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Fresh tracks

My snowshoe partner Elle and I had steadily traveled up a steep hillside and now stood high above Highway 89, panting out plumes of wintry breath, our poles and shoes firmly planted in the crunchy snow. Below were sparkling Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe, empty of boats. Behind us in a valley was Cascade Lake, mist rising from its frozen surface. The vivid colors almost rang out in the thin air -- white snow, dark evergreens, the light blue of the sky and the darker blue-black of the lake.

The scene was gorgeous, the solitude inspiring. We were the only people in the world, or so it seemed.

That was in March, our final snowshoe outing of the season. Now that the snow is due to fall again, we're making plans for more trips. You can, too. The sport is easy to learn and has big paybacks -- it's great exercise that literally takes you into a winter wonderland. Think of it as hiking on top of snow -- a sport with a forgiving nature to newcomers.

Snowshoeing's roots can be traced back about 6,000 years, when tribes from Asia that migrated to North America strapped pieces of carved wood to their footwear to help them walk over snow and ice. Much later, the snowshoe evolved into the familiar tennis racket-looking tool, made from wood frames and rawhide-thong decking.

By the 1970s, snowshoes made from metal and synthetic materials were becoming the standard, and improvements were made on the snowshoe deck (the platform on which the boot rests), bindings (which attach the snowshoe to the boot) and traction (with the advent of the solid deck, crampons, or claws, became mandatory). Research and development were big, and a new concept called "ergonomics" was brought into the equation.

Still, most snowshoeing was being done by guides, trappers, the military and other "professional users," with few recreationists involved. But by the 1990s, as the industry became more sophisticated and marketing-conscious, and as Nordic skiers (and, later, snowboarders) crossed over, snowshoeing for the fun of it took off in a flurry.

If you want numbers, check in with the Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder, Colo., a group of manufacturers, sales reps, retailers and service providers that exists to "get more Americans active," said Mike Lee, its marketing manager.

The OIA tracks participation in myriad outdoors activities, and has had its eyes on snowshoeing since at least 1998. It reports that recreational snowshoeing peaked in 2002-03, with 5.9 million "participants" (those who snowshoed at least once a season) and 1.1 million "enthusiasts" (those who snowshoedregularly). However, in2004 snowshoeing activitydropped by 22 percent.

"That year there was a winterdrought in the Northwest, amajor user area," Lee pointedout. "When ski areas don't open,people don't snowshoe. Also, wesee (number fluctuations) inother sports, too, as with kayaking.

"Snowshoeing's dynamicgrowth period is petering out,and (the numbers) will move upand down until they find a comfortablelevel. But you will seethe core user group grow assnowshoeing becomes part ofpeople's lifestyles. It's an emergingactivity, but one that'squickly maturing."

Does snowshoeing have abright future?

"Absolutely, because it is soeasy to get into," Lee said. "Allyou need is access to open spacewith snow. It's not like whenyou start mountain biking orskiing, where you're going to falland get scraped up, and wherethe learning curve is much harder."

Grown from a niche

The sport even has its own online periodical, Colorado-based Snowshoe magazine, filled with informative articles and advice. The print version is scheduled to debut in December, said its founder, Ryan Alford.

"I had a dream to start a publishing company and found my niche three years ago," he said. "We grew from a sophisticated blog and then started to offer a lot of content. All of a sudden, we were seeing an influx of snowshoers from around the nation, and then drew in an audience worldwide. I've had many conversations with snowshoers in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and Russia. For some (unknown) reason, most of the site's visitors are women."

Snowshoeing began as a niche sport and grew from there, Alford pointed out. "One of the benefits is it's such a healthy sport. I've allowed it to change my life as far as becoming active, getting outside and losing weight. And it invites the concept of community. Clubs are sprouting up, there are more competitions, and friends and families are getting together to snowshoe.

"Also, people are discovering it's cost-effective. You're not going to spend 60 bucks on a lift ticket or thousands of dollars on equipment. Besides, most snowshoes today have lifetime warranties."

The advantage of snow

So, let's say you want to go snowshoeing and don't know where to begin. First, it helps to hear encouraging words.

"If you can go on a one-mile hike, you're a perfect candidate for snowshoeing. Often, it's easier than hiking because the terrain gets somewhat evened out," said Adam Scherer, an expert snowshoer, snowboarder, member of the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol and the assistant manager for the Sacramento REI store.

"On snowshoes, you can move in terrain that you can't reach by hiking in the summer because there's too much loose rock, manzanita and other ground cover," he said. "But once there's 6 feet of snow, the world is yours. To me, there's nothing more beautiful than being on top of a ridge and looking over the Sierra when they're covered in snow.

"Being out in the middle of nowhere and seeing things that no one else can -- that's the thing."

Triathlete and snowshoe racer Cathy Anderson-Meyers lives near Grass Valley and offers snowshoeing trips through her company, CathyWorks.

