Learning to Love the Snow

February 13, 2009

A Syracuse winter rages on till March. Snow piles up in towering ten-foot mounds on the edge of parking lots—hills of dirty gray ice. The winter is ugly and relentless, and, by mid-January, even a psychologically sound person may succumb to despair. When the sun peaks out from under thick cloud cover, I savor the fleeting moments of blue skies and light. The city snow is depressing. But, just 20 minutes away, the snow at Beaver Lake can be magical.

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Beaver Lake Nature Center, located in Baldwinsville, NY, is a 650-acre Onondaga County park that features miles of trails crisscrossing gentle pine-covered hills. It’s picturesque in summer, vibrant in fall, but in winter it truly sparkles, and one of the best ways to explore this winter wonderland is on snowshoes.

I’ve always considered snowshoeing to be a rather folksy, wholesome activity. I’m a city girl, and, therefore, I am rarely inclined to engage in folksy, wholesome activities. I’ve survived eight Russian winters in the bitter cold of St. Petersburg, drinking brandy on the streets at night to keep warm walking to and from rock clubs. I avoided nature in the winter months, because it is treacherous and unpredictable: innocent victims are impaled my icicles, mauled by bears, or simply lose limbs to hypothermia. In winter, Russians huddle together at home and hibernate. Everyone’s late for work and can excuse sick days by explaining, “I just wasn’t in a good mood.” The country comes to a grinding halt for 10 long days in January for winter holidays. There are vacations to Egypt for those who can afford it. There’s vodka for those who can’t.

For three dollars, Syracuse city slickers can participate in a Saturday afternoon snowshoeing clinic at Beaver Lake. Our group, consisting mainly of SU grad students, arrived at 12:30 pm for our date with Meg, a Beaver Lake Nature Center guide. None of us had ever been snowshoeing before.

Meg handed us our wooden shoes resembling narrow tennis rackets and explained how to attach them to our boots. Before we set off, she discussed the different types of turns: the daisy turn, where you rotate bit by bit, slowly creating a flower in the snow, the wide turn, where you turn out one foot at a 90 degree angle and lift your other foot to join it, and the more difficult jump turn, which requires serious athleticism and frequent falling.

Treading lightly over several feet of fluffy, untracked snow is physically demanding. But it’s also vigorous and rewarding, especially when the sun is shining and the air is crisp and sweet. As a child, I loved to put on my snow pants on a winter day and play in the woods behind our house, scooping up handfuls of blue-white snow to munch on as I walked under leafless oak trees. I satisfied my fresh snow craving with Beaver Lake’s finest flakes: crunchy, refreshing, with a slight earthy flavor. Meg led the way across meadows and packed trails pointing out squirrel tracks and beech trees. For a couple of hours, winter’s not so bad at all.

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