Learn­ing to snow­shoe against the back­drop of a Freeport win­ter.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­LANIE D.G. KAPLAN

When I tripped on my over­sized heel and tum­bled back­ward onto fresh pow­der, I flailed for a minute like a po­tato bug on its back.

I was wear­ing a half-dozen lay­ers on top, three on the bot­tom, two-foot-long alu­minum con­trap­tions on my feet and lob­ster-claw-shaped gloves that of­fered me the grace of a con­tainer ship on a creek. Aim­ing for non­cha­lance, I twisted my body around, sunk my hands and knees into the snow and con­sid­ered stand­ing.

My ini­tial thought was that I needed to set the record straight among my friends who — when I told them I was headed to Maine for a snow­shoe class — had said, “Isn’t it just like walk­ing?” No, friends, it’s not. My next re­al­iza­tion was that I was only a few steps into my class, the only stu­dent who showed up on a snowy, 12-de­gree Satur­day in De­cem­ber, and my guides were now per­haps won­der­ing what they had done to de­serve me. As I pushed my­self up on one foot and used my pole for lever­age, one of them said they were, coin­ci­den­tally, just about to cover the ba­sics of re­cov­er­ing from a fall. I’d done it ex­actly the right way, he said.

Then we got down to the busi­ness of walk­ing.

A few years back, I learned about the out­door classes of­fered through L.L. Bean. Cour­ses are held at or near most of the com­pany’s 40 stores. But the Freeport flag­ship store (open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) has the most by far, in­clud­ing free clin­ics on an­i­mal track­ing and map read­ing as well as introductory cour­ses in a dozen ac­tiv­i­ties, and overnight and women-only ad­ven­tures.

Gretchen Os­therr, di­rec­tor of Out­door Dis­cov­ery Schools at L.L. Bean, said the introductory cour­ses are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar be­cause the com­pany pro­vides all the gear.

“It gives peo­ple a chance to try some­thing at a re­ally low bar­rier to en­try,” she said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. If you like it, you can take more ad­vanced cour­ses. She told me the pro­gram­ming isn’t wholly dif­fer­ent from that of­fered through REI’s Out­door School.

“They’re our big­gest com­peti­tor, but for all of us, the ul­ti­mate goal is to get more peo­ple spend­ing time out­side,” Os­therr said about REI. “When peo­ple get out­side, they’re health­ier, hap­pier and more likely to be­come good stew­ards of the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Brows­ing the class list, I found a few ac­tiv­i­ties, like archery and snow­shoe, that were new to me. I’m pretty loyal to my sum­mer sta­ples, such as stand-up pad­dle­board and cy­cling — but FOMO, or fear of miss­ing out — drove me to con­sider ex­pand­ing my hori­zons. I signed up on­line for what L.L. Bean calls their snow­shoe dis­cov­ery course, a $25 two-anda-half hour in­tro­duc­tion that in­cluded a guided trek. Fore­cast­ers in Maine were pre­dict­ing the first sig­nif­i­cant snow of the sea­son for the week­end be­fore Christ­mas. I headed north.

Bill Yeo, a for­mer col­le­giate cross-coun­try ski­ing coach who heads up Out­door Dis­cov­ery School for the Freeport store, looked at his list of stu­dents. “You’re the only one who showed up,” he said. “Pri­vate tour!” We hopped into a 20-seater van and drove down the road to a farm­house that serves as a base for many of the classes.

My guides, Moe and Peter, in­tro­duced them­selves and cov­ered Snow­shoe Use and Safety 101. Tra­di­tional shoes, they told me, are made with wood frames and rawhide laces. To­day, most are made with alu­minum tub­ing. The flat part around your foot is called the deck, and cram­pons un­der­neath the bind­ings help grip ice and in­clines. Some mod­els have a

I for­got about the metal con­trap­tions and con­cen­trated on my breath. I thought about how easy it had been to get out in the snow. No lift lines, no crazy gear, no adren­a­line junkies, just me and na­ture, quiet and white.

pivot un­der the ball of your foot so your heel lifts away from the deck as you walk. In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing a car­dio­vas­cu­lar chal­lenge, snow­shoes keep you from sink­ing into pow­der by cre­at­ing buoy­ancy where boots would sink.

