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Walk This Way

In Still-Chilly West Virginia, If the Snowshoe Fits . . . .

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; Page C02

The weird thing: Even as warmer weather flirts with Washington, it is cryonically cold (9 degrees) on top of this West Virginia mountain and bone-zapping winds tear through the trees and ice falls from the sky and the lake off to my left has disappeared in a blinding snowfog and the powder is two feet deep and deepening and yet I am warm and comfortable and delighting in the silence and the sights.

We're snowshoeing, Jan and I.

A snowshoer hikes through the backcountry of Snowshoe Mountain, W. Va. (Courtesy Of Snowshoe Mountain Resort)

On Snowshoe Mountain, half a day away from Washington, snowshoeing seems a perfectly appropriate thing to do.

"You look like Dr. Zhivago in your black coat in the middle of all this white," Jan, my wife, says. She looks like a snow angel.

In a pair of Atlas snowshoes, and using adjustable Leki poles for balance, I am clomping around the edge of Shavers Lake -- through woods, down into ravines, over ice. I do feel like I'm in some epic Russian movie. Or on the top of the world. Or at least on the top of the snow.

Snowshoeing is an age-old yet somewhat obscure sport. Funny that it even exists in this age of four-wheel-drive Hummers. Still snowshoeing is often referred to, along with snowboarding, as the fastest-growing winter sport. But it's not nearly as fast as snowboarding. And that is part of its charm.

Cold-weather historians pretty much agree that people have been using snowshoes -- wide pads designed to distribute body weight -- for 6,000 years or so. The SnowSports Industries Association of McLean reports that a million or so Americans snowshoe every year. Nearly 60 percent are men. Almost 10 percent are 7 to 11 years old.

Only a handful of them, besides us, are making tracks on Snowshoe Mountain this midwinter's day.

The ancients trekked through the snow on crude snowshoes -- some more than seven feet long, according to the Atlas Snowshoes company. The mega-sandals of yesteryear were designed in the manner of snow-negotiating animals. The "beavertail" has a rounded nose and the ends meet in a long tail; the "bearpaw" is short and broad with a round tail. Modern snowshoes incorporate some of those principles, but are lighter and fancier. They are no longer leather and wood but urethane, steel and aluminum.

Oddly enough, Snowshoe Mountain is a relatively new venue for serious snowshoers. The mountain is named for the snowshoe hare, a larger-than-average rabbit that is brown in warm weather and white in winter.

The ski resort, which features 57 slopes and trails, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Built on an Allegheny ridge by an Alabama dentist, the mountaintop retreat is nearly a mile in the sky. One of the outdoor shops is named for the elevation: 4848.

There are slopes for snowboarding and snow-tubing. The resort offers horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobile tours and guided winter camping trips.

But for those of us who simply want to take a walk in the woods, there is snowshoeing. A few years ago, the resort's Nordic Center opened, offering snowshoeing and cross-country skiing along the resort's 24 miles of backcountry trails. The center is a cozy cabin, without a bathroom, just a short drive from the main village.

In its small parking lot, we run into another snowshoeing couple from Washington, Rinaldo Melo and his wife, Claudia Vivas. "I don't ski," says Melo, 49, who works for a Brazilian bank. "It's beautiful to get close to Mother Nature." The couple have snowshoed several places in Europe. They are spending a week at Snowshoe Mountain. This is their fourth day of trekking. Melo says he especially loves these trails because the woods are so deep.

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