Learning to snowshoe is simple and inexpensive

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE - When more than three dozen people turn out for a weekend snowshoe up Girdwood's Glacier Creek, it becomes suddenly clear that snowshoeing isn't just for Shawn Lyons anymore.

Who is Shawn Lyons, you ask?

An Anchorage author and musician, he was a local snowshoeing legend back in the 1980s when the now-defunct Iditasport - run under the motto "Cowards won't show and the weak will die" - staged an annual 100-mile snowshoe race through the Susitna Valley to Skwentna. Lyons was never the fastest snowshoer on the Iditarod Trail, but by the end he invariably proved to be the steadiest.

Hour after hour for three-quarters of a day, he could cruise across the snowy expanses at 5 or 6 mph. Lyons, a longtime runner, turned to snowshoes as an alternative to pounding the pavement.

These days, bunches of Alaskans are turning to man's earliest snow-travel invention as the most approachable form of winter recreation.

Anyone can snowshoe. The learning curve is short and shallow.

"The entry barriers are low," said Doug Van Etten of Anchorage Adventurers Meetup Group, which organized the Glacier Creek snowshoe hike.

Photographs taken during that early-January hike give the outing more than a passing resemblance to the historic pictures of early gold seekers lined up on Chilkoot Pass outside Skagway. Conga-line turnouts for snowshoeing events hosted by the group are typical, Van Etten said.

Where ski or snowboard trips might attract only a half-dozen people, he said, snowshoe hikes will bring out dozens who want to play in the snow.

"It's easy," he said. "Everybody can go together. There is no high skill level.

"You can rent them for cheap. You can rent them for $15. You can buy them for cheap."

A 21st-century snowshoeing boom has created enough demand for snowshoes that beginner-level shoes are sold at cut-rate prices in big-box discount stores. Van Etten said he's seen them in Anchorage for as little as $65.

That's dirt cheap, considering that a single all-day lift ticket to ski or snowboard at the Alyeska Resort costs nearly that much.

Throw in a daily ski or snowboard rental and the total $82 expenditure for the day is well above the cost of a pair of snowshoes that can provide winter recreation for months on end.

"My wife has given up skiing to snowshoe exclusively because she truly enjoys the relaxation of floating on powder with her snowshoes and not being concerned about falling going down a hill, or if she will have to add more grip wax to climb," said Ted Angstadt, an assistant organizer helping Van Etten with the Meetup Group.

"Sometimes I just want to throw my snowshoes and poles in the car and go. Less hassle, good exercise and simple fun."

"Good exercise" might be something of an understatement.

"Snowshoeing burns up to twice the number of calories as walking at the same speed," according to Snowshoe magazine. And that's on a trail.

Break trail through untracked snow, and the calories burned on a snowshoe hike can quickly exceed a fast-paced run or hard nordic ski.

Because snow cushions every footstep, the body pounding is minimal while the aerobic workout gained by lifting the weight of the snowshoes and compressing snow is tops.

Not that anyone has to go all out all the time to reap aerobic benefits.

"We seem to be getting large turnouts for snowshoeing trips because it is a slower-paced way to enjoy the beauty of winter," said Angstadt. "I have heard some in our group say that 'it's a great equalizer.' It is a lot easier to walk with others in the group and have pleasant conversation because you are not worried about falling or going slower or faster than others."

All of these things have helped contribute to the steady growth in snowshoeing recently, particularly among women.

A 2005 Outdoor Industry Association participation study found the number of women snowshoers up 72 percent nationwide.

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