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Adirondack snowshoeing tips, trips and traditions
by Elizabeth Folwell
ADIRONDACK LORE AND LANDSCAPE are littered with snowshoes. In the French and Indian War Robert Rogers and his intrepid Rangers battled ﬁercely atop hardwood and hide shoes, turning the wintry woods near Ticonderoga into a guerrilla combat zone. Just 18 years later, as the American Revolution was in full swing, Tory John Johnson—whose father, Sir William, had made the Mohawk Valley his baronial empire—ﬂed north toward Canada. It was spring, and when the party set out from the Sacandaga River the snow was deep. Days later, when they reached a huge wild lake they found the water ﬂowing sweetly, not frozen as expected. On the shore they abandoned many pairs of snowshoes. This pile of raquettes (French for snowshoe) gave the lake its name.
Snowshoes fascinated Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce Lahontan, a French ofﬁcer who traveled through New France in the 17th century, sketching maps and documenting Native American artifacts and activities. His illustration of a “racket” shows an egg-shape frame with tightly woven rawhide and long strings for bindings, which looks remarkably like a contemporary bear-paw design. Hunters could “skip along the snow like birds,” Europeans observed.
“Five thousand years ago when Nordic people were creating the ski, native people had already been traveling on snowshoes for 9,000 years,” according to Michael Galban, historian and Native American educator at Ganondagan State Historic Site, near Lake Ontario. In winter, snowshoes were critical to survival. “Moose plod. Deer bound. With snowshoes hunters could ﬂy,” he says.
The Huron, Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi and Iroquois perfected these tools. “Snowshoes in the Northeast tend to be round or oval in response to conditions, while those made north of the St. Lawrence River or out West are longer, for more open country,” Galban explains. Regardless of the shape, frames were made of ash, birch, willow or hickory—which bend easily when green—and woven with deer or moose sinew called babiche. “The thinner the babiche and the tighter the weave the better the shoe will ﬂoat over snow, distributing your weight to a larger surface area,” he says. An experienced builder could craft a pair in a day.
WHEN CARL HEILMAN II MOVED TO BRANT LAKE in the early 1970s he planned to be a carpenter. In the fall of 1974 he set out to make a pair of snowshoes, using E. H. Krebs’s Woodcraft as his guide. “I didn’t know what white ash was. I cut down a white birch tree,” he recalls with a laugh. “The book gave a full description of hand-splitting the wood for the frame and weaving the web. I found some rough-sawn boards and cobbled together a steam tube with a kettle at one end to prepare the wood for bending and made my ﬁrst pair.”
He snowshoed around his backyard and then up Pharaoh Mountain. From there he saw the High Peaks. He says, “My next snowshoe trip was up Algonquin, and that’s what got me started in photography too.”
His early snowshoes had “no turn-up at the toes. Climbing mountains on these was cumbersome, but coming downhill I could sit on the back and just glissade down the trail. It was a blast.”
For the next 23 years Heilman handcrafted snowshoes, some 500 pairs, he estimates, in designs that work well on our hilly and heavily wooded terrain. The “aha” moment came when “I saw my ﬁrst pair of Sherpas on the summit of Giant Mountain and wondered how these little shoes would actually support you. I then designed a wood-frame snowshoe with tight curves—I followed the modern design but hand-split the wood. I created the jig and bent the frame from white ash.
“When I started, the shoes recommended for a person my size were about 13 inches wide and about 48 inches long, including the tail,” he explains. His design bridged new and old ways; Heilman’s very compact oval frames had no tail and Neoprene webbing rather than the traditional varnished rawhide. His Cat Paws for a person under 150 pounds were a mere eight inches wide and 26 inches long. In Gloversville and Mayﬁeld, Floyd Westover and Richard Havlick were also creating small, efﬁcient snowshoes that challenged traditional ways.
Contemporary snowshoes have morphed from wood splints to tubular metal frames, and open-weave decks are now solid pieces of ﬂexible plastic. Engineers have found ways to minimize the footprint and maximize ﬂotation. There are models intended for women, accommodating our different strides and lower centers of gravity. There are kid-speciﬁc designs as well, plus ones for racing, climbing and off-trail exploring.
