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Snow-shoeing in Vermont

If you go down to the woods today
Financial Times, February 2004

 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes would probably be at home here, but we are not. It is minus 13 Fahrenheit (-25C) and my wife’s eyelashes have frozen solid. Beneath her breath-frosted hat and scarf I can see her blonde fringe stiff with ice. She appears to be smiling, but that could just be the pain of her numb fingers and toes. I fear recriminations.

It is day one of an eight-day snowshoeing holiday to Vermont, and coincides with one of the coldest snaps in the north eastern U.S. for 30 years. As Louise reminds me, this was my idea. We could easily have gone somewhere warm; the Bahamas or South Africa. Instead, we are wearing pretty much every layer of clothing we packed: thermal underwear, long-sleeved shirts, two fleeces, Gore-tex anorak and moleskins trousers overlaid with waterproofs. While the final layers of clothing could go on in the car, the snowshoes have to be put on outside. The wind cuts like a knife, and after five frantic minutes of fiddling, we have to take the risk of removing gloves to tackle the straps. Unbelievably, my fingers lose feeling within a minute. It’s a race against frostbite.

Snowshoes finally fitted and gloves on, we make our first man-on-the-moon steps. It hasn’t snowed for a while and the glazed crust of old ice squeals underfoot, making conversation impossible as we clatter up a  logging road and into the forest. An hour’s waddling is enough is to restore feeling to fingers and toes, so with honour satisfied we bolt back to the car and return to the warmth of our luxurious hotel.

We are staying in the historic town of Bennington, in the south west of the state. The South Shire Inn is a typical large New England mansion, with a graciously curved verandah and numerous gables. Built for banker Louis A. Graves at the turn of the century, it boast ten foot ceilings, a mahogany panelled library and nine luxurious rooms, most with four poster beds. Best of all is afternoon tea. This banquet of home-baked cookies, tea and coffee with complimentary sherry is served in front of a roaring log fire every day from 4pm until 6pm. Breakfasts are endlessly inventive; from apple and cinnamon French toast to ginger waffles, and exquisitely served chilled flutes of fresh fruit. After years of the breakfast monotony of British B&Bs, it is bliss to stay where nothing is fried. Our hosts, Joyce and George Goeke cater mainly to domestic tourists coming to see the autumn forest colours, go hiking in the summer or just enjoy a romantic weekend.

With most of the ski-ing further north in the state, they don’t get many winter sports visitors. Perhaps they should. Within an hour’s drive there are hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine state parkland, thronged in the summer with campers, hikers and picnickers, but deserted in winter. There is an injustice here. While the majestic landscapes of the national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, are internationally known and attract millions, America’s thousands of state parks lie undiscovered. Vermont alone has 50 such parks, most created during the depression by President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Their hills, forests and lakes are the hidden gems of U.S. conservation and job creation, and are home to moose, black bear, deer, porcupine, skunk and many bird species.

Getting there is part of the fun. Four wheel drive or at least all-weather tyres is essential. The turn offs are often waist deep in hard-packed snow where the snowploughs have been past, so you may have to park on the road. For the few cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers who make the effort,  they offer the ultimate in winter solitude, or a perfect day’s break from a  crowded ski resort. It is an odd experience to trudge open park areas in arctic conditions, seeing barbecue stands capped with a dollop of snow, blanketed picnic tables and iced-up pedloes waiting for a season when temperatures are 100 F higher.

The forests are young and varied. Brakes of eastern hemlock, red pine, bitternut hickory and American beech are mixed in with flowering dogwood, black cherry, sugar maple, gray birch and paper birch. Almost none are older than 100 years.  This is old farmland, returning to woodland gradually since the 1820s when the opening up of the prairies spurred the decline of north east agriculture. There cannot be many places in the world where forests are in such dynamic resurgence.

At Molly Stark State Park we got our first deep fresh powder snow. The snowshoes sank in two feet, yet the flakes were so light that kicking our way forward was effortless and silent. Snowballs fell apart, so instead we scooped handfuls of powder and blew them into the air, where the motes hung and glittered in the sunshine. In exposed places the wind had whipped up drifts into fantastic meringue peaks.

While we had seen many animal tracks, we had yet to see anything alive. We got closest on the two mile trail to the top of Mount Olga. There beside the fire tower were two huts, each doorless. One had shutters that looked to have been ripped off. “Maybe there are bears hibernating in there,” I said.

In three quick, balletic steps, Louise, who had been leading the way was suddenly behind me, peering over my shoulder. “Do you think so?” she asked. “What’s the etiquette if we meet them?”

The official advice is blunt. This is from a Canadian website:

A bear charges at high speed on all four legs. Many charges are bluffs. Bears often stop or veer to the side at the last minute. However, if contact appears unavoidable, you have three options: shoot to kill if you have a gun; play dead if you are attacked by a grizzly; or fight back if attacked by a black bear.

Vermont’s black bears are smaller and less aggressive than grizzlies, but they still weigh up to a quarter of a ton and, rarely, have eaten humans. Fighting back? I wasn’t sure my £5.99 Millets Swiss Army Knife was up to this. Quietly and quickly we retraced our steps. Once we were a hundred yards away, we began to hum the words of Teddy Bears’ Picnic.  With the temperature up to 20F, and our cheeks glowing after our escape, we began to giggle. Snowshoeing, we decided, is really rather fun.

Snowshoes have come a long way from the tennis-rackets-strapped-to-the-feet image. Today’s modern snowshoes are aluminium framed and covered with a hardwearing webbing which spreads your weight across the snow. You insert your booted foot into a spring-loaded ‘sandal’ whose bindings can be adjusted, once you get the hang of it, with one hand. Beneath the ball of your foot, where most of the weight is taken, are crampons so you can traverse slopes or icy surfaces without slipping.

With a weight of just 4lb each, I found my Atlas Snowshoes comfortable and easy to use. Though some snowshoers use ski poles, I found them unnecessary except on the very steepest slopes.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of snow shoeing is that anyone who can walk can manage it. That doesn’t mean it is poor exercise, far from it. Snow shoeing will burn 500 calories per hour, almost identical to swimming or aerobics, and more than the 380 that normal hiking burns off. It’s cheap too, for a winter sport. The snow shoes, average cost $150 (£85) to buy or $10-$15 per day to rent, are all you need. You don’t need specialist boots or lift passes. Although some ski resorts offer snow shoeing day passes for $15 or so, you would be wasting your money. You are likely to find yourself on a dull prepared piste and perhaps sharing trails with cross country skiers. Far better to set off for a state park where you can find marked hiking trails, soft fresh snow, and all the solitude you could wish for.

Fact file:
  • The South Shire Inn is in Bennington, in Vermont’s SW corner, 40 mins drive from Albany and four hours from New York or Boston.. www.southshire.com
  • Nick Louth flew Air Canada to Albany NY, via Toronto. This avoids the immigration delays on the U.S. east coast airports.. The second leg of the journey is an exciting and bumpy trip in a tiny 18-seater Beechcraft twin prop, with a fabulous view over the Adirondack mountains. Pre-paid car hire at Albany was a further £219 including CDW and insurance.
Snowshoes were kindly loaned by Atlas Snowshoes www.atlassnowshoe.com

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