A generous reader gifts me with a pair of snowshoes and opens up the winter world for exploration.

This column appeared in the Spring 2013 issue (Vol.2, No.1) of The Recorder's Outdoor Adventure Magazine

The one feature that dominates the winter in our area is – quite obviously – snow. In addition to dominating the landscape it can very effectively dominate people as well. A deep blanket of snow can cut us off from the fields and forests around us by making them inaccessible, but the clever minds of humans have come up with solutions to these problems. Snowshoes, skis, and snowmobiles are all inventions that allow us access to the snowy winter landscape.

At one time or another I have owned all three of these things and at the end of the day I would have to say that my personal favorite would have to be snowshoes. Although they are a little awkward at first, with a little practice snowshoes can be as easy to use as a pair of hiking boots. They allow you access to fields and forests alike and because they are relatively short they allow you to wind your way through thick trees.

So this week I take you on a walk in the snow. There is no particular destination in mind this time, only getting out during a season when most of us huddle up inside. In fact, one of the best places to go is somewhere you are already familiar with. You might walk the path next to the Turner Falls power canal. Perhaps you will explore the low trails surrounding Mt. Toby, or the road up to High Ledges. Or, just maybe, there is a field or a forest trail right behind your house. You can go snowshoeing almost anywhere.

Wherever you decide to go you will find evidence of those that have been there before you in the form of tracks. From my point of view this is the most exciting part of any snowshoe adventure because it allows you to decipher the story of the recent past. Who has been out? Who hasn’t? Who can handle the deep snow? Which way were they headed? All of these are delightful questions to have answered.

My adventure took place about 24 hours after the snow stopped falling and the wind stopped blowing. It was beautiful afternoon with a bright blue sky and no wind at all. The temperature hung around 24 degrees and the snow itself was fine-grained and lightly packed by the wind. Conditions were absolutely perfect.

Because the snow had fallen so recently it had not been allowed to collect traces of winter travelers for very long. So, it was actually some time before I spotted my first set of tracks. Coming up out of the snow and then disappearing down into it again were the curious tracks of a mouse. The snow was so soft that it even allowed the mouse’s tail to leave a little mark where it struck the surface as the little bugger bounded across the surface. I have no idea what compelled the mouse to surface at this point, but such decisions must be the bread and butter of many a hungry hawk, or owl.

I was actually surprised at how few tracks I found. In areas where I thought there must surely be a rabbit or two I found nothing but the smooth, unbroken surface of the fresh snow. But this was deep snow so it was very possible that many of the animals that must endure the challenges of winter had decided to hole up and wait for a while. I, on the other hand, had other motivations. The approach of warm weather threatened to degrade the quality of the snow and the tracks upon its surface. I could not afford to be as patient as a rabbit.

It was some time before I finally came upon what I was really looking for, but when I did I was not disappointed. Along the edge of the forest I found the tracks of some deer. Just how many there were I cannot say for sure but what I can tell you is that they were headed west. These were particularly beautiful tracks because of the depth of the snow. As each deer pulled up a foot to take its next step it dragged the tips of its hooves across the surface of the snow. This resulted in pairs of parallel furrows that connected one footprint to the next. The low angle of the setting sun allowed each depression to be filled with blue shadows, which made the tracks as beautiful as they were interesting.

My final destination (and the one furthest from my starting point) was a thick stand of hemlocks that was well into the woods. Such places can sometimes offer a measure of shelter to wildlife during a heavy snowstorm and I wanted to see if I could sense the difference for myself. But it was here that I ran into one of the more humorous aspects of snowshoeing off the beaten path in a forest. Fallen limbs and branches are not always visible in deeper snow, but they are very slippery when stepped upon. At one point my right foot slipped toward my left. I teetered there for a moment as I tried to save myself, but I had committed to the step and ended up falling to the right in slow motion; laughing all the way down.

When I finally reached the stand of hemlocks I was impressed by how shallow the snow was. Well less than half the amount of snow had reached the ground under the thick needles of the tall trees and the surface of the snow was criss-crossed with the greatest number of deer tracks I had seen anywhere along my walk. It’s always nice to confirm with your own eyes a thing you’ve only ever read about.

After visiting the hemlocks I made my way back, stopping here and there to take photographs of my own odd-looking tracks. What would the deer think of such an odd sight? As I walked I reflected on the incredible generosity of one of my readers from Greenfield. A man named Denny read a recent column in which I talked about the desire to get a pair of snowshoes. For reasons I cannot explain he decided to give me a pair. They are the right size for one of my stature, they are absolutely beautiful to look at, and they are the reason that I was able to get the photos for this story. Thank you Denny!