How shoes attach to boots has changed too. Bindings evolved from leather thongs into hinged, adjustable, quick-release toe cradles and heel straps. “The hinge design goes back to World War II, with a metal plate and metal hinge bar. Sherpa promoted hinges in their bindings decades ago,” Heilman says.
Rotation-hinge bindings, he says, “make the snowshoe work like a ﬂip-ﬂop. This puts less strain on muscles and is easier to use for long periods.” Crampons beneath the bindings are standard equipment on most modern shoes, though traditional webbing provides good traction, Heilman says.
“If the binding feels comfortable and ﬁts your boot well, that’s more important than anything else,” he advises. “You can take practically any design and put a good binding on it and you’ll have a good time, but the reverse is not true.”
Fifteen years have passed since Heilman traded his woodworking tools for camera equipment. His photography books, prints, puzzles and workshops keep a homegrown business thriving. But he still leads deep-woods treks at Keene Valley’s annual Mountainfest, in February.
LAST WINTER WAS DOWNRIGHT disappointing for skiers and snowshoers. When snow ﬁnally arrived on favorite trails the word quickly spread, especially for destinations like Blue Mountain. In warm weather the uphill journey is an obstacle course of slippery pumpkin-size rocks and random roots, but covered with snow it’s so smooth you can look at your surroundings rather than your boots. Many mountain trails that are frustrating nine months of the year become perfect pathways under a blanket of snow.
While proponents say snowshoeing burns 40 percent more calories than ordinary hiking and also provides an exceptional large-muscle and cardio workout, there’s little mystery to picking up the sport. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.
At least that’s what experienced folks say. If you’re new to the sport, a pair of cross-country-ski or trekking poles are terriﬁc for adding stability on the ﬁrst awkward outings, and they allow you to power up slopes using your arms. Poles for snowshoeing should be tall enough to provide leverage but not so long you catch them in your armpits as you stride—telescoping poles let you choose the height that feels right.
If you’re in the market for a pair of webbed feet, try before you buy. This is one way to discover if you kick snow up your back with every step, if you trip over the tails or if you ﬁnd yourself waddling like Big Foot. Shop with a snowshoe-savvy friend because the variety of styles can be utterly confusing. For your ﬁrst outing, wear layers and prepare to shed some if you get overheated. Choose a destination that will be rewarding, somewhere aspirational but not beyond your conventional hiking ability. At many places you can rent shoes, take a lesson and ease into a winter sport that opens up the Adirondack woods.
WHERE TO WALK ON WATER
The Adirondack Interpretive Center (518-582-2000, www.esf.edu/aic), in Newcomb, has snowshoes you can try for free on its 3.6-mile network of woodland trails, which are open daily from dawn to dusk. This winter, informal guided full-moon hikes (December 1 and 29) will teach families about the night sky, ecology and wildlife adaptations to the season; after the treks there are s’mores and hot chocolate. Also, a mile-long connector trail from the AIC leads to the five-mile Santanoni Preserve trail, popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers for its fairly reliable snow cover. On Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day weekends Santanoni Great Camp will be open to the public, with fires blazing in the gatehouse, main lodge and artist studio. For details call the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Lands and Forests office (518-402-9428) or DEC’s Ray Brook headquarters (518-897-1200).
At the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (518-327-6241), in Paul Smiths, there are designated snowshoe trails including a five-mile loop, as well as the trail up Jenkins Mountain, an 8.5-mile round trip. A day pass plus snowshoe rental is $20. The snow cover at the VIC is usually good, and you can call ahead for conditions or to reserve a pair of snowshoes. The facility is open daily, and leashed dogs are welcome on the trails.
The Wild Center (518-359-7800, www .wildcenter.org), in Tupper Lake, is open Friday through Sunday in winter, with guided nature hikes or self-discovery treks on its 1.3 miles of easy trails. Snowshoes are free with admission to the museum, which is $17 for adults and $10 for children four to 14.
Saranac Lake’s Dewey Mountain Recreation Center (518-891-2697, www.dewey mountain.com) offers extensive cross-country-ski and snowshoe trails with nice views of the Saranac Chain of Lakes. Mountain-bike routes have recently been added to the snowshoe system, providing five packed miles. The center is open daily in winter; rentals are $18 per day or $12 for a half-day. The trail fee is just $5. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Adirondack Mountain Club (518-523-3441, www.adk.org) rents snowshoes at Adirondak Loj, near Lake Placid. From Heart Lake there are extensive backcountry trails to Indian Pass, up or around Mount Jo, plus trips for all abilities. Full-day rental for adults is $15, available on a first-come, first-served basis. The parking fee is $10.
