My snow mantra worked—maybe too well! Within the last week or so, snow-starved Chicagoland became a winter wonderland. Shouts of joy and a blizzard of curse words came from those who either embraced or were enraged by the nearly 12 inches of snow that’s fallen in the last week.
Last week, my wife, 7-year-old son, and I took our annual Valentine’s Day weekend trip to Galena, Illinois, along with other family and friends. We planned to leave on Friday, but the apocalyptic warnings of heavy snow from weather forecasters and the news media—combined with spot-on advice from Tim, our family’s resident meteorologist (every family should have one…thanks again, Tim)—encouraged us to leave a day early to beat the snow. Tim’s good advice allowed us to arrive just as the snow began falling a few miles outside of Galena.
I hate winter. I am a summer-loving, hike-in-the-woods, hit-the-pool/beach, sit-on-the-deck-and-embrace-the-heat kind of person. Although Chicago winters aren’t what they used to be because of global climate change (yes, I choose to believe the research of 99.9 percent of qualified climate scientists, rather than the unscientific opinions of some of our “leaders”), they can still pack a punch. This winter season, Chicago received a right hook of 12 straight days of sub-17-degree high temperatures, and, in the last week, a left hook in the form of mountains of snow and cold. (I understand that Chicago winter weather is balmy compared to that of the upper Midwest, Canada, and other areas.) Winter was unable to deliver a knockout because it’s been in the 30s and 40s the last few days.
But, this year, I decided to embrace the cold. I vowed to participate in more activities—sledding, snowball fights, fort building, and ice skating—that would take me back to my youth. I also vowed to try something new. I decided to surprise my son with snowshoes for our trip to Galena. The morning after we arrived in this beautiful and historic town where President Ulysses Grant once lived, my son discovered the snowshoes hidden in our hotel room. Pandemonium ensued at the prospect of this unexpected outdoor activity. We headed to the Faerie Circle and the heavily-wooded hills and bluffs behind our hotel, the Irish Cottage Boutique Cottage, which is highly recommended.
Once we had donned our snowshoes, we experimented with walking in the deep snow of the gradually sloping Faerie Circle. As I walked, my feet sunk a few inches into the 10+-inch snow, but it was far better than punching deep holes into the snow with each boot step—and getting stuck in the snow as you tried to walk. I felt much more stable than I did just wearing boots. I didn’t quite glide across the snow (as I envisioned in my last snowshoeing blog), but as I gained experience, I began to walk comfortably across the snowy expanse.
My son and I decided to take the hilly trail that led into the forest. It was about 15 degrees, and as we snowshoed, the sun occasionally popped out of the clouds, a fuzzy yellow dot in the ashen sky. My son kept saying, “this is fun, can we climb the next hill?” So, we snowshoed up and down many hills, stopping a few times to adjust our snowshoes and savor the silence that was occasionally broken by birdsong and the howls of coyotes.
My son was a natural. In his shorter snowshoes, he could actually run down the trail. When he became tired, he’d suddenly plop down and make snow angels. I certainly did no running in my 32-inch-long snowshoes, but I began to become more comfortable. Our spirits were high, but, after a while, our first-time snowshoeing legs became tired and the tiny bit of exposed skin on my son’s ski-mask-covered face became bright red from the cold, so we headed back to the hotel. And, a few hours later, I rewarded myself with this wonderful Guinness in the Irish Cottage’s beautiful and cozy bar.
The next day, we were at it again, snowshoeing further than we had the previous day. After our hike, we met some of my son’s friends and their parents at the Faerie Circle, and the kids tried out the snowshoes. For the next two hours, we parents watched as our kids played with the snowshoes, built snow forts, and had snowball fights.
As parents, we spend our lives trying to make our children happy, but often our kind words and actions aren’t acknowledged (they’re kids, for heaven’s sake). But one night during our trip, my son said to me, “I’m having a wonderful trip thanks to you getting the snowshoes.” Words can’t convey how this type of a comment makes a parent feel, so I won’t try—other than to say that it was just wonderful to hear.
Snowshoeing—especially with my son—was a great experience, and I strongly suggest that you try it if you haven’t already. The Forest Preserves of Cook County and other forest preserve districts offer free snowshoeing and other winter events, so you don’t need to purchase snowshoes. But, if you choose to, adult snowshoes can be bought for as little as $60 to $70, and children’s versions for around $40. Used snowshoes are less expensive.
While I am by no means an expert, here are some tips to keep in mind before you go snowshoeing:
- Spend some time finding the right size snowshoe for your weight. I used the Sierra Trading Post’s helpful guide.
- Try putting the snowshoes on before you get out in the snow. This will allow you to discover how to use your model’s specific locking/strapping system. I did this in our hotel room, but should have spent more time locking down the perfect fit because it was very hard to adjust the snowshoes in the cold and snow with half-frozen hands.
- Getting the fit right before you hit the trail is extremely important. I initially thought my snowshoes were tight enough, but quickly realized they weren’t as snug as I thought. When the snowshoes are on tight (but not too tight, or you’ll lose circulation), you’ll feel like they are an extension of your feet.
- Don’t overdo it on your first foray on snowshoes. Try them out on a flat, snowy surface before venturing into more challenging terrain. Remember, if you travel a mile on snowshoes, you’ll have a mile’s return (unless you’re on a circle trail).
- Whether you plan to snowshoe for 5 minutes or a few hours, pack water, a lightweight emergency blanket, a lighter (to try to start a fire if you get stranded), and a fully-charged phone (and a charger, too). Many outdoor experts also suggest taking a compass and a GPS device. Although you may be familiar with your snowshoeing area, everything looks different in the winter. You could become lost, fall and break your leg, or face other challenges.
- Dress warmly, but in layers, because you’ll probably break a sweat as you snowshoe and may need to take off a few outer layers as you go.
- Be careful when backing-up. It’s very hard to do in snowshoes—especially for adults. If you need to back up, it’s better to circle around to change direction.
- Be careful of what’s under the snow: tree branches, rocks, and other objects that might make you trip, depending on the depth of the snow.
- Avoid walking on icy lakes, ponds, and rivers—unless you are sure that the water is completely frozen.
- Always tells someone that you’re going snowshoeing, where you are traveling to, and what time you’ll be back.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
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