We set out be­hind the farm­house, where L.L. Bean owns wood­land that is used for snows­port classes, sport shoot­ing, archery and fly cast­ing. The ground was cov­ered with a deep car­pet of snow. White pow­der weighed down branches, and flakes tapped lightly on my hood and sun­glasses.

Peter showed me how to turn around (slowly) and back up (don’t) and then sug­gested I kick my foot out a lit­tle with each step. I kicked a lit­tle too vig­or­ously, which is how I ended up trip­ping on my heel. Af­ter I righted my­self, we set off into the woods. In good Boy Scout fash­ion, Moe led my group of one and Peter brought up the rear. Soon, we were walk­ing through bram­bles and berry bushes, leav­ing gi­ant foot­prints in the snow.

Moe, an artist in his first ca­reer, looked at the trees, snow and sky with a wa­ter­col­orist’s eye and talked about how he would paint the scene. Along the way, he iden­ti­fied trees (spruce, eastern white pine) and tested out a few jokes he typ­i­cally saves for kids. He pointed out the beech tree, which has fe­ro­ciously sharp spines on its branches. You re­mem­ber it, he said, be­cause you say, “Son of a beech!” I laughed, and he joked more.

The best sur­prise about snow­shoe­ing is that you don’t have to stay on trails. In fact, we could barely see them. We walked over small mounds and through veg­e­ta­tion we’d never have thought to tra­verse in the sum­mer, bush­whack­ing with poles in front of our faces. We eas­ily walked over downed trees like we had tanks on our feet. I for­got about the metal con­trap­tions and con­cen­trated on my breath. I thought about how easy it had been to get out in the snow. No lift lines, no crazy gear, no adren­a­line junkies, just me and na­ture, quiet and white.

Half­way into our walk we stopped for a short break. My core had warmed, but my ex­trem­i­ties had re­sisted. As Moe served hot choco­late from an in­su­lated ther­mos, I sat on a log and slipped foot warm­ers into my boots. Then we con­tin­ued our trek, Peter stop­ping to point out deer prints.

Three days later, the snow had melted in Maine and I headed home to Wash­ing­ton. Driv­ing on the New Jer­sey Turn­pike, I called a Cana­dian friend and told him about snow­shoe­ing.

“We got half a foot of snow on the day of the class,” I told him.

“You don’t re­ally need snow­shoes for half a foot of snow,” he said, chuck­ling.

“It was a be­gin­ners class,” I said, de­fen­sively.

“Grow­ing up in New Brunswick, we’d go to my par­ents’ hunt­ing lodge in five or six feet of snow,” he said. “The only way to get around was with snow­shoes. Oth­er­wise, you’d be in snow up to your waist. Or for a child, up to his ears!”

I po­litely ended the con­ver­sa­tion and took some com­fort in know­ing that if I ever did fall wear­ing snow­shoes in six feet of snow, I now had the skills to right my­self. My mind wan­dered to warm-weather classes. I drove home, put away my lob­ster gloves and be­gan wait­ing for sum­mer.

The best sur­prise about snow­shoe­ing is that you don’t have to stay on trails. In fact, we could barely see them . . . . We eas­ily walked over downed trees like we had tanks on our feet.

ME­LANIE D.G. KAPLAN

Moe Auger, an in­struc­tor for L.L. Bean Out­door Dis­cov­ery Schools, pours a hot choco­late for his soli­tary snow­shoe-class stu­dent — the au­thor — in De­cem­ber in Freeport, Maine.

ME­LANIE D.G. KAPLAN

A sam­pling of equip­ment for sale at the L.L. Bean flag­ship store.

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