Free is a very good price

January 03, 2006 11:00 pm
Is it a sasquatch or a snowshoer? In heavy snow, it can be hard to tell. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
Is it a sasquatch or a snowshoer? In heavy snow, it can be hard to tell. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Snowshoes are like four-wheel drive for your feet.

But without the wretched gas mileage.

Affix a pair of these Sasquatch-scale platforms to your boots and you can traverse snowbound terrain that would leave a plain-footed traveler frustrated and fatigued.

And probably with snow down the back of his or her pants, a situation that starts cold and then gets wet and generally remains unpleasant throughout.

Snowshoes, for all their attributes, don't possess any magical properties, however.

You can not, no matter how lightly you step, cross a meadow festooned with two feet of feathery powder and inflict on the snowy surface the sort of shallow track a malnourished squirrel might make.

You will sink into the snow, perhaps just a few inches, but possibly to your knees.

You will pant.

You will, even on a frigid day, sweat.

But in exchange for your exertion you'll also glimpse a facet of the forest's personality that might surprise and delight you — particularly if all your previous forays happened in snow-free seasons.

Frozen flakes, like dabs of paint daubed on canvas by a talented hand, can transform ordinary objects into art.

A humdrum lodgepole pine, for instance, becomes a white-and-green sculpture after the passage of a blizzard. And a chunk of granite that wouldn't catch your eye on a summer day thrusts through the smooth white surface like the gray incisor of some huge and long-dead beast.

On Saturday afternoon you can enter this wintry world — and do all that sinking, panting and sweating, if burning calories is more your aim — for free at Ski Anthony Lakes.

The resort, in recognition of Winter Trails Day, will let visitors have a go on snowshoes, or cross-country skis, at no charge from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Employees will dole out snowshoes and skis on a first-come, first-served basis at Ski Anthony's Nordic Center, which is inside the historic Forest Service guard station on the north shore of Anthony Lake.

The resort has 25 pairs of snowshoes and 45 ski packages (including boots and poles), said Dick Knowles, who manages the Nordic Center.

And he expects snowshoers and skiers will claim every piece of equipment during the three-hour free trial.

"It's always real busy (on Winter Trails Day)," Knowles said. "It keeps us hopping."

The turnoff for the Nordic Center is marked by a sign about 100 yards before you get to the main parking lot next to Ski Anthony's day lodge. The resort is about 34 miles northwest of Baker City.

With Ski Anthony supplying the snowshoes and skis, you need only worry about wearing the right clothes.

The key concept is "layering" — don three thinner garments rather than one down parka that was designed for Antarctic expeditions and makes you look like the Michelin Man.

Layering is especially crucial when you snowshoe or cross-country ski, due to the sweat factor.

If you're climbing a steep slope or wallowing in soft, deep snow you'll probably want to shed a layer or two to prevent overheating. But if a breeze freshens into a gale later, you'll be thankful you can replace those layers to ward off the wind chill.

"Dress smart," Knowles said.

Cotton, in this context, is dumb.

The fabric rapidly soaks up sweat (it's no coincidence that they weave the stuff into bath towels) but it dries slowly, and when it's wet, cotton grips your skin in a clammy embrace that protects you from the cold about as well as a coat fashioned from newspaper.

Manmade fabrics such as polyester or polypropylene, by contrast, absorb sweat about as well as cotton, but they dry quickly.

Although snowshoers can follow the 40-kilometer network of marked trails groomed for cross-country skiers, Knowles urges snowshoers to avoid stepping on the parallel ski tracks that the groomer presses into the snow. Trail maps are available at the Nordic Center.

And he recommends both skiers and snowshoers stay away from area lakes, including Anthony, Lilypad, Black and Grande Ronde. Despite the chilly climate in the mountains, the deep snow tends to insulate the lakes and prevent ice from thickening, Knowles said.

Neither snowshoeing nor cross-country skiing requires the dexterity and balance of, say, a professional figure skater.

Snowshoeing, in particular, is little different from walking. The main differences are that you'll probably have to keep your feet a bit farther apart than usual because the snowshoes are wider than your feet, and you'll have to lift your feet higher than normal to pull the shoe out of the hole it sinks in the snow.

Although the concept of snowshoeing — bigger feet don't sink as far in snow as small feet — hasn't changed in centuries, don't plan on reliving your favorite "Grizzly Adams" episode in the snowy woods Saturday afternoon.

The snowshoes at Ski Anthony are modern contraptions that replace the wood and rawhide of traditional snowshoes — the sort 19th century mountain men and trappers favored — with aluminum, plastic and rubber.

These newfangled snowshoes lack the romantic rusticism of an old-fashioned pair, but they're better in most every other way.

Modern snowshoes are lighter, for one thing, and for another they're equipped with crampons — metal claws that allow you to ascend slopes that would transform you into an unintentional skier were you wearing flat-bottomed old-fashioned snowshoes.

Knowles said both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing seem to be attracting more people each winter, based on his clientele at Ski Anthony Lakes.

And for many of those people, Winter Trails Day introduces them to the sport.

Knowles estimates that eight of 10 people who borrow a pair of cross-country skis on Winter Trails Day are newcomers.

And he said about three of those eight people enjoy the sport enough that they come back later in the winter and either plunk down cash to rent skis, or with a pair of newly bought skis strapped to the roof of their car.