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PEAK EXPERIENCE: The Seven Devils mountain range serves as a backdrop for snowshoer Nancy Huff. (Photo/ROCHELLE DANIELSON).
PEAK EXPERIENCE: The Seven Devils mountain range serves as a backdrop for snowshoer Nancy Huff. (Photo/ROCHELLE DANIELSON).

Rochelle Danielson

For The Observer

JOSEPH — During this wintry season it's surprising what you can stick your foot in and get away with.

Step into cross-county lace-ups made for the long, skinny skis. Buckle up ski boots for a great downhill ride. Tie on those ice skates. Strap your lightweight boots to a snowboard, or all-terrain snowshoes. No matter your choice — nordic, alpine, ice figures or hockey — there's safety-designed footwear and sports equipment out there to encourage you to stay active, and have fun in the snow.

But sporty foot gear doesn't do much good if you've talked yourself into staying at home by the fire. Excuses of curling up in your favorite chair, reading a book or watching television might sound like the answer your body craves, but venturing outdoors for a good workout pays off in better health — and it's relaxing to boot.

Intimidating? Yes, some activities more so than others, but what a way to pass a long, cold day.

Nancy Huff, my friend and a fellow downhill skier, suggested relinquishing an afternoon of swooshing the slopes — give the knees a rest — and try snowshoeing, a low-impact exercise.

"Snowshoes?" I questioned. "Aren't they made of wood and used as log cabin decor?"

"They're not patterned like that anymore," she said. "They're light-weight aluminum, and easy to use. I've a pair you can try."

"Well, I'm really more in the mood to stay home and bake bread," I said teasingly.

"Think about it," she pointed out. "Instead of consuming carbs, you'll be burning calories."

"In that case," I quickly replied, "let's take to the woods."

The bright sun cast shadows through the snow-laden branches of firs that lined Canal Road, 10 miles southeast of Joseph. From the cattle guard, past Ferguson Ridge sno-park, to the McCully Creek junction was like driving through a winter wonderland — so still and quiet — the only sound came from snow crunching beneath the tires.

With the SUV parked at the trailhead, we gathered our snow poles and hip packs. Next came the challenge of strapping snowshoes to boots.

The oval shaped Sherpas, similar in size and function to a Bear Paw with a lace-up type toe binding, looked to be a complicated piece of footwear. But access was easy, once we followed the instructions that Mac, Nancy's husband, had given.

His words, "Place the foot securely against the heel strap before clipping the laces snugly over the boot toe." It worked, but only after several attempts at trying it our way.

Glistening snow blanketed the hillside, but strands of grass, scrubby brush and downed timber from the1989 Canal burn remained visible along the creek and trodden road.

We strode forward in a clumsy sort of way — more like a straddle — keeping to the tracks of those who had gone before.

Although the shoes had a narrow profile, tripping proved inevitable.

"Thought you called this easy," I sputtered, following a face-plant. "We must resemble a slapstick comedy act."

Nancy laughed and offered a helping hand.

With each step we struggled. Sunglasses failed to keep out the sun's glare, and too, being overly clothed in woolies didn't help. A combination of heavy breathing, minimal whining and spurts of laughter filled the air.

We weren't alone in disturbing the fragile silence of the forest. Nearby, two families enjoyed an outing. Kids rode sleds while two black Lab pups romped beside them, and then took refuge as we approached. Smoke rose from a small bonfire. The aroma of roasted wieners floated past. At that moment, a picnic seemed like a much better idea than working up a sweat.

They applauded our effort and waved. We waved and stomped on.

Back-country skiers, jackets tied around their waists, glided down the old road. Skis were their forte, but the two spoke favorably of snowshoe use in steep terrain and brush. One skier said, "Snowshoes would have been perfect on a day trek through the burn area at Salt Creek."

Beyond the original McCully Creek trail head, to the right, an old jeep road leads to the top of Mount Howard. Someday we'd hike to the summit, but on this day a short hike with a high-energy aerobic exercise would do.

Although a strenuous ascent for a novice, our steps gradually fell into a natural stride. Breathing came easier. We began to appreciate the fresh air and the surroundings. A venture into untracked powder proved totally exhilarating — oh, the places you can go, walking on snow.

As ol' Sol dipped to its drop-off point behind the mountain we retraced our steps toward the rig. Near the old trailhead a threesome appeared, returning from the Eagle Cap Wilderness boundary, 2 miles into McCully Creek. Their feet sported brightly colored aluminum-framed snowshoes — orange, blue and metallic green. Snowshoe believers, they raved about the versatility the shoes offer — the simple entry/release, traction and stability.

Stopping to catch our breath, quench our thirst and snap photos, we marveled at the beauty the sunlight created across the valley's frozen landscape — Prairie Creek, the Seven Devils and Hat Point ridge.

Back home, relaxing by the fire, and starving, my thoughts returned to the aroma of baking bread. Within minutes the bread machine whirred — kneading a loaf of luscious carbs.

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