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Escaping the cacophony by strapping on snowshoes, slipping into the Great North Woods

A pair of modern snowshoes, made of metal and plastic, at the Falls in the River Trail in New Hampshire.

MILES HOWARD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By MILES HOWARD | Special To The Washington Post | Published: January 21, 2021

The old dam on New Hampshire's Second Connecticut Lake is caked with brittle crusty ice when I arrive, and the surrounding hills shrouded in fresh snow. But a torrent of steel-gray water spills through the concrete sluice, forming the beginnings of the Connecticut River. Up here, at the tiptop of the Granite State - 80 miles north of the White Mountains, where tourists scream down powdery slopes on skis each year - an older, slower winter wonderland awaits travelers.

A windswept realm of lakes, highlands and boreal forest - the domain of old fishermen during the summer and fall months - this overlooked corner of New Hampshire is known as the Great North Woods, and there are two ways to experience the winter wilderness up here. You can blast through the forest on a snowmobile, like Wile E. Coyote strapped to a rocket. Or you can strap on snowshoes and disappear into the silence of the frozen white woods, floating atop the powder. 

This is what I've rented a cabin and driven up from Massachusetts to do. Because of the pandemic, I've been tucked away indoors for too long, every muscle in my body is too tight, and, with hospitals overwhelmed with covid patients, I don't feel like taking the physical risks of skiing or of scaling mountains with crampons.

Snowshoeing is comparably low risk, beyond exposure to frigid weather, and the inherent social distancing of the sport seems to be speaking to Americans weathering the pandemic winter. Back in early spring, the market research firm Snow Sports Insights noted that snowshoeing participation grew by 12 percent. In an email, REI's senior public affairs manager Courtney Gearhart said that snowshoe sales have quadrupled, relative to the prior year. "We're seeing increased enthusiasm in people embracing new outdoor activities (cycling, snowshoeing, running, hiking) and turning to the outdoors to find solace away from the pandemic," she said.

The earliest snowshoes (made entirely of wood) are believed to have been created around 4000 B.C., by the first people who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia into North America. The Athabascan tribe of the northwest and the Algonquins of the Great Lakes region experimented and perfected the iconic rawhide lacing.

Modernized snowshoes are made of metal and plastic, but the addition of dull crampons on their underside allows you to traverse larger hills. There are even specialty snowshoes designed for snow running! But the act of snowshoeing itself is charmingly old school, like clomping back to a simpler time. Plus, there's no need to go to a traditional ski resort and pony up for an expensive trails pass.

Other than a solid pair of snowshoes ($100 to $250) and a pair of trekking poles ($25 to $75) to stabilize yourself and avoid pitching over into a deep snowbank, there's not much of an entry barrier to this sport - though first-timers looking to head deep into the outdoors should consider taking a basic introductory lesson on snowshoeing, which can often be found at mountain resorts and through REI Classes & Events. Otherwise, you just pull on your warmest socks and snow boots, toss your snowshoes in the back of your car, and choose your own wintertime labyrinth to explore.

For my Great North Woods snowshoe saunter - the first I have taken up here, after many a decade of snowshoeing in the busier White Mountains - I have selected the Falls in the River Trail. This wooded pathway along the northernmost twists and turns of Connecticut River is a slice of the Cohos Trail, an epic but little-known 170-mile hiking trail that stretches from the White Mountains to the Canadian border.

Only a handful of people hit the Cohos Trail each year, which is partly why I have chosen this path. I'm not likely to run into another soul, save for one of the local moose that roam the Great North Woods. (Can you imagine, seeing a set of snowy antlers emerge from a wall of spruce and pine trees?) Knowing I will be profoundly alone strikes me as a much-needed tonic for the cacophony of anxiety we have all been through lately, over the course of the pandemic and the ugliest transfer of presidential power in U.S. history.

The trail begins by the First Connecticut Lake dam. A lonely wooden trailhead sign with yellow letters is the only indicator that there is a secret passage through the frozen forest. With my snowshoes snugly strapped to my Sorel boots and with my trekking poles in hand, I enter the woods and walk right into some snow-covered spruce boughs (the loosened snow finds its way right down the back of my neck, into my jacket.) But when I'm done sputtering and brushing off the excess powder, I'm smitten with what lies ahead: a skinny, ribbonlike trail that snakes and plunges through the snow-covered trees and brush, with yellow blazes on trees showing the way. In a forest so laden with snow and ice, this path brings to mind the sort of wormhole that one walks through in dreams; it's an unlikely route through a landscape so visually arresting that it feels almost alien.

This splendor is complemented by immense quietude, like nothing I have experienced in months. As the trail ebbs away from the Connecticut River, leading me deeper into the snow-packed woods, I take a quick breather at the top of a small hill, and after a moment or two, I can actually hear my heart beating. There's nothing out here but the sound of my blood circulating, the distant chuckle of the river and the occasional hand of wind that sweeps through the branches overhead.

I would be lying, though, if I said the meditative power of snowshoeing is all serenity. Because after just 15 minutes, I'm sweating through my long johns. Walking with snowshoes on tufts of powder subtly alters your gait while adding new weight to each step, which makes for a grueling lower body workout. The minute you temporarily unlatch yourself from your snowshoes, as I'm forced to do when ascending a dodgier hillside with a couple of exposed rocks, you realize just how hard your calves and quads have been working. By the time I arrive at a frozen marsh where the trail crosses some bog bridges made of wooden beams, I feel like a slab of meat in a North Face marinade bag. All I can do is keep moving and lifting my feet, learning to accept the discomfort.

Unlike most winter sports, snowshoeing offers little adrenaline or obvious climaxes. There's no ephemeral rush of terror from scaling icy chimneys or descending hillsides. Even the landscape itself seems dialed back, with much of its natural wonders hidden beneath snow or sequestered at higher elevations where the land steepens. When I finally reach the "Falls" in the river, my first thought is that this cascade looks like a set of rapids - more churn than drop. But the waterfall isn't why I'm out here. I've been snowshoeing for almost two hours, my legs are quaking, my Under Armour base layer is now sodden, and there's no one to complain to but the indifferent and overwhelmingly silent winter forest. Dinner is going to taste revelatory.

When I return to the cabin, light snow is falling. The woman in the neighboring cabin is outside smoking a cigarette. She asks if I've heard the news. Armed insurrectionists just stormed the Capitol building. Shots have been fired. Within moments, as I head inside and log on to Twitter for updates, the reverie of my snowshoeing foray is replaced by that familiar internal cacophony of stimulation and panic. The inescapable sounds of a disaster. But for a few hours, it was just me, my snowshoes and the winter woods.

The "skinny, ribbonlike trail that snakes and plunges through the snow-covered trees and brush, with yellow blazes on trees showing the way."
MILES HOWARD/THE WASHINGTON POST