Shod for Snow

Whether they're strapping on traditional or high-tech footgear, snowshoers are mushing into winter

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"I was supposed to be working," mused writer Richard Wolkomir, snowbound in his Vermont study, "but my mind wandered to the trappers of old, who braved every hazard out there, crossing trackless wastes. And, I seemed to recall, they did it all largely on snowshoes..."

Snowshoeing, it turns out, is now the fastest-growing winter sport. In a recent tally, from 1998 to 1999, the number of snowshoers increased 38 percent, from 2.9 million to 4 million. Internet sites list snowshoe trails and events, even in Manhattan's Central Park. Ski resorts now offer snowshoeing. And behind it all lies new technology.

To lots of folks, snowshoeing means strapping on jumbo "tennis rackets" to galumph over drifts. Made of wood and rawhide, these traditional snowshoes go back to prehistory. Since the late 1980s, however, new space-age snowshoes have all but taken over. These techno snowshoes are small, maneuverable, lightweight, with aluminum frames, tough synthetic decks and engineered bindings.

Wolkomir tramped out into the woods, trying out both the traditional and high-tech models. He also visited places where both kinds of snowshoes are produced — the old-fashioned kind, made individually, by hand, in the workshop of Armand and Marie Boutin, dairy farmers turned artisans; and the state-of-the-art winter footgear, manufactured at the Tubbs Snowshoe Company, in Stowe, Vermont.

In the end, Wolkomir opted for the newfangled ultralights. Pushing out into a snowy landscape, he finds fox and fisher tracks in the snow, and frozen twigs scraping and chickadees cheeping the only sounds — in short, as a forester friend of his says, "a beauty most people never see."

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