In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 4:14 PM on Wednesday, December 14, 2011


In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Gayle Forrest enjoys the Baycrest snowshoe trails, below, in a past winter

Suppose a howling blizzard blew in and totally covered all those beautifully set ski trails. Or, you're heading toward Caribou Lake on that sweet little sled, only to shred a track, totally stranding you miles from the trailhead. Maybe you blew out a knee last hockey season and the doc said no rink ice for you, kid. What are you going to do?

Strap on a pair of snowshoes, that's what.

While skiing can give you a great aerobic workout and snowmobiling can send you whooshing across hills, when it comes to basic winter transportation, make your own tracks with the winter feet ancient Alaskans have been using for millennia. The only challenge in learning to snowshoe is getting used to having big feet and remembering not to trip yourself. Once you get used to keeping your legs apart, snowshoeing is like walking — except you can soar across nose-deep snow.

My wife Jenny and I got our first pair of snowshoes as a Christmas present to each other when we lived in Anchorage. I got a pair of Sherpa wooden-frame snowshoes with neoprene webbing and the Sherpa claw bindings — retro snowshoes with modern touches. I'd done my share of setting trails on skis, and the hard work that meant. Raise your ski and stomp, slide forward, stomp again. Repeat as necessary.

The first time I went snowshoeing, I remember how little effort it took. Months of snow had piled up over the alders and willows, and the wind packed the snow hard. With skis I would have broken the crust, but on snowshoes I walked on top of the winter world. My snowshoes left tracks next to the ravens, squirrels, hares and voles. I needed no trail, for the vast landscape stretched out before me.

Modern snowshoes have tubular metal frames with synthetic fabric decking instead of rawhide webbing. Bindings have claws for hard snow and ice. I wore out my old Sherpas, but retrofitted the bindings on a new pair of snowshoes that had annoying bindings. Purists can make their own wooden snowshoes. Local outdoor gear stores sell a variety of snowshoes, from light, racing snowshoes made for set trails to recreational and backcountry models. Prices run from about $80 for youth models to about $275 for adult sizes. Good winter clothing is all that's needed, but dress so you can shed a layer when you work up a sweat. Ski poles help for balance in deep snow.

Want to try out the sport first without investing in equipment? Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies members can borrow snowshoes for free. Nonmembers can rent snowshoes for $5 a use, with the sixth use free. CACS memberships are $10 juniors, $25 students and seniors, $35 for adults over 18 and $50 a family. Starting in January, CACS holds Wynn Winter Wednesdays at the Carl Wynn Nature Center, Mile 1.5 East Skyline Drive, with free snowshoe use starting at noon at its trails. At 3 p.m. Sundays starting in January, the Wynn Center also has a bonfire with free family activities.

The Kachemak Nordic Ski Club sets a 3.5-mile snowshoe trail at its Baycrest Ski Trails. Start at Roger's Loop and head uphill to a great view at the Reuben Call Bench. Avoid walking on ski trails, but if you need to, trail groomers ask that you snowshoe on the side and don't ruin tracks. Explore the Demonstration Forest on the lower trail system, but respect private property elsewhere.

On public lands, though, make your own trails. Out behind my house on Diamond Ridge, that's what I like to do after a new snowfall. Before the snowmobilers come in, I strap on my trusty old snowshoes, take my ski poles and tromp through Kenai Peninsula Borough and state land. It's like Hobo Jim sings in his Iditarod Trail song: There are no tracks in front of me and no one on my tail — well, except for my dog Leia stepping on my snowshoes. Sometimes I sink a few inches in mushy snow, but sometimes when the wind has packed the snow solid, I can walk on nature's superhighway and go forever.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at