JUNEAU Early on any given morning, you might see people hiking up Eaglecrest Ski Area, eager to get a taste of the solitude and the fresh snow that enrobes the mountain when the lifts are closed.
But if Merry Ellefson is on the mountain, and there's a good chance she is, you will notice her for what she lacks. Unlike most people who hike Eaglecrest, she doesn't have a snowboard or skis strapped to her back some way to get down the mountain in a small fraction of the time it took to get up. Instead, she goes down the same way she gets up on her snowshoe-bound feet.
''More people in this town are into gravity-assisted sports,'' said Ellefson, who coached the snowshoeing team Juneau sent to the Arctic Winter Games this year. ''People think you're crazy to just run up and down.''
But the workout, the peacefulness and the views accessed through snowshoeing make it one of Ellefson's favorite winter activities, she said.
''I love it. I love hearing your breath go in and out and listening to the snow fall off the trees,'' she said.
For many in Juneau, snowshoeing is a means to an end it provides access to trails, mountains and cabins that are otherwise inaccessible in winter. For others, snowshoeing is an end in itself, a healthy and uncomplicated way to enjoy winter.
The activity is hardly more difficult than walking. Snow-shoers don't have to wax their gear, they don't need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, and they certainly don't need to take any lessons in the sport.
''What I like most about it is I don't even have to think about it I can strap on my shoes and go,'' Ellefson said.
Katy Petsel, office manager of the Nugget Alaskan Outfitter, sells and rents snowshoes in her store but also uses them when she gets the chance.
''I like hiking, and it's just the winter version of it,'' Petsel said. ''Going out and enduring the outdoors, as long as you're dressed for it, generally it's really fun.''
Ellefson, who has tested snowshoes for national manufacturers, has a barrage of snowshoes that she uses for running and hiking. Affordable and adequate snowshoes can be found online or in local stores.
''It's like anything,'' Ellefson said. ''If you get into it and you want something more particular to your interests, you can find specific snowshoes, but you can get a great shoe for $100.''
Snowshoes come with special bindings for running, some are made specifically for women, and others for heavier users or those with packs. The cleats on the bottom of the shoes are placed in different areas the sides of the feet, the toes, the heels depending on their use and the user's preference.
''I don't like the heel cleats because I like the back of my foot to be free,'' Ellefson said.
Faber Snowshoes, a Canadian company, makes wooden snowshoes based on traditional designs used in northern countries. The company's Web site, www.fabersnowshoes.com, describes the perfect shoe for different conditions.
A wide shoe with a short tip is ideal for snowshoeing in forested areas, where a hiker has to trudge through powder and avoid obstacles such as stumps. For steep mountains, the Web sites recommends short and narrow snowshoes, which make it easier to hike switchbacks. On flat plains, Faber recommends long and narrow shoes.
Most of the wood snowshoes Faber makes are sold for less than $150 Canadian. The athletes who compete in the Arctic Winter Games have to use wooden snowshoes with leather moccasins.
Though the experience can be rough on the feet Ellefson describes terrible blisters that had her off her feet for days following one race the traditional snowshoes offer a different experience, she said.
''In an aluminum shoe, it's close to a mimic of running or jogging,'' she said. ''With these shoes it's a shuffle, because you can't lift them. When I was at the games I got really inspired to go back on wood again. I just like the sound of it.''
Christine Schmid is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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