Snowshoeing a slower way to enjoy outdoors

Published on Thu, Jan 29, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Snowshoeing a slower way to enjoy outdoors

By Jack Kintner

If you can walk, you can snowshoe. And if you can snowshoe, you can open up a whole new world of walking into scenes most people only see on greeting cards and calendars.

It’s inexpensive, equipment usually renting for less than $20 a day. Unlike skiing and snow boarding there’s little in the way of special equipment that’s needed aside from weather appropriate clothing and a few other things you may already have.

Hazards and safety

Some are obvious, such as thin ice, especially along streams, and buried obstacle like old mining tackle or holes. Essentially, you’re in the mountains so you need to be prepared and equipped. The classic ten essentials (from Mountaineering – The Freedom of the Hills) are a good place to start and should be carried anytime when hiking out of sight of your car: map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra food and water, extra clothes, a headlamp or flashlight, first aid kit, fire starter, matches and a knife.

A GPS receiver is not a replacement for a compass as trees and terrain or weak batteries will mean no signal. Compasses are cheap. Sunscreen is important even on overcast days as you will burn much more quickly given the altitude and the reflective qualities of snow.

Nice to have’s include an insulated water bladder that fits inside a pack, making drinking easy and convenient and keeping the water from freezing; a square of thin foam padding to sit on, because if you sit in the snow especially for long periods you’ll get a wet behind; wrap your camera in a large microfiber towel which is nice for everything from mopping your brow to cleaning your camera.

You may find yourself able to get closer to birds and other wildlife but remember to keep your distance and respect the fact that winter can be tough for them without having to avoid you, too. Frost bite isn’t a big concern in this area unless it really gets cold, but hypothermia sure is. Cotton that gets wet from sweat can be as cold as diving into a nearly frozen lake. Remember that dry = warm, and that drinking enough water and eating enough nutritious food are essential to mountain survival.

Where to go

In the Mt. Baker area there are several good spots to go as all you really need is a few inches of snow, but the best are the trails of the Salmon Ridge Ski Trail System maintained by the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club out of Bellingham.

Before discussing this, remember that as a snowshoer your responsibility when sharing an area with other non-motorized pursuits is to stay off the ski tracks, usually two little parallel grooves in the snow that skiers need. Stepping on them in a snowshoe crushes them, and it can do to a skier what sand on the ice do to a skater.

The Salmon Ridge System is located 13 miles east of Glacier just past milepost 46 on the Mt. Baker Highway (542), across from the Silver Fir Campground.

The system includes Anderson Creek Road, Ridge Road, the Hannegan Pass Road, White Salmon Road and the Razorhone Road core area. A map and more detail is available at nooksacknordicskiclub.org.

The area is open to the public free of charge but it is part of the state Sno-Park system, so daily ($9) or seasonal ($30) parking permits are required. An exception is White Salmon Road, a little farther east on 542 a half mile beyond milepost 51. The road has limited parking and does not require the parking pass. Since it branches off the left side of the highway in the middle of a sharp hairpin turn as you approach it, users are advised to keep going a half mile past the road, turn around at the Salmon Ridge Day Lodge entrance and return, or park there and snowshoe back!

What kind to get

There are different shoes for different purposes, of course, but for the most part it’s a one-size-fits-all kind of thing in the foothills around the Northwest where so-called back country snowshoes are the model of choice. There are also racing shoes that have tails on them for tracking and others for more specialized applications, but for general trail and off-trail use it’s hard to beat the Mountain Safety Research (MSR) Denali, a plastic shoe with built-in crampons. Atlas makes a brand that consists of a steel tube wrapped in fabric and which has an extra claw underneath for greater traction. The Atlas is somewhat quicker but the Denali is better on sidehills, and has rubber straps that don’t freeze, unlike the nylon straps found on virtually every other brand of snowshoe.

They’re mounted by placing the ball of your foot directly over the hinge that allows your foot to pivot, and centering it on the snowshoe. Tighten the front strap first, followed by the heel strap and finish by tightening the straps over your instep.

Clothing

The idea, as with almost any outdoor exercise, is to dress in layers that can be shed or put on as needed. You’ll be exercising in snow country where temperatures can range from very cold to surprisingly warm, especially in the sun, not to mention your own temperature varying as you warm up during a walk. A rule of thumb is that at least to begin with you’ll be dressed about right if you’re just a little chilly at first, about ready to put on a coat. Warm up with exercise instead and put the coat on when you stop for a break.

Except for towels or a bandana, avoid cotton (jeans especially), since it will retain moisture and then get very cold, as will you. An inner layer of non-cotton long johns works best to allow you to perspire but stay dry. The middle layer should be an insulating layer or fleece or wool, and top that with something that will block the wind, snow and (this is the northwest) rain.

Tip: if you’re the kind that likes to rummage through second hand clothing stores, you can often find wool pants from old uniforms that work great. Another great invention that can help you fine-tune your clothing to the right amount of warming for varying conditions are vents, zippered openings in the back and sides of jackets.

Boots

Just about anything works as long as it’s waterproof, the only way to make sure your feet stay dry. The kind of boot you use does not have to be big or stiff but it should keep your feet warm and be something you can walk in for a while because a poor-fitting boot will blister your feet, just as when hiking. Some people avoid Sorrels and other plastic boots for this reason, but light-weight hiking boots and shoes, often not much more than a running shoe with a big sole, are fine as long as, again, they’re waterproof.

Socks are as important as the boots or shoes themselves. Socks should be polypropylene, silk or wool or both, wool with a polypro liner (not cotton), a good way to cut down on blistering. Gaiters will help keep your ankles and feet dry in powder snow. Some people prefer old-fashioned knickers with heavy wool knee socks because they give you a lot more freedom of movement than pants.

Hats and gloves are also important, as you’ll lose heat much more quickly without a hat. Take along something warm but small enough to be stowed in a day pack or pocket. Gloves should be lined, again because dry = warm.

More information

The single best source of information for snowshoeing in the Mt. Baker area is from the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club website, www.nooksacknordicskiclub.org.

Avalanche information and current conditions are available on-line from the Northwest Avalanche Center at www.nwac.us.

Current area information is available at the Glacier Public Service Center in Glacier, open weekends through February from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 360/599-2714, and at the Mt. Baker Ranger District, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 360/856-5700,

Parking

Many of the sites require a Washington State Sno-Park parking permit, good anywhere in Washington and Oregon. They cost $10 per day or $30 for the season. Though not required everywhere, the fine is $66 for parking in a fee lot without the permit. Sno-Park permits may be purchased at the public service center and the ranger district office and at the following retail outlets in the area:

Crossroads Grocery and Video, Silver Lake Road and Highway 542, Maple Falls 360/599-9657

Daily Sno-Park Permits are also available on-line at www.parks. wa.gov/winter

Rental equipment

MSR Denali snowshoes may be rented at the Glacier Ski Shop for $15 per day.

REI in Bellingham rents various kinds of snowshoes for $12 to $18 per day and poles for $4 to $8 per day.