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Savoring the splendor of a winter hike

Winter outdoor recreation for many is limited to skiing, skating and sledding, but Western New York is filled with many areas suitable for four-season hiking. For many local hikers, mud, not snow, is the real enemy. Armed with the proper gear, clothing and a little bit of training and experience, winter hiking can offer a great workout, an opportunity for calm reflection, and a unique perspective on the natural world.

A forest snowshoe hike heightens all of the senses. The wind blowing through the trees sounds different in the absence of leaves. The activity on the forest floor is muffled under the blanket of snow. The crisp air bites as you inhale and rises up visibly with each exhale. A fresh snow can dazzle the eyes with white —squinting to see ice crystals catch the sunlight. If the wind is right as you enter a stand of conifers, the scent can catch you off guard as you take a few moments to process the source. Bugs are absent, you are not likely to encounter crowds, you are in control of the temperature by adding or removing layers of clothing and, if it’s cold enough, staying dry is easy.

Snowshoes are the necessary tool to make winter hiking possible. Kevin Beckwith, owner of Gear For Adventure in Hamburg, has outfitted hundreds of winter hikers since opening his shop in 2004. On a recent visit, he went over some advice for first-timers.

Snowshoes have come a long way from the wooden, tennis racket-shaped models of the past. Modern showshoes made by MSR and other companies offer steel crampons that bite into the ice with each step, as well as lateral grips for extra support in steep or icy conditions. Modular flotation tails can be added and removed depending on the depth and density of the snow. Poles can provide more stability and are a good way to extend the workout to your upper body.

Layering is important when choosing clothing. Snowshoeing expends more energy than walking and hikers can easily become overheated. Dampness from perspiration can lower the body temperature, potentially causing hypothermia. A wicking layer close to the body should be made from fabric that does not absorb water. Middle layers of fleece, wool, or down provide warmth and can be removed or added as needed. An outer shell layer provides protection from wind and water. In deep snow conditions, gaiters or ski pants fit over boots to prevent the snow from getting in. Since it gets dark early in the winter, it is also a good idea to pack a headlamp or flashlight in case your trip takes longer than expected.

Several local outfitters, organizations, and trail clubs offer rentals and group hikes for beginners. Paths, Peaks, and Paddles in Tonawanda holds several free snowshoe demos in January at Ellicott Creek Park, as well as gear sales, rentals and guided hikes at parks from Niagara County to the Erie County Southtowns.

New York State Parks are hosting a series of “First Day” hikes on Jan. 1 at Evangola, DeVeaux Woods, Fort Niagara, and Knox Farm parks, as well as a number of guided snowshoe hikes throughout January. Reinstein Woods, Tifft Nature Preserve, and Beaver Meadow Audubon Center all offer low-cost snowshoe rentals and group hikes whenever there is a minimum of 6 inches of snow. Other good areas for snowshoeing include Chestnut Ridge Park and Eternal Flame Falls, Sprague Brook, Franklin Gulf, Deer Lick Conservation Area near Zoar Valley, and Bond Lake and Royalton Ravine parks in Niagara County.

The Erie County Bureau of Forestry manages over 3,500 acres of public lands in the towns of Sardinia, Boston, Holland, and Concord. All of these areas are in the snow-belt and are excellent places to experience the forest in winter. Mainly abandoned farmlands, these lots were acquired in the 1920s and 1930s, and 7.5 million trees were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during that period.

Today, the forests are roughly evenly split between hardwoods and conifers and are managed for recreation, maple sugaring, watershed protection, wildlife habitat, and limited logging. Part of the 177-mile long Conservation Trail crosses the land on its route from Allegany to Niagara Falls. This trail is managed by the Foothills Trail Club and is part of the 1000-mile Finger Lakes Trail system. The largest county forest area, on Genesee Road in Sardinia, features two warming huts with woodstoves as well as restrooms and a working maple syrup production facility and sawmill.

For more information:

  • Paths, Peaks, and Paddles, Tonawanda, 716-213-0350
  • Gear For Adventure, Hamburg, 716-646-4327
  • NYS Parks Regional Interpretive Programs Office, Niagara Falls, 716-282-5154
  • Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve, Cheektowaga, 716-683-5959 org
  • Tifft Nature Preserve, Buffalo, 716-825-6397
  • Beaver Meadow Audubon Center, North Java, 585-457-3228
  • Foothills Trail Club org
  • Adirondack Mountain Club—Niagara Frontier Chapter
  • Earth Spirit Educational Services org
  • Erie County Bureau of Forestry, Sardinia, 716-496-7410
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