Imagine hiking in the wilds of Chicagoland amidst a foot of soft, crunchy snow. If you were wearing boots, you’d be almost up to your knees in snow—and quickly tiring. But you’re wearing snowshoes, and you are moving free and easy atop the snow (although you might need a little practice if you’re a first-time snowshoer). It’s peaceful amidst the bare trees and tall dry prairie grass. The sky is blue, and the sun is shining on this cold winter day. You’re dressed warmly, and this is much better than sitting on the couch binge-watching “The Real Housewives of Kardashianville.”
Your favorite summer hiking destination looks so different in the winter. It’s austere, but starkly beautiful. The trees are slumbering. Perennials lie just beneath the surface awaiting the warmth of spring. Many birds have migrated south to warmer climes. Other animals are waiting out the winter beneath the earth. But as you walk, you realize you’re not really alone. You notice several deer in the distance, coyote tracks jauntily wending their way up and over a hill, and a red-tailed hawk circling overhead. You won’t be lunch, but an unlucky field mouse or Eastern cottontail might be. It feels good to be out in nature and away from the bustling Chicago metropolis.
It’s very tempting to become a couch potato during Chicago winters. Although our winters aren’t as fierce as they were when I was a boy in the 1970s, they are no day at the beach. Our string of nearly two weeks of sub-20-degree high temps in late December and early January proved that if we had forgotten. But I encourage you to break the winter doldrums by taking a hike in the woods—preferably donning snowshoes. The Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) offers several planned and pop-up snowshoeing events throughout the winter. These events are free and snowshoes are provided on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration is required for certain events; click on the links below for details. I discussed snowshoeing in the FPCC with Ed Wagemann, a recreational aide with the preserves.
Q. Can you tell me about upcoming snowshoeing events?
A. We have a Snowshoe Trekking event on Saturday, February 10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Rolling Knolls (11N260 Rohrssen Road, Elgin), and a Snowshoe Hike at St. Mihiel Woods East (16700-16920 Central Avenue, Tinley Park) on Monday, March 5, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Also, many of our nature centers offer snowshoes for loan any time there is more than 4 inches of snow. Each center has a limited supply of snowshoes for kids (8 years and up) and a limited supply for adults (they are available with a state ID or driver’s license). It’s first come, first served and, of course, folks are welcome to bring their own snowshoes.
Q. What if it doesn’t snow. Will you offer any alternative activities?
A. If it doesn’t snow enough to go snowshoeing at one of our events, then other activities (hiking, orienteering, etc.) will be planned for people who want to show up.
Q. What’s the best thing about snowshoeing in the Forest Preserves of Cook County?
A. There are a lot of great things about snowshoeing in the FPCC. It’s free, the landscape is beautiful, and you can venture into places where you can witness wildlife in a natural environment—which is something a lot of people never witness. It’s also convenient if you live in Cook County because there are several locations to snowshoe throughout the county. Snowshoeing is something people can do individually or in groups and FPCC snowshoe hikes are a great way for snowshoers to connect and socialize with other snowshoers. I imagine a lot of snowshoers do it for the exercise, as well. Everyone can go at their own pace, either taking it easy or going at it hard. Last of all, because snowshoeing is so dependent on the weather, we have pop-up snowshoe programs when conditions allow. Folks can follow us on our Facebook page to see when groups are meeting to snowshoe.
Q. Is it hard to snowshoe?
A. Snowshoeing isn’t hard at all. In fact, if the snow is more than 4 inches, then snowshoeing is pretty easy—certainly easier than trying to hike hills or trails without snowshoes. Snowshoeing is slower-paced than cross-country skiing, and it doesn’t require as much skill and balance. Some people use poles while snowshoeing, though. Once you have the snowshoes on it may take a few minutes to get used to them, but most people catch on quickly.
The things you have to think about while snowshoeing are pretty close to the things you have to think about when hiking: proper hydration, proper clothing, and watching out for hazards like running water or steep, rocky inclines. I recommend bringing a compass or GPS. Basically, I think of snowshoeing as hiking that is done during the winter.
Free snowshoeing events…check!
Snow…missing in action for the most part in Chicagoland this winter. We’ve received only 50 percent of the normal amount of snow this winter.
I know there’s a prayer for lost causes, but is there a prayer for snow? Can we invent a snow dance or mantra, or should we just hope that the law of averages eventually brings us a whopper of a snowstorm? A school-cancelling, work-cancelling monster of a snowstorm that brings Chicagoland to a grinding halt. That softens the noise of this metropolis. That covers tired-looking winter lawns, bushes, cars, and roofs with a thick blanket of soft wintry white. That bends snow shovels; that causes the local broadcasters to break into their annual “if you don’t have to go outside, don’t” speech; that takes snow lovers to a winter nirvana. That stops time long enough for us to catch our breath in this crazy modern world. That makes it right for the snowshoers, snow fort builders, snow angel makers, snowman makers, ice skaters, snowball throwers, and other lovers of winter.
We can only hope, but that’s my early February wish. I hope to meet you as I glide across the fresh snow in my snowshoes.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes (except Ed Wagemann’s interview, to which he holds copyright). Photos 1 and 3 copyright Forest Preserve of Cook County; photos 2, 4, and 5 (Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge) copyright Jennifer Jewett, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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