The trick to living up north, I used to think, was not hating the long winter. You didn’t have to like it. But if you didn’t actively hate it, the other three seasons (which are so freakin’ gorgeous) completely justified the hard months.
But thanks to my growing love of snowshoeing, my chilly attitude toward winter is thawing, and I’m starting to…kinda like it. I’m becoming one of those people who looks forward to snow — even if it means I’ll have to dig out my car as I’m getting ready for work at the crack of dawn — because of the promise of great snowshoeing conditions.
It’s my favorite form of winter recreation. To each their own: I have mad respect for down-hill and cross-country skiers who find their bliss in those activities. I have some experience with both, and I hope to improve at both, with practice.
But snowshoeing doesn’t require practice! It’s entry-level. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s basically the same thing as my preferred hobby during the other three seasons: hiking. Except it’s arguably more fun than hiking. Because, in the right conditions, you feel like you’re moving faster, and across more ground, than if you were hiking. You feel…strong, invincible. With your poles and your other gear, you feel like an indomitable explorer.
Let’s back up. Why do people snowshoe, rather than just tromp through the snow in hefty boots? If you’ve never done it before, you might be wondering why people wear those clown shoes. A fashion statement? No, it’s about physics. Wikipedia: “Snowshoes work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area so that the person's foot does not sink completely into the snow.” Wearing snowshoes means less sinkage…which means you’re moving faster while expending less energy…which means you’re having a better time.
Recently, the stars aligned and I was fortunate enough to enjoy a perfect, sunny, blue-sky snowshoeing afternoon at Houdek Dunes Natural Area. Yet the day started with nettlesome frustration and curse words. Here’s the story.
One morning, I found myself in Traverse City, on my day off, which happened to be one of those precious blazing-blue winter days. And I realized I needed to finally bite the bullet and buy my own snow shoes, and take advantage of the day. I’d previously been renting snowshoes on days like this. But for someone who intends to go snowshoeing a lot throughout the winter, renting is like setting money on fire. I’m cheap, so I was looking for a used pair. My friends had recommended Play It Again Sports, which has a great collection of used and new winter gear. I sauntered into the store thinking this would take five minutes.
It took less than that…because they didn’t have any used snowshoes. Why? The gentleman kindly explained that they can’t keep them in stock this time of year. As soon as they get them, they’re sold. I could keep calling from time to time and seeing if they had any. But I needed them today! &%#@ Dammit!
Before leaving, I bought a pair of gaiters. I had learned the hard way that gaiters are absolutely essential for snowshoeing, unless you’re wearing really tall boots. They cover your ankles and keep snow from getting into your boots. Nothing ruins a blissful day in the outdoors quite like wet socks. Fortunately, I’d received trekking poles with neat-o cork grips as a Christmas gift, so I didn’t need poles. Poles, by the way, are not only necessary for traction and conquering hills; they’re also super fun to use, and they make snowshoeing a full-body workout.
I drove back up to Leelanau, resigned to renting snowshoes again. During my drive, I called in for some takeout Chinese lunch from Hang-On Express, a Suttons Bay standby, so that it would be ready by the time I had rented my snowshoes from Suttons Bay Bikes — a trusty little year-round recreation store.
But when I entered Suttons Bay Bikes, it turned out they were having a 20% off sale on new snow shoes. And I couldn’t resist. It was time.
I got a pair of Atlas Rendezvous, size 25 inch, with an aluminum alloy frame. The sizes are based on how much you weigh. Too small shoes could make you sink too much. Too big ones might be unnecessarily cumbersome. I erred toward the small-ish size, hoping this would motivate me to watch the carbs this winter.
Speaking of which…I then retrieved my carbalicious Chinese food, went home, devoured said food, made coffee, and psyched myself up for an adventure.
There are many wonderful opportunities for snowshoeing in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore itself, including the Heritage Trail; the Otter Creek Trail; the Bay View Trail…the list goes on. But my favorite snowshoeing location in the whole area is a bit further north. If you’ve visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes, I bet you’ve also visited Leland and Fishtown. Well, drive a few minutes north of Leland and you’ll come to Houdek Dunes Natural Area, a Leelanau Conservancy property that’s free to the public.
Blessedly, on this day, I was the first person to set forth on the trail following the previous night’s snowstorm. You ideally want to be snowshoeing on untrodden snow. If it’s too packed down, hiking in boots would be more comfortable.
This distinctive “transitional” ecosystem, with forests encroaching on mid-sized sand dunes, features a delightfully varied topography — which is what makes it perfect for snowshoeing. Sometimes you’re in the middle of the woods. Sometimes you’re on top of a dune. At one point, you’re down by pristine, magical Houdek Creek (splash some cold water on your face!). At around 2.6 miles, if you’re doing the long loop, this trail offers a strenuous but not unmanageable workout. You’ll definitely be taking off articles of clothing halfway through and wondering why you were so cold at the start.
I like to do the longest loop possible by simply keeping left at each juncture. The first highlight is a gargantuan old maple tree. Pause and behold it. During the spring/summer, its canopy cocoons you like an umbrella. Then you’ll pass through a dune area, where I once saw a coyote. The next highlight is the lovely observation platform overlooking Houdek Creek. Make sure you don’t stop there and turn back! You must, if you feel able, proceed up through the ridgeline trail that takes you on top of the dunes — the climax of the hike, a snowshoer’s Valhalla. Then you’ll make your way back through undulating, deep woods. Here, the cleats on the bottom of your snowshoes will be especially useful. You’ll be amazed that you’re not slipping as you’re charging downhill and uphill.
Important note. During the summer, you might wonder why the blue trail markings on the trees are necessary. “How dumb would someone have to be to get lost when the trail is so obvious?” But during the winter, and especially if you’re the first person laying tracks on fresh snow, it’s often not obvious where the trail is. I’d done this trail a hundred times, but I found myself going off course multiple times and needing to retrace my steps to the last trail marking. A handy key on the map at the trailhead explains how to interpret the markings.
The biggest danger of snowshoeing is...finishing a hike and still not feeling like you’re done for the day! You might find yourself possessing more energy at the end than when you started. So it was for me; I ended up heading to Clay Cliffs after Houdek Dunes, for more snowshoeing. Because when the afternoon sun is dancing with billowy clouds, and the sky is a piercing blue, and animal tracks and long shadows of trees are criss-crossing the virgin snow…who wants a day like this to end? Who wants the setting sun to bring us back to “reality”?