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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

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.

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.

If you go this winter, chances are you'll find Vince Fox or Scott Boring behind the counter at the Nordic Center. The first day we are there, Vince helps us choose our shoes and attach them to our regular snowboots.

He enjoys his job because he can hike on his days off. "Snowshoeing is a natural thing for me," he says.

He also likes the solitude. Occasionally he plays guitar in the center while Boring strums a banjo.

The snow has really started to fall and the flake-whirling wind is picking up, so right now we're more interested in moving along than singing along.

There are many nearby trails to choose from. Some are crafted for cross-country skiers; all are snowshoer-friendly -- but not necessarily level.

"Many of our trails are more suited for snowshoeing than for cross-country skiing," Fox says. He gives us a map and a hearty farewell, and we're off into the wilds.

By the time we reach the lake, the world around us has become a snow globe. In the blizzardic blur, the map is unreadable.

But we don't get lost. We tramp along the edge of the lake, sometimes on the ice. Now and then we duck back into the woods where there is an intermittently discernible path. We see a few birds braving the snowstorm and we see the tracks of other creatures who have scurried for shelter.

Along the white-spangled way we make out a few wildlife markers. One sign tells us that the snowshoe hare is nocturnal and lives a very short life, usually about three years.

We can see why, if it has to hop around in snow this deep. After a couple of hours, we are sweating. There is a pleasant warmth and worry-free tempo to the walking.

As long as the straps are cinched, walking in snowshoes is, well, a cinch. There is not really any kind of technique to straightforward, level-earth snowshoeing. You have to walk with your legs slightly further apart than usual, as snowshoes are larger than your everyday brogans. Your heel naturally comes down first and, in the newfangled snowshoes, your toes swing somewhat freely. I recommend poles, at least for first-timers. You never know when the terrain will get strange.

But before you know it, you develop a sense of rhythm and you're stepping through the snow like a pro. Call it Inuition.

We stop for a drink at the Boathouse, a rustic cabin on the lake. It's at the bottom of one of the slopes. Rock-and-roll streams from overhead speakers. Snowboarders call for colas. Hard-core skiers knock back plastic shot cups of Crown Royal.

Then we put on our snowshoes once more and leave the sounds of the slopes far behind. We stay together, Jan and I, enjoying the wordlessness and the wonder. We finish our circle around the lake by crossing the dam and climbing a ridge. Going uphill and downhill requires some energy and careful stepping.

Back in our condo we talk of snowshoeing in other places. After all, it's easy, inexpensive, healthy and restorative. It is simply walking.

Unless, of course, you trip on your own shoes, as I did on our way back to the car. I was a little tired, okay? And the hill was steep. I slipped with one foot and fell to one knee. It didn't hurt, in the physical sense.

But it sure-as-sleet shattered Jan's image of me as Omar Sharif.

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