"I had been a downhill and cross-country skier before my kids came along, and then I started snowshoeing because the family could do it together," she said. "It didn't require weeks of practice and lessons, I didn't fall down, didn't have to wait in lift lines or pay big fees, and I could go anywhere."

"It's not as difficult as most people think," said Lana Olson, president of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Outdoor Adventure Club, a company that specializes in guided tours for outdoor recreationists interested in rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking, winter camping and the like.

"Basically, you put on snowshoes and walk. Yes, there is technique involved, because you learn to walk like John Wayne, with a wider stance. The neat thing about it is you can pretty much go anyplace you want, like to areas that are impassible during the non-snow months."

Gearing up

Before you strap on snowshoes and take off across a meadow or up a hill, there are practical matters to consider.

Buying the gear, for instance, though rentals are common. Snowshoes range from $100 to $300, depending mainly on the materials from which they're made. Rental rates vary, but average $10 to $20 a day at sporting-goods stores and ski resorts. Typically, the cost goes down to $5 to $10 a day after the first day of rental.

Note: At the resorts, be prepared to pay a trail fee, which ranges from $24 to $28 a day.

And a question: Do you really want to spend $250 for snowshoes? What's the real difference between a pair of noisy, all-plastic snowshoes with a complicated network of straps for bindings, and a pair made from aerospace-grade aluminum and stainless steel with built-in heel lifts, or ones made of super-lightweight carbon fiber?

"You're paying for ease and efficiency, such as better flotation on the snow," said Scherer of REI. "Can you enjoy snowshoeing with the cheapest pair? Absolutely. Will they perform as well as a more expensive pair? Absolutely not."

Name any outdoor recreation and the phenomenon is the same: The attending gear grows to become an industry in itself. This is true of winter sports in general -- much of the gear crosses over the boundaries to touch on skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and even ice fishing (chemically activated toe-warmers, anyone?).

"Any time something gets more popular, there will be an increased demand by customers for manufacturers to provide more gear that is specific to the activity" is how Scherer puts it.

Sure, low-profile snowshoe-specific shoes are a great idea ($90 to $150, the top-end ones made from breathable Gore-Tex), as are ankle gaiters ($25 to $80), but you can get by with tucking your pant legs into a pair of fake-fur-lined rubber boots. You'll be slower, of course, and you might not want to trek as far.

Poles, however, are a solid accessory because they add stability and balance, and help you get back on your feet after a fall; some even double as snow picks. These days, snowshoe-specific poles can easily be adjusted to fit the situation. Are you ascending, descending or traversing? Remove the snow cups and you have hiking poles for the summer.

"I snowshoe regularly and think poles are a necessity," Scherer said. "Once you've snowshoed with poles, you'll never snowshoe without them."

Poles run from $50 to $120, depending on special features and, again, on the materials. As with other sports, generally speaking, lighter is costlier.

So, what's new in this sport's gear?

"The biggest recent changes in the industry are with the binding systems and with women-specific snowshoes," Scherer said.

Top manufacturers such as MSR, Atlas, Tubbs, Redfeather, Crescent Moon and Havlick have improved the bindings on their higher-end models for simpler entry and exit. It's mostly a case of ratchet bindings (the more you ratchet the binding into a clip, the tighter it gets) vs. lace bindings.

"My rule of thumb with bindings is you want them easy to use," Scherer said. "When you're shopping for snowshoes, grab a pair of gloves off the shelf and see how easy the bindings are to adjust without taking off the gloves. You'll find that some of them are designed for that, and some are not. Stay clear of the ones that are not, unless price is an issue."

As for women-specific snowshoes, companies such as MSR have conducted extensive studies, marking the physical differences between the genders and applying that knowledge to snowshoe technology.

"Obviously, women have different body geometry than men," Scherer said. "A well-engineered women's snowshoe will be narrower and more tapered. They're generally lighter, but after that, it's all about the colors."

A legend in the Sierra

If you do end up stepping into a pair of snowshoes and hiking up a mountain or across a snow-blanketed meadow, take some inspiration from a pioneering mountain man.

Jon Torsteinson-Rue (a.k.a. John Thompson) emigrated as a child from Norway to the United States. As an adult, he ended up in the Sacramento Valley and answered this newspaper ad in 1855: "People Lost to the World - Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier."

Though he was pushing age 30, "Snowshoe Thompson" accepted the job. In preparation, he built a 10-foot-long pair of ski-shaped snowshoes to get over the winter-whipped mountain passes. Called "ski-skates" and common in his native Norway, the oak skis weighed -- depending on which source you consult -- from 12 to 25 pounds each.

For the next 20 years, Thompson made seemingly impossible 90-mile winter trips through whiteouts and hurricane-force winds to deliver mail to people in remote regions. Thompson and his route became known as the Snowshoe Express.

Snowshoe Thompson was buried near Genoa, Nev., in the Carson Valley in May 1876, but his legend is still out there, trekking up and down the Sierra.