Kevin Deyo runs with snowshoes and his dog Maddie near Traverse City. (Allison Batdorff / AP)
Traverse City— Maddie disappears into a snowy cloud. Poof. Dog gone.
Her eager head bobs up a second later, rising and sinking like the Loch Ness monster, trailing a wake of broken snow. The Border collie is panting in minutes.
It doesn’t take long to get the heart pounding in snow like this, said Kevin Deyo, Maddie’s owner. Deyo, 55, runs with her four times a week, out the back door and into crotch-deep snow and rolling hills at Twin Lakes Park in Grand Traverse County. Maddie’s paws are greased with musher’s wax. Deyo wears snowshoes.
“Snowshoeing is just something you fall in love with,” Deyo said. “This time of year, the air is fresh and beautiful. It’s so safe in the woods. No cars.”
Snowshoeing — once a matter of transportation and survival — enjoyed a growing recreational fan base in recent years. But the sport made great strides this winter, given consistently snowy conditions, said retailers and fans.
“Usually, you get a good day, then it warms up and you have to wait, and wait, for the next snowfall. We’ve had a constant blanket of snow this year, plus fresh powder every couple of days,” said Courtney Bierschbach.
Bierschbach, education coordinator at Grand Traverse Conservation District, walks out of the office for hikes or out her back door in Holiday Hills “two to four times a week,” she said.
Snowshoe rentals and sales are “robust,” said Jeff Swanson, owner of Don Orr Ski n’ Beach Haus. The snow is keeping Swanson so busy he’s having trouble snowshoeing himself, he said.
“Even with all of the bitter cold days, we are busy,” Swanson said.
His typical snowshoe customers are families who seek relief from cabin fever, Swanson said. Snowshoeing is the great equalizer — if you can walk, you can snowshoe — and in these conditions, you don’t have to go far to find a spot, he said.
“I usually point people out behind the state hospital,” Swanson said. “It’s a beautiful place to snowshoe and it’s close.”
The basic concept behind snowshoeing has been around for thousands of years, but the technology made great strides in the last 20, said Sandy Graham, Backcountry North store owner. The store is on its fourth reorder of snowshoes that range in price from $140 to $300 a pair, he said.
“The classic wooden snowshoes look nice — you can hang them above your fireplace — but I wouldn’t use them,” Graham said.
The right snowshoe is a bit like a riddle. What has claws but doesn’t scratch? Flotation with no water? “Nose kick” with no nostrils?
Most snowshoes are between 22 inches and 30 inches and should have bindings a user can fasten to any sturdy winter boot while wearing gloves, Graham said. Modern snowshoes come with traction and brake bars. One model features “televator” foot bars to prevent leg cramps uphill.
Others have tapered tails, are designed by gender or asymmetrically shaped for speed. Poles are for seasoned snowshoers who use them as an extension of their hands. Beginners should swing their arms naturally, Graham said.
But the true beauty of the snowshoe can be simplified into two words — breaking trail, he said.
“Skis glide, but they don’t handle swamps or steep hills,” Graham said. “Wearing snowshoes is like driving a tank or a bulldozer. You can go anywhere.”
There are extremes in every sport and snowshoeing is no different. Deyo is a part of the snowshoe racing circuit, a Big Foot snowshoe race 5k winner who directly mounts his sneakers to his snowshoes.
Graham leads the “Dunes of Doom” night snowshoe hike to Pyramid Point every February. It’s rated “E’’ for extreme, he said, but he still gets 65 or so people to turn out, some of whom are in their 80s.
“Everyone falls down,” Graham said. “But it’s the best snowshoeing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It’s the biggest adventure of the year.”