By Damian Fagan for The Bulletin Special Projects
Experience winter through the magic of snowshoeing
There is an old adage, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.”
Translation: snowshoeing is easy to learn, requires minimal dexterity, and takes the beginner about five minutes to become intermediate. This minimal skill/high reward factor enables Central Oregonian snowshoers to embrace the beauty of winter one step at a time.
First off, those ponderous wooden snowshoes with the rawhide webbing and leather bindings crossed above the fireplace? Keep ’em there unless you want to go retro. Modern-day snowshoes are made of lightweight material such as plastic, metal, or synthetic fabric and have easy-to-cinch fixed-rotation bindings and cleated undersides that provide traction on steep slopes.
“Snowshoes distribute a person’s weight over a large surface area and keep how deep a person’s foot sinks into the snow to a minimum,” said Molly Johnson, COCC Community Learning outdoors instructor. “A common mistake is getting snowshoes that are too wide or heavy to make walking comfortable.” Johnson recommends renting snowshoes to try out different makes and models before purchasing a pair. In Bend, Pine Mountain Sports, Mountain Supply, Sunnyside Sports, Powder House Ski & Snowboard, and Gear Fix offer snowshoe rentals.
So after lining up some snowshoes, where do you go? Fortunately, there are many options for snowshoeing in Central Oregon.
“Jim Davis was the father of the snowshoe trails here in Bend,” said Bob Timmer, volunteer trail crew and trip leader with the Central Oregon Nordic Club (CONC). Davis, a family doctor from Milwaukie who retired to Bend in the late 1980s, pioneered the first snowshoe-dedicated trails in the Deschutes National Forest. Davis’s efforts to create snowshoe trails came about as a way to reduce conflicts between skiers and snowshoers over sharing trails. Thanks to Davis, more than 20 miles of snowshoe trails radiate out from different sno-parks along the Cascade Lakes Highway. Other great snowshoeing trails can be found in the Ochocos, Santiam Pass, Newberry Volcanic National Monument, and Three Creeks sno-park outside Sisters.
However, the trails don’t take care of themselves. “Central Oregon Nordic Club members volunteer before and during the winter season clearing blowdown, trimming brush, and maintaining signs and assurance markers for the snowshoe trails,” said Timmer. “CONC’s volunteer effort last season was over 400 hours and involved clearing over 230 blowdown trees and installing over 90 replacement assurance markers.”
CONC members also stock the trail shelters with firewood and have helped to rebuild both the Swampy Lakes and Nordeen shelters in the past few years. The shelters offer snowshoers and skiers a spot to get out of the weather, stoke the woodstove, enjoy the company of others, and share tales about the trail. On special nights, ‘shoers and skiers gather around outside fires to toast full moons, New Year’s, and luminaria nights.
In addition to CONC’s efforts, DogPac members clean and groom the snowshoe and Nordic trails at Wanoga Sno-Park, and the Sisters Trail Alliance maintains the trails from Upper Three Creeks Sno-Park, including the new Peak View Trail, the first dedicated snowshoe trail in the Sisters Ranger District.
In addition to the Nordic Club, other organizations and meetups in Bend offer snowshoe outings to their members.
Leslie Olsen, Bend Park & Rec adult outdoor leader, conducts beginner courses and a weekly winter series called Yetis that runs till March 1. “I ask that participants be able to walk up Pilot Butte comfortably. If they can’t do at least that, they are going to struggle,” Olsen stated.
Though easy to master, snowshoeing is more strenuous than hiking. “A three-mile snowshoe outing is more like a four-and-a-half to six-mile hike, and you’re at higher elevation,” said Timmer.
Olsen recommends that snowshoers be prepared before they go out by dressing to meet the weather challenges of Central Oregon. Carry a pack with extra clothes, food, and water and let someone know your plans and return ETA. CONC members supply the trailheads with paper maps indicating the ski and snowshoe trails or people can download maps from links on the CONC website (conordicclub.org).
For those going on their own, first-time snowshoers could try the short loop at Swampy Sno-Park, the dog-friendly trail at Wanoga, or follow the short loop up to the Meissner Shelter from the Meissner Sno-Park trailhead. Another option is to join a free 90-minute-long snowshoe tour offered by Forest Service volunteers at Mt. Bachelor on weekends, Oregon school breaks, and certain holidays through March 31.
“We have USFS volunteers, interpretive rangers, and some of our Discover Your Forest staff as well to lead tours,” said Karen Gentry, the education and volunteer program director of Discover Your Forest (DYF). “Ideally, we’ll have 15 to 20 people on a tour and we have three volunteers on hand to split the group up.” Because the trails at Mt. Bachelor are limited, Gentry recommends that larger groups call ahead and make reservations for a special tour (discoveryourforest.org).
Discover Your Forest partners with Deschutes National Forest and Mt. Bachelor to offer school programs as well, connecting elementary through high school students to their local forests. Gentry said that DYF also uses these programs as an entry point to talk with high school and college students about turning their passion for the outdoors into a career path in natural resources.
For younger students, a free family-friendly Junior Ranger program is held once a month at Mt. Bachelor. “We might have a visit from the Mt. Bachelor avalanche dogs, play games, or do hands-on snow science experiments,” said Gentry. More than 45 volunteers help run all the programs.
Bend-based Wanderlust Tours also offers unique and educational snowshoeing outings that explore the wonders of the Cascades, such as Daytime Snowshoes; Moonlight or Starlight Snowshoes; Shoes, Brews, and Views; and for a truly one-of-a-kind snowshoeing experience, the evening Bonfire on the Snow tour (wanderlusttours.com).
“When guests strap on snowshoes for a walk into a serene, old-growth forest, their senses jump to awareness of nature’s intricacies,” said Dave Nissen, Wanderlust Tours’ owner. “After splashing through the snow, everyone descends on an incredible hand-carved amphitheater in the snow. Around a glowing bonfire, amazing desserts and hot cocoa are served up while everybody gawks at the widest array of starlight filling the heavens.”
Truly a magical way to explore the beauty of an old-growth forest with award-winning guides.
With the rising popularity of snowshoeing in Central Oregon, there are numerous ways to enjoy winter, get in some great exercise, and learn about the region’s natural and cultural history.
“I love snowshoeing for all the same reasons that I love hiking,” said Molly Johnson. “We are fortunate to have so many trails providing opportunities for all ability levels and off-trail areas for the adventurous.”