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Stomping Across the County

Snowshoeing is gaining momentum as a relatively simple way to stay active in snowy weather.

John Fiorina spends a lot of time at a nature preserve looking at trees, flowers and animals. He can tell you how the wildlife has changed over the years. He can do the same with the flora. He’s an expert about his corner of the world.

As the natural resources manager for the Crystal Lake Park District, Fiorina has been stationed at the Veteran Acres Nature Center in Crystal Lake for nearly seven years. While he is attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, he didn’t really see them coming: snowshoers. “Over the last three years [snow-shoers have] really increased,” Fiorina said. “I never really noticed anyone doing it in the past; now I’m seeing whole groups doing it.”

Kim Compton, education program coordinator for the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), echoes Fiorina. She said snowshoeing has gotten really popular lately within the district’s preserves.

It’s a wintertime activity that has been taken up by remarkable numbers of people in McHenry County and the rest of America. More than 4 million people in the United States went snowshoeing at least once during the 2011-2012 winter. One of the only snow sports categories that enjoyed growth last season, its participation increased 7.5 percent from the prior year, according to a 2012 participation study by SnowSports Industries America.

2K Embraces Snowshoers

2K Adventure Gear in Richmond sells and rents snowshoeing gear in addition to kayaking, camping and hiking gear. Owner Rick Landre said snowshoeing became popular because “anyone who can walk can do it. You can go anywhere. You don’t need a lot of skill or balance and it doesn’t cost a lot” to enjoy it.

Landre opened his shop because he said he saw a need for not only outdoor gear, but lessons, trips and tours. “How many times do we see people buy gear and use it only once or twice?” he said. “We want to make sure people have an excuse to use it.”

2K hosts regular 5K breakfast hikes and sunset wine and cheese-tasting hikes. Both hikes take groups out onto local trails, followed by socializing and noshes.

The Frozen Frog SnowShoe race, taking place January 26 at Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside, is another group outing Landre organizes. This event has a more competitive edge. In its third year, it has gotten so popular that it draws racers from five states and serves as the event that determines Illinois’ state snowshoe champion. But it’s not all hard-core competition. There are things for kids and families to do. “We want families out to have a good time,” he said.

Channeling the Past

Compton said MCCD embraced snowshoeing 12 or 13 years ago when it offered its first snowshoe-making class.

In November, students hand-build Ojibwe-style snowshoes because the style is native to our area. What makes them unique is the point at the toe and the heel, which is an adaptation that took place so the  Native  Americans  could  navigate  the  wooded  areas  more  easily, she said.

The class costs $140 and includes ash snowshoe frames, nylon lacing and an instruction book. Attendees can expect to spend 20 total hours in and out of class building their own snowshoes.

Jeff Kennedy, 51, of Algonquin, and his wife, Janine, took part in this year’s class. He said he enjoyed “the pure hands-on nature of making the snowshoes. No TV, no Internet, just you, some wood and nylon lacing. I really enjoy the satisfaction of making an item that you can put to use.”

On the Trail

There is quite a bit of topography at Veteran Acres that is ideal for snowshoeing, Fiorina said, adding a caveat: “While the trails are open, they see a good deal of foot traffic. They get compacted and become pretty icy.”

Compton added all open MCCD trails are potential snowshoe trails, with nearly 10 miles of trails throughout three different parks they recommend for snowshoeing.

The nature trail at Coral Woods in Marengo is her favorite because it is wooded and narrow and has some creek crossings. “It is the perfect place to go snowshoeing,” she said.

Glacial Park’s (Ringwood) interior horse trail offers a solo experience because it is relatively unused in the winter. “It’s where you can enjoy the trail in relative solitude,” Compton said. And Rush Creek’s (Harvard) horse trail is the third option.

Added Kennedy: “[My wife and I] enjoy being in the outdoors and utilize the many trails MCCD has to offer. We are hoping that we will have enough snow this year so that we can hit the trails with our newly constructed snowshoes. We have two dogs that really enjoy their walks,  so  I  am  sure  they  will  venture  out  for  a  little  snowshoeing with us.”

For Safety’s Sake

Compton said all snowshoers should keep a couple of safety tips in mind to make their time on the snow more enjoyable. “Just because it’s winter and it’s colder, always drink water,” she said. “People have a tendency to think water is only needed when it’s hot. I also recommend bringing a snack.

“You might want to have backup/repair equipment if you break a snowshoe,” she added. “It’s a heck of a lot harder to get back to the trailhead” with a broken snowshoe.

She suggested taking some duct tape and some nylon lacing to do a quick in-field repair.

Compton also thinks preplanning is an important safety check. “Check www.mccdistrict.org for conditions and download maps so you know where you’ll be going,” she said.

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