tours in Bend, and leads varied year-round recreational outings across the region, but in wintertime when the snow is waist deep, the specialty is snowshoe hiking.
It’s the powder that folks live to play in near central Oregon’s Mt Bachelor – high cascade powder that is lighter and fluffier than the snow that falls across most of western Oregon. It draws folks from all over who yearn to ski or board the mountain’s slopes.
“These are going to be your friends, chuckled Newkirk. “When we’re climbing uphill in the snow and the ice they will give you traction and you will learn to love them.”
Newkirk said that snow shoes had come a long ways from the old days of heavy wood, leather laces and beaver pelts.
“When you think back to the people who would have used them the most – what kind of peoples were they? Eskimos and fur trappers! They needed a shoe large enough to support their weight plus hundreds of pounds of equipment, traps and gear that they had to carry around.”
Today, the shoes are made of aluminum alloys and other high tech materials that are so lightweight, you hardly know that you’re wearing them.
“Okay, troops, let’s go up this way.” With that said, Jack herded his largely inexperienced charges into a semicircle around him to receive more helpful tips: “When you go uphill make sure you dig your toes into the hill, dig the balls of the feet in, and just start moving.”
Dan and Shelly Coe chased down Wanderlust Tours all the way from Ohio and they were surviving their very first snowshoe venture just fine.
Shelly laughed as she toppled into the powder after stepping onto the back of her left shoe with the front of the right. In between her giggles she told me, “The walking isn’t the hard part. It’s getting up after you fall down, and I discovered that if I you put your hand down on the snow for balance, you keep falling deeper and deeper into it.”
There is a blissful feeling of nearly floating across the snow on the broad, lightweight shoes. It isn’t anything like the desperate plodding you often see in movies, or read about in Jack London’s tales of the far north.
“The coolest part of snow shoeing is that what must go up – doesn’t have to come down but gets to come down – and going downhill in snow shoes is fantastic!”
With that, he invited each of us to run or jog downhill – he called it “snow surfing.”
“Big steps, gang! The trick is to not stop running – whatever you do, just keep moving.”
“It’s a blast,” shouted Dan Coe. “I love the really light, fluffy powder – I mean it’s amazing – like what they call “champagne snow” – just don’t find it on the east coast – or frankly very much on the west coast – it spoils you!”
Rather, despite the six-foot snow depth, there’s a certain rhythm to the walking, and it takes only minutes to get the hang of it. Then you begin to look up, take stock of your surroundings and the magnificence of the snow on the trees, burdened with the heavy overcoat of fresh snowfall.
And then there is the quiet of the forest. It seems to whisper to you, “This is Mother Nature at her finest.”