In Wilmington, High Falls Gorge (518-946-2278, www.highfallsgorge.com) rents snowshoes for $23.95 per day so adults and kids can explore trails along the West Branch of the Ausable River, where frozen waterfalls are spectacular. The attraction opens for the winter season the Friday after Thanksgiving and is closed Wednesdays and Thursdays through March.
Natural Stone Bridge and Caves (518-494-2283, www.stonebridgeandcaves .com), in Pottersville, is open Friday through Sunday with 7.7 miles of trails that lead to icy cascades, a giant marble arch, sinkholes and other unusual geologic formations. Trail fees are $12.98 for adults, $6.50 for children, and snowshoe rentals are $5 per day.
Ausable Chasm (518-834-7454, www.ausablechasm.com), near Keeseville, is open daily for winter exploration, with three options: a 20-minute walk to see frozen Rainbow Falls and Elephant’s Head for $5; one- and two-hour guided snowshoe or MicroSpike trips through the canyon to spectacular ice and rock formations at $20 and $25, respectively; and access to 15 miles of marked ski and snowshoe trails for $5 per day. Reservations are strongly suggested.
Mount Van Hoevenberg (518-523-4436, www.whiteface.com), the Olympic cross-country complex outside Lake Placid, has 50 kilometers of groomed trails that are wide enough for both skiing and snowshoeing. Snowshoe rental is $20 per day; the trail fee plus rental is $38. Cascade Ski Center (518-523-9605, www.cascadeski.com), on Cascade Road a few miles from Lake Placid, has groomed trails for cross-country skiers and snowshoes plus narrow, woodsy trails just for snowshoers. It’s open daily in winter, with $12 covering snowshoe rental and trail fee for a day.
Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center (518-863-4974, www.laplandlake.com), in Benson, is a full-service resort with cabins, packed trails and even a sauna for guests. The snow cover here, near the southern end of the Northville-Placid Trail, is usually excellent. About 15 miles of trails are set aside for snowshoeing, and the day-use fee is $20, with an additional rental fee of $20 for adults.
Garnet Hill Lodge (518-251-2444, www .garnet-hill.com), in North River, has 55 kilometers of trails that begin at its Mild to Wild Adventure Center. Snowshoe rentals are $20 per day for adults, and the trail ticket is $20. Lessons are available. From Garnet Hill there is excellent access to Thirteenth Lake and Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area.
A TRIO OF TRAMPS
1.8 miles round trip, easy
Between Eagle Bay and Old Forge, Bald (also called Rondaxe) Mountain is a fun snowshoe outing for the whole family with many fine views over the hills and lakes of the Fulton Chain. The trail to the summit ledges and fire tower is a gradual incline with only a couple of steep sections that can be fun glissades on the way back down. From the sign for Bald Mountain along Route 28, about 6.5 miles west of Inlet and 4.5 miles east of Old Forge, head north on Rondaxe Road a few hundred feet to the trailhead parking on the left. Sign the register and head up the trail.
3.8 miles round trip, moderate
This open summit in Newcomb is a great afternoon snowshoe with wonderful views of the southern High Peaks from a 60-foot fire tower. The well-maintained trail climbs steadily from the parking area to the restored tower and ranger’s cabin. Climbing the stairs of an icy fire tower on a windy winter day can be an adventure in itself—but has its rewards. The well-marked parking lot, close to the trails at the Adirondack Interpretive Center, is on the south side of Route 28N—a couple of miles west of Newcomb or about 12 miles east of Long Lake.
8.6 miles round trip, difficult
The challenging trail to Algonquin Peak ascends about 3,000 feet from the parking lot to the mountaintop. The exposed summit can be quite icy, requiring crampons rather than snowshoes, though the dramatic views are worth the effort. Plus, the steep sections on the summit dome are great for glissading on your way back down. From Route 73, about a mile east of the ski jumps near Lake Placid, head south on Adirondack Loj Road to the trailhead lot at Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center (parking fee of $5 for members, $10 for nonmembers). —Carl Heilman II