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PAUL SMITH: Optimism for a snowy winter


It’s snowing outside and the wind is blowing a solid 60 km/h from the northeast. I just did a walkabout the house to see if all was OK before I sat down to my computer to do some writing. No snow is drifting under my garage door or any other such stormy calamity. That’s good. I’ll definitely have to plow the driveway in the morning. I got to thinking. That storm a few days back may have been the biggest we’ve had here in Spaniard’s Bay for several winters. I’m figuring we accumulated close to 30 cm. I did a lot of plowing. But I’m happy.

Last winter on the Avalon Peninsula was a total wash out for us snow lovers. I just looked back at a photo taken on Dec 16, 2017, and not a flake of snow to be seen. That was in on the high-woods country near our cabin, where snow takes longer to melt than out here in town. But this is a different year. I’m going to the cabin this coming Friday, and the landscape will be in stark contrast. I’ll have my camera with me. I love shooting winter. Blue sky, cold air, sunshine, green trees, and lots of snow to walk on — sure it’s heaven, almost as good as fly fishing.

You know what? Last winter Spider Pond wasn’t safe for an ATV or snowmobile for the entire winter. That’s right, and I have never seen it before in my lifetime. And I can’t recall Dad ever mentioning such a mild winter. Because he would have for sure, given that they depended on that slide path route for firewood and building materials. In the old days the likes of last winter would have caused extreme hardship in the Conception Bay North region. Folks depended on frozen ponds and horse-drawn sleds for life-sustaining fuel for stoves, not to mention stakes and rails for fences, boat and stage building materials, and the list goes on. Nowadays no solid ice is just a disappointment and inconvenience.

It’s looking now like this winter might be better. Goldie will get ice fishing and I’ll put a few hundred miles on my racquets. Although when you read this on Saturday it will be likely raining. I just hope this coming weekend isn’t too big of a thaw. The ponds are caught over with ice, there’s plenty of snow on the ground, and I have plans. All right Eddie Sheerr, I’m watching each evening and remaining optimistic. The temperatures for next week are predicted right now to be on the border of freezing. I’m hoping they drift south of zero.

Every Christmas I get e-mails about snowshoes, even last December when the grass was green. I’ve had more this year though, the snow getting folks all excited about frolicking outside in the frosty air. People are wondering about what style and size of snowshoes to buy for Christmas, either as presents for others, or pamper myself gifts. Buying snowshoes isn’t simple anymore.

Snowshoes 101

The bindings have to work.
The bindings have to work.

I’ll try to keep my advice as simple as possible, albeit I could easily write a book on the subject. Unless you are nostalgic, or a back-to-basics purest, don’t bother with wooden snowshoes. Not that they don’t work, because I’ve walked a million miles on them. Handmade racquets have been around for centuries. They have definite appeal, like birch bark and cedar canoes, and spun wool cuffs. Those of you who crave that wooden fix, which I do myself occasionally, you already know the drill. Go for it. You don’t need my advice. But beware bowed legs, soggy sticking snow, and cracking your neck on a hard crust. Although wooden shoes are so peacefully quiet.

Modern metal and synthetic snowshoes are great. Soggy snow doesn’t stick. Their profiles are typically narrow, and most have cleats for ice. I’ve never looked back since my first pair. If you are buying your first snowshoes, go midsize. I’d say around 25 inches is right for average snow conditions. If you get deep into the stride of the sport, you might later buy a smaller pair for hard packed snow and a bigger set for deep powder. Most aficionados have at least three pairs to cover the range.

The guy or gal at the store might sell you shoes based on your body weight. This is a factor of course, but to a much lesser degree than snow conditions. The range of variation is huge. I think body weight is actually irrelevant compared to the snow itself.

There are times when you couldn’t jump down though the snowpack. This happens when hard frost follows a winter rain. That’s when you need small shoes and great serrated traction. I use my MSR Lightning Ascent shoes in those conditions. In addition to being spiked under the harness, they are toothed all around the outer edge. And the membrane isn’t wrapped around the frame where ice and crust can tear the heck out of it. They are specialized for typical mountain snow conditions. But we get a lot of that here on the sea level Avalon.

 A few days ago, the snow was too deep and powdery for tobogganing. I tried so hard with my grandkids, but the slide just sunk in the snow. If I had walked to my cabin that day I would have worn my Tubbs 36-inch backcountry shoes. They are wicked big and I only wear them when I have to. After a fluffy, fresh snowstorm I sink down at least foot with 25-inch shoes on. That’s not good and makes for tough trekking. The big racquets are cumbersome and can slow you down but shine in the deep powder.  

All that said 25-inch shoes are the best all around, in the middle average. My Atlas 25s are my go-to shoes. And I love the simplicity and durability of the bindings. That’s another important consideration. Actually, it’s a lot of what you pay for in higher-priced shoes. I like bindings that are simple and work dependably. I think many of the companies are over engineering their bindings. You need to be able to get your shoes on and off quickly and easily with cold fingers. And they need to stay secure on your feet while trudging the trails. That is not a given with all snowshoes. Try them on in the store and see that the bindings work for you.

Hidden hazards

While you are out there on your new racquets be sure to watch out for tops of fir trees sticking up through the snow. Those of you with experience know where I’m going with this. Small, bushy trees create sinkholes in deep backcountry snow. I went down to my neck in one with big bear paw heavy wooden snowshoes strapped on. I yelled out to Robert and he pulled me out. Although he had a laughing spell first. Thanks buddy.

Anyway, come on with the snow and frost. I ordered a new MSR packable shovel yesterday. Maybe I can dig Robert out of a sinkhole, or dig a tunnel to spend a night in. We will see. Rain or snow is in the hands of the gods. Email me if you want snowshoe advice.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock

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