Of the Baker City Herald

Turn a troop of snowshoe-clad Boy Scouts loose in a winter forest and theyll create a winding path that resembles a bobsled run.

A sinuous ankle-deep trail impossible to miss and easy to follow.

But one that exists only for a while, its life, like that of most things made of snow, destined to end soon under the warming spring sun.

A line of eight Scouts from Troop 444 in Baker City stamped out just such an avenue recently to Black Lake, a tarn perched like a tiny tattoo on the granitic shoulder of Gunsight Mountain high above Anthony Lakes.

Strapping snowshoes to their boots was a new experience for most of the Scouts.

In that they are not unique.

Every winter Baker County residents don snowshoes for the first time; how many no one knows, but the number of newcomers to the sport, it seems, is rising.

Its kind of steadily increased the past three or four years, said Dave Daffer, who rents and sells snowshoes at his Baker City store, Flagstaff Sports.

Daffer thinks the sports popularity is growing faster than established winter pursuits such as skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.

He points out, though, that in total numbers snowshoers still constitute only a tiny segment compared to those three other sports.

Theres a lot of room for growth, he said.

And there are several reasons why Daffer believes snowshoeing will continue to attract new people.

Probably the main thing is that its easy if you can walk you can snowshoe, he said.

Its an affordable sport, too, at least as compared to its winter competitors.

The snowshoes Daffer sells range from about $160 per pair to about $260 less than most snowboard or ski packages.

If you already own a pair of winter boots (and if you have endured even part of a Baker County winter, you probably do), the snowshoes are all you need to get started.

Some snowshoers prefer to use ski poles, but theyre not required.

Another advantage, Daffer said, is that once you own snowshoes you neednt pay to use them.

There are no snowshoe resorts, so no lift tickets are required.

Its wide open, Daffer said. You can snowshoe almost anywhere, right out your back door.

Of course, enticing people to step out that back door is a task that can be as difficult as climbing a frozen waterfall.

Watching television, and other equally sedentary pursuits, tend to be more popular during the colder weather of snowshoeing season, Daffer said.

The hurdle is getting people to go out and exercise for no good reason, he said.

Other people are willing to work their muscles, but only if theres the promise of an exhilarating high-speed trip down a mountainside as the payoff for all the sweating and gasping for air.

Daffer believes snowshoeing is hampered as much as anything by its old-fashioned reputation.

Say snowshoes, and many people paint a mental picture of a mountain man clomping along his trap line on clumsy contraptions constructed of ash and rawhide.

But these days youre more likely to find that sort of snowshoe hanging above a fireplace in a cabin than displayed on a store shelf.

The engineers who design modern snowshoes have replaced the ash frames with light but strong aluminum or alloy, and they left the rawhide to the cows in favor of rubber and nylon that last for decades and need no maintenance.

New shoes are lighter and shorter than traditional types, so theyre easier to walk in and more maneuverable in dense forests, Daffer said.

Their bindings are easier to use than the pasta-like clumps of straps that frustrated our forbears, and they hold your boots in place better, he said.

Theyre so far removed from snowshoes of even 10 years ago, he said of the newer designs. Its a whole different ball game.

Daffer said most modern snowshoes are equipped with metal claws that bite into snow and even into ice, fixing one of the worst flaws of old-fashioned shoes: their tendency to transform the wearer who steps onto a steep slope into an unwilling downhill racer.

Daffer encourages people who think snowshoes are suited only for the likes of Grizzly Adams to rent a pair of new shoes.

Many of those skeptics end up buying a pair, he said.

Where to go?

Then, of course, they invariably ask him the same question: Where can we go to use them?

The simple answer is: Any place with snow, as long as it isnt private property.

But Daffer wishes he could provide his customers with a more detailed answer than that.

The problem, in his opinion, is that federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spend a disproportionate amount of money to build and maintain trails designed for motor vehicles.

Paths intended for plain old human locomotion are neglected, Daffer believes.

I would like to see the Phillips Lake area developed as a non-motorized playground, he said.

So would Forest Service officials.

Last summer the agencys workers installed new blue diamond markers along about 7 miles of trails on the south side of the reservoir between Mason Dam and Millers Lane campground, said Rob Gump, resource assistant at the Baker Ranger District.

Although those trails were originally laid out for cross-country skiers, snowshoers are always welcome to use them, Gump said.

Snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles are prohibited.

I think the Phillips Lake area is a wonderful place to go snowshoeing, Gump said.

This year he plans to put up trail markers along the Phillips shoreline trail from Millers Lane west to Hudspeth Lane.

Snowshoers also can tramp along the trail on the lakes north shore, although that section lacks the blue markers.

A map of the Phillips trails is available at the ranger district, 3165 10th St.

Gump said the Anthony Lakes area, where the Scouts recently got their feet wet (or cold), also is a popular place to snowshoe.

Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort plans to designate a snowshoe trail around Anthony Lake for the 2002-03 winter season, he said.

The resort also plans to rent snowshoes, Gump said.