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WINTER GUIDE: Don't break the banks

Cheap, simple, and inspiring, snowshoeing allows you to stay on top of the drifts and keep money in your pocket

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The whole "walking on water" idea is cool, but when the temperatures plummet in Western New York, walking on snow and ice will have to suffice. And it does for the thousands of snowshoers in our region area each year. Local groups say that the number of snowshoers is on the rise, thanks to the accessibility of the sport and the variety of sweeping views area parks have to offer snowshoe enthusiasts.

"If you can walk, you can snowshoe," says Mort Nace of Medved Running & Walking Outfitters, which sells a variety of snowshoe equipment in its Monroe Avenue store. That's good news, for I am no athlete — but even I was able conquer snow shoeing with minimal difficulty.

"For most people, once they give it a go, they're hooked," Nace says. Nace has helped many locals get hooked on the more competitive side of showshoeing — strapping on the clown-sized shoes and actually running in them. That's a bit above my pay grade, but "it's a great change of pace for runners looking to stay fit during the long Rochester winter," Nace says.

But you don't need to race to experience the benefits of snowshoeing. Amateurs can pick up the activity fairly quickly and cheaply. Most sporting-goods stores, and many area nature parks, offer equipment rentals at relatively low costs — usually $10 to $20 per day for a set of snowshoes.

The snowshoes used today are very different from the ones you see on the walls at old camp lodges that look more like tennis rackets. Modern-day snowshoes are much smaller and typically consist of a frame made of lightweight metal, plastic bindings, and synthetic fabric. The oversized shoe distributes your weight over the snow, so it doesn't sink completely into the powder — a feeling known as "flotation."

Beyond snowshoes, all you really need for the activity is a set of hiking poles, a backpack with some snacks and water, and warm clothes. But don't be surprised if you start to peel off the layers as you go. "Most guys will end up in a t-shirt and maybe a windbreaker shell within five minutes," says Andy Ryan of the Rochester Winter Mountaineering Society. "When you're walking uphill in the summertime it can be quite uncomfortable and sweaty, but in the wintertime, the air cools you, so it's actually very pleasant comparatively. But you're still going to work up a sweat."

Most of the members of the Mountaineering Society, which has been around since the 1960's, are more hardcore thrill-seekers, opting to use their snowshoes to get themselves to the top of major hills and mountains throughout the state nearly every weekend. And so long as you're willing to take an introductory trek with a guide to make sure you're up for it, they'll happily take you on one of their weekend outings to the Adirondacks or Catskills, or to international destinations like Sweden and Mexico.

"Usually by the end of the weekend, people know if they're game — they've either had a miserable time and they're never coming back, or they love it and I'll probably see them every weekend that winter out on the trails," Ryan says.

While snowshoeing is easy enough to pick up for anyone who can put one foot in front of the other, the method of walking is slightly different when you've got the oversized snowshoes strapped to your boots. Ideally, you want to lift the shoes slightly and slide the inner edges over each other as you step so that you avoid the awkward "straddle-gait" stance. The unnatural stance can be both uncomfortable and fatiguing.

I also found that, when starting out, exaggerating your steps seems to work best. If you think you look like a fool, you're probably on the right track. But often, that's not a problem, because snowshoeing is about finding solitude in nature and there are rarely large crowds to laugh at you (which is great for when you trip over your shoes and faceplant — trust me on that).

That said, the buddy system is definitely encouraged among snowshoers, just in case something goes wrong while you're out in the elements. But many avid snowshoers say that going with a small group or just one partner still allows them to enjoy the beauty of nature while getting away from the busy, stressful, technology-filled lives we typically lead. "The solitude in winter is very relaxing," Ryan says. "It's a very pleasant winter experience that lets you soak in the beauty of your surroundings."

If those surroundings include hills, you'll need to use a technique stolen from cross-country skiing called herringbone. You walk with your heels together and toes spread apart to increase your support. Or you can sidestep up a hill. Of course, what goes up, must come down. But getting down a hill can be more fun and less work, at least on smooth terrain.

"A lot of times people will opt to slide down on their butts," Nace says. While glissading may seem lazy, it's actually a great way to rest your leg muscles and pack down the snow for fellow snowshoers. If the hill is bumpier, running down with an exaggerated step or using poles to support your weight will help.

The Greater Rochester area offers plenty of parks and other ideal vistas in which to test out your new skills within a short drive — or right in your backyard, if you don't want to venture too far. "Pretty much anywhere there's snow, you can snowshoe," Nace says.

Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls is not only vast (2,500 acres) and varied in terrain, but is a popular spot among snowshoers. Rental equipment is available through Wild Wings, Inc. (near the Nature Center; call 334-7790 to check availability).

Snowshoeing is kosher at on designated hiking trails or open field in any Monroe County Park that's open during the winter (and that's most of them). Take a hike around Highland Park. Even without its signature lilacs in bloom, the park's sweeping views will take your breath away — if the hilly terrain doesn't wind you first. You may associate Durand Eastman and Ontario Beach parks with summer fun, but they're fair game for snowshoers in the winter. It's a bit more brisk up near the water, but the lakeside coated in a soft layer of snow makes for stunning views.

Genesee Valley Park is pristine and pretty in the wintertime. There are ample trails along the river and canal in this 800-acre gem. Plus, if you want to take a break from the snowshoeing action, there are plenty of good sledding hills.

Abraham Lincoln Park (formerly known as Irondequoit Bay Park East) also comes highly recommended. "Right on the bay there, you see more birds when you're hiking the trails," Nace says.

Over in North Chili, Black Creek Park offers easy, intermediate, and difficult terrain. The more than 1,500-square-foot park is relatively undeveloped compared to most of the others in the county. "You really get a good feel for nature here," says Liz, a snowshoer I passed on a recent trip there. Liz, who didn't want to give her last name, has lived in the area pretty much her entire life. Even though our paths (and our shoes — my fault for stepping on her toe) crossed at Black Creek that day, her favorite snowshoe spot is Ellison Park.

"Ellison's got a little bit of something for everyone," she says. The wide open fields and relatively flat terrain along some parts of the creek are easy enough for any novice to master and really enjoy. Hike a little further, and suddenly you're on steep, more advanced terrain; a fun challenge for the more agile and coordinated crowd. Nearby Corbett's Glen has a similar vibe and style, but is a bit less hilly. On a quiet day, you can catch glimpses of deer grazing nearby or ducks floating down the river.

Many of the parks also offer other kinds of sporting activities during the weekend, such as cross-country skiing. Powder Mills Park is home to the fish hatchery in the spring and fall, but in the winter it's the wild birds you have to watch out for (I had a hawk circling overhead for a good 20 minutes on a recent trek — a bit nerve wracking to say the least).

Cobbs Hill Park in the city is small, but scenic and perfect for beginners. A few laps around the reservoir and you'll have the skills down pat. In Henrietta, Tinker Nature Center has a limited number of shoes available for rent at $3 per rental (the best deal I was able to find in town). The park typically waits until the snow is at least 10" deep before doling out the equipment. The park is only open Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. during the winter.

The list could go on and on, and snowshoers are constantly exploring new trails in new places. "Rochester makes it too easy to get involved," Nace says. "Once the snow falls, you just strap on your shoes and go off on an adventure."

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