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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Many county properties offer beautiful places to explore by snowshoe on a sunny winter day.

December 2008

Making tracks

At local woods or across the frozen waters, snowshoe hikes make for great winter adventure.

Story and photos by Timothy Sweet


Many county properties offer beautiful places to explore by snowshoe on a sunny winter day.

The threat of falling temperatures, dangerous wind chills and near-blizzard conditions may trigger a hibernation response in some people leading them to spend more time indoors watching movie channels and nibbling on junk food. For others though – when the snowplow driver knocks the mailbox from its perch – winter has arrived and it's time to enjoy the piles of frozen flurries.

Wisconsin's wooded, rolling countryside and ice-covered lakes offer equally wide opportunities for snowshoeing. It's an activity that is easy to do, offers benefits of improved health and fitness, and the bonus opportunity to experience the special beauty nature creates during the coldest time of the year.

Getting yourself in shape before undertaking a strenuous outing is a good idea. A golden retriever provides me with regular and purposeful conditioning. If dog hair repulses you, take a walk with a friend and get those muscles limbered up for the trail.

I have a pair of very aesthetically pleasing wood snowshoes hanging on the wall next to the front door. The floppy bindings have relegated these relics to service as a rustic hat rack. My wife got us each a new pair with lightweight steel frames. They have bindings that quickly and securely snap in place. (Waterproof hiking boots seem to fit best; larger insulated boots may be too big and heavy for this type of system.) Beneath each binding is a metal crampon that helps provide traction in icy conditions. These snowshoes don't make good wall decorations, but they sure work better than the old-fashioned ones.

Cold weather exercise should be bracing and refreshing without being bone-chilling. Dress in layers starting with polypropylene tops and bottoms to wick moisture away from the skin. Polar fleece or wool work best for middle layers, with a windproof shell on the outside. The layers are lightweight and comfortable. You will appreciate the change from cotton clothing, which absorbs perspiration and will make you feel cold when you stop physical exertion.

Start slow and start nearby. Many local nature centers have snowshoeing trails for the public to use. Some nature centers and outdoor sports shops even rent snowshoes so you can try them out before making a purchase.

Local community/county parks and trails provide good areas for you to hone your skills. I live in east central Wisconsin where the nearby Hayman Falls County Park in Shawano County has acres of wooded hillsides and steep ravines overlooking the Embarrass River. One memorable outing last year came after a night of wind-driven heavy snow. When dawn broke clear and cold, we went for a hike, and it was wonderful. Snow was still clinging to every tree trunk, branch and bough in the woods. We came upon several places where deer had bedded down during the storm. It was invigorating and inspiring to be out in such pristine conditions.

Ice travel is another option for snowshoe use. I have enjoyed the beauty of crystal clear ice shoves along Cabot Point off Potawatomi State Park when following the shoreline out to Sturgeon Bay's Sherwood Point Lighthouse.

If you're a real adventurer at heart, consider a trip to Door County's Rock Island State Park in the dead of winter. The car ferry makes daily trips from Northport to Washington Island and back year-round. Drive across the island to Jackson Harbor. It's about amole across the ice to Rock Island. You will be rewarded with spectacular snow and ice scenery. My last visit in February found the Thordarson boathouse pier completely coated in ice. Tire bumpers looked like glazed doughnuts. Icicles along the pier's north side looked as if they had been sculpted by Old Man Winter himself.

The Thordarson boathouse on Rock Island shimmers in spectacular ice in winter.
The Thordarson boathouse on Rock Island shimmers in spectacular ice in winter.

Such a trip requires extreme caution and preparation. Monitor the weather and contact the park rangers prior to your visit to check on ice conditions and to learn the safest route to follow. Bring some food, hot chocolate, water, a sleeping bag and a cell phone. Tell someone when you expect to be back in case there is a problem. Remember that no ice is ever completely safe.

What do you say? Are you ready to get off the couch, out the door, and into the glorious splendor of Wisconsin's winter wonderland? Perhaps now is the time to make tracks (big tracks, that is) to the nearest patch of snow and ice in your neck of the woods. Your heart, mind, senses and spirit will be glad you did.

Timothy Sweet writes from Clintonville and is President of the Friends of Rock Island State Park. He's enthusiastic about all seasons at the far-flung park off the tip of door County.