RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) -- Mike Dye, dressed for the winter chill in an earflap hat and heavy coveralls, warns the first-time snowshoer who wears much less that she may encounter moose if she wanders into the woods.
But he doesn't discourage that scenic route. ''Have fun, but be careful,'' he says before returning to show shoveling around the nordic center where he works.
In the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains and a few miles from the nearest highway, the only sounds this particular morning come from the scrunching of snowshoes on newly groomed trails.
Sightseeing and leisurely walks are the slow end of snowshoeing, revolutionized in recent years by sleeker, lighter footgear. It's now considered the fastest growing winter sport, with guided tours filling up and resorts designating trails for snowshoers.
Thrill-seekers use snowshoes as a mode of transportation to access backcountry for skiing or snowboarding; runners use them to maintain their fitness routines when thick snow blankets their running routes.
''It's kind of like what you saw in mountain bikes,'' said Karen Righthand, director of marketing for San Francisco-based Atlas Snow-Shoe Co., a leading maker of snowshoes in the United States and Canada. ''You always had bicycles, but until the equipment was designed for different uses, you really didn't see changes in the number of people riding them.''
Explorers and hunters once relied on snowshoes for matters of basic survival. But as technology evolved, snowshoes became a source of recreation rather than a vital means of transportation.
The common image of snowshoes resembling tennis rackets -- several feet long, ash wood frames, rawhide weaving -- is a dated one.
Today's snowshoes have durable, lightweight frames made of materials such as aluminum with bindings that secure the snowshoes to the feet and cleats for traction. They are small, hardly affecting one's gait, and typically weigh less than 3 pounds.
''They're more maneuverable, easier to use, more enjoyable,'' said Marci Dye, Mike Dye's wife and manager of Sylvan Peak Mountain Shoppe in Red Lodge.
Righthand said industry estimates put the number of Americans who used snowshoes in 1999 at about 4 million, a figure that was expected to grow in 2000. Possible reasons, she said, include ease of use and the low cost of equipment compared to other winter activities, such as skiing. Prices generally range from $99 to about $250 for snowshoes and rentals run about $10 a day in the region.
''Basically, if you can walk, you can snowshoe,'' Righthand said. ''Put them on and in 10 steps, you're an expert.''
When Dye went cross-country skiing last year, her son, then 3, kept up well on snowshoes.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming is among the ski areas now offering guided snowshoe tours. Big Mountain Ski & Summer Resort at Whitefish, Mont., is one of many to have designated snowshoe trails.
Guided snowshoe trips in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park often fill to the capacity of 20 this time of year, group leader Eileen Andes said.
''There are families coming to resorts and not everyone necessarily is wanting to ski or snowboard,'' said Brian Schott, Big Mountain public relations manager. ''From a resort perspective, you want to try to offer as many options as you can.''
''There seem to be three types of snowshoers: people who have tried everything else and want new excitement, people who want to have a casual hike and snowboarders who use them for access,'' said Scott Courser, assistant director of the Nordic Center that is part of the Jackson resort.
Sales have been brisk at Sylvan Peak Mountain Shoppe, thanks to a colder winter with more snow than the last.
''Then, people were hiking instead of snowshoeing or playing golf or tennis. This year, in contrast, snowshoeing is huge,'' Marci Dye said.
Active residents of Red Lodge, given to hiking in the off-season, tend naturally toward snowshoeing in the winter, she said.
''It's just warmer clothes and different shoes,'' Dye said.
On the Net:
Atlas Snow-Shoe Company: http://www.atlassnowshoe.com
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