Snowshoes, Dog Sleds And Non-Sporty Winter Pursuits - My Family Travels

Families with snowbirds will be pleased to learn that they can safely avoid the tropics in winter and learn to love the “stay-warm” fun of snowshoeing and dog sledding, great family fun for un-sporty mountain vacations.

To all non-skiers, we can safely proclaim,”Your time in the snow has finally come!” Not only are the tiniest suburban ski hills equipped with sledding, skating, tubing and other snowplay, even exotic snowshoeing, dog sledding and snowmobiling adventures have become widely available. Read on to learn how one family maximizes their snow time and keeps warm doing it.

From Racquet Feet to Snowshoes

At the beginning of the season, when Wisconsin’s Targhee National Forest is blanketed in only 12″ of what will become 500″ of powdery snow, Sherpa Claws are the preferred means of transport. Longer and narrower than the Westerns used by locals when shoveling the driveway, this nylon and metal footwear (dare we say snowshoe?) is extremely light and resistant to icing. Following snowshoeing’s meteoric rise in popularity (it’s up 300% to over 3 million American users in the past decade), manufacturers have evolved from wood and hide to a number of high-tech designs.

If you’re ready to purchase, real snowsportsmen can try the aluminum Atlas for snow-running (snowshoers use 45% more calories than runners according to a University of Vermont study), the MSR Denali to traverse ridges, or the tear-drop-shaped Permagrin when they’re hiking with heavy loads. There are also Atlas’ Junior Snowshoes designed with dual cleat traction for those under 80 lbs. — light, easy to maneuver and a terrific value. Other manufacturers haven’t forgotten the next generation either:  Yuba’s children’s T-Rex model leaves dinosaur prints and Redfeather’s Snowpaw makes abominable snowman tracks. Whatever your interest, once fitted, even the basic rental model available at all ski areas will enable novices of all ages to explore hill and dale.

Our first attempt at snowshoeing proved very liberating, and inexpensive too, since we didn’t need lift tickets. Very much in control, our family fearlessly stomped up and down the wooded slopes abutting the cross-country ski trails at Wyoming’s Grand Targhee Resort (307/353-2300). While searching for pine martins — a long brownish rodent that tunnels through the snow and leaps between snow drifts — we saw many chipmunks and ground squirrel nests, hanging like wreaths in the towering Douglas firs. Our knowledgeable guide, George, spoke about the local flora and fauna as we reveled in the views.

Walking at an altitude of 8,100 feet as the snow continued to fall was moderate exercise — certainly within reach of the weekend jogger or child who can resist making snow angels at every mound.

At most of the West’s major ski resorts (Vail and Steamboat have particularly good programs), snowshoes rent cheaply, and local guides can be hired for about $35/HR. Call ahead to reserve children’s snowshoe sizes.

Snowshoeing has also taken the East by storm. The proximity of Tubbs Snowshoes (the nation’s original manufacturer) in Stowe, Vermont may be one reason why the Stoweflake Resort  ( 802/253-7355) and the Woodstock Inn ( 802/457-1100) both outfit guests for self-guided nature walks on shoe in/shoe out trails.

At New Hampshire’s Attitash-Bear Peak (603/374-2368) Vermont’s Stratton Mountain (802/297-4000)and Smugglers’ Notch (802/644-8851), the whole family can join skill-appropriate tours with a naturalist.

Dog Sledding For Fun, Not Need

If you don’t have to deliver medicine to Nome as the legendary Balto did, you may wonder why it’s worth spending the money for a two-hour dog sled ride. Call Moon Mountain Ranch (reservations through the Grand Targhee Resort 307/353-2300), one of America’s premier sled dog training facilities (“we let them tow the plough in summer to keep in shape”) to find out. Though perhaps not as accessible (or cheap) as snowshoeing, you don’t have to attend Alaska’s Iditarod Race to try dogsledding.

Family resorts such as the long – time favorite Gunflint Lodge in Grand Marais, Minnesota (218/388-2294) allow kids to help feed their own dog team. In the northeast, many resorts from Quebec’s Mont-Tremblant to Vermont’s Stowe offer dogsledding opportunities, but they are weather-dependent as natural snow is required.

At Whistler Mountain in British Columbia (contact Cougar Mountain Tours at 888/297-2222), families can leave the frosty slopes behind and view the Soo Valley Wildlife Reserve in a warm and cozy sled.

But at Wyoming’s Moon Mountain Ranch, it’s extra special. When crossing great expanses such as the Polar Ice Cap, it helps to know your dog. Though both resemble almond-eyed wolves, the Siberian Husky, brought from its native Asia to Alaska in the 1900’s, and the indigenous Alaskan Malamute have crucial differences when it comes to being sled dogs. The Malamutes are stronger and pull heavier loads; the smaller framed Huskies are built for speed and can endure long journeys.

“Vinnie, Nicky, Hike!”  Not the opening play of the Super Bowl, just our Moon Mountain musher (guide and driver) Kim urging her frenetically enthusiastic lead dogs onward. Thoroughly obedient and dedicated to their task, eight wired beasts actually hopped up and down in place waiting for the command to go.

As soon as the mushers had bundled our families into sleeping bags and strapped us together under Gortex tarps, they pushed off their 200-pound loads and began to explain our roles. The nearest passenger relayed messages above the barking; though infants would be safe and comfortable on this type of outing, it is not suitable for little ones afraid of dogs.

The majestic evergreens whizzed by, prompting my awestruck son to comment, “Now I know where the tree in Rockefeller Center comes from.”

Despite the continuous snowfall, even the youngest passengers, sheathed in ski goggles, never got cold. However, Kim explained that in warmer weather (above 20º F/-7º C), 10 dogs would be assigned to each sled because heat makes their load much harder to haul. 

In musher’s lingo, ‘technical runs’ such as sledding on the edge of a ridge, require passengers to shift their body weight so the sled runs on one blade and the musher, leaning over the rear runners, can steer it. The guides’ shrill cries echoed across the forest’s overwhelming silence.  The kids soon talked the talk, calling in unison “Go on! Go on!” to accelerate or “On by! On by!” if a dog paused to find another’s scent.

“Whoa!,” we all cried, as our sled approached Moon Mountain’s stove-warmed teepee camp.

There, miles from anywhere in a landscape Laura Ingalls Wilder would recognize, everyone convened for hot chocolate and brownies. We agreed that being in this spot, experiencing an otherwise inaccessible American wilderness, made dogsledding totally worthwhile.

And that’s the best reason to encourage kids to explore other modes of winter transport than skis or boards.

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