Thom Smith snowshoes in the back country

Thinking back 16 years, Scott Jervas who worked with me managing the Berkshire Museum aquarium, had an unlikely winter pastime — searching for long-closed ski areas returning to forest.

In 2003, a winter of deep snow in the Berkshires, three of us — Scott and I and Al Krupa, of Suffield, Conn., a friend and water management advisor — outfitted ourselves with with snowshoes and hiked a little-used road, today not much more than a path, up a wooded hillside in South Lee to visit the remains of Beartown Ski Area’s main lodge.

The area, with an 820-foot elevation drop, opened in 1939 and became widely known as a Ski Train destination. The site is off Route 102 and reached from Beartown Mountain Road in South Lee. The snow was deep, maybe a bit over two feet, but with snowshoes we could jaunt over the powder. The lodge closed for good in 1966. Its two mammoth fireplaces were all that remained standing.

Al Krupa snowshoes between what remains of Beartown Ski Area's main lodge.
Photo by Thom Smith

Al Krupa snowshoes between what remains of Beartown Ski Area's main lodge.

I don’t think I would have been able to reach them without snowshoes, and I could see why they have been a primary means of travel in snowy regions for more than 6,000 years.

Snowshoe through time

The snowshoe or snow ski is an early invention, and it may have been as freeing to travellers as the invention of the wheel. Snowshoes may have appeared in Central Asia as early as 4,000 B.C.

The familiar form made from a solid piece of wood with a leather binding comes widely from here — Algonquian peoples and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have worn them east of the Mississipi for centuries, the Huron, the Cree and nearly every nation on the continent, from the Ojibwe on the central plains to the Inuit in Nunavut, in many different shapes and styles. Wearing them, people could cross deep snow to the farther reaches of the north, well into the Tundra.

Traditional snowshoes vary in shape; the oval bear paw offers maneuverability in thick woods and hilly areas. The Maine Beaver-tail, a more teardrop shape with upturned toe and a narrow tail, is versatile on trails or open woods. The Alaskan style, long and narrow with upturned toe, works well in racing, deep snow and open areas.

They became a main tool for for hunters, trappers, explorers, and soldiers, who often made their own. Colonists in North America brought them from coast to coast with the steel trap and the flint-lock.

Travelling the winter woods

While some outdoors people still favor the traditional styles made of an ash frame and rawhide decking, today snowshoes also come in lightweight polycarbonate and a foot harness, or with an aluminum frame and PVC deck. Families can find snowwshoes for children, and women can opt for smaller and more tapered frames allowing a more natural stride. And many people use them to relax or to get out into the woods in deep winter.

Community snowshoe outings and clubs became popular in New England and in Canada through 1920s, and snowshoeing has remained popular even as cross country skies came into favor in the 1960s.

Today’s shoes come generally in four styles: recreational snowshoes, the most popular beginners, meant for flat to gentle terrain, a backyard or an easy walk on the trails; hiking shoes for off-trail wear, rugged backcountry shoes designed for flat to mountainous terrain, fitness or racing shoes for people who want to continue their jogging or running through the snowy months. Some also allow cross training, racing, climbing and hiking.

Berkshire winter trekking

The Berkshires border the Snow Belt, and not every winter is a snowshoe winter. But when we venture out along the Ashuwillticook bike trail or along trails in one of our many state parks and forests in winter, snowshoes allow an entirely different view of the more familiar summer Berkshires.

One of my favorite places known to longtime Dalton residents as Crane’s Woods and to the rest of the world as The Boulders. Forested with hemlock, it offers good snowshoeing. The many trails, most gentle, but a few on the steep side, are never busy and it is rare to meet another traveler except on weekends.

One winter my wife Susan and daughter Lisa chose one of the coldest days, well below zero, to walk Gulf Road with a brief jaunt onto one of the Boulders’ trails, and another time our grandson Zachary joined me. These winter treks reveal the movements of unseen animals in the silent winter woods. Deer tracks were crossing this way and that, and squirrel, rabbit and even turkey tracks make the exploration exciting.

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