ERBS COVE, N.B. — It was a brisk sunny day in early February when we set out for a trek through rural New Brunswick, the branches of the fir and maple trees around us heavy with snow from a storm the night before.
The trip would have been impossible on foot, if not for the snowshoes strapped to our boots.
The awkward feeling of walking with oval hoops of aluminum and rubber on my feet disappeared quickly. Soon I was keeping up with people who have been snowshoeing for years.
Until this trip, my only experience with snowshoeing was a memory of an old pair of large, wooden snowshoes that hung in my parents’ basement.
But there has been a steady increase in the popularity of snowshoeing in New Brunswick in the last few years, with provincial parks and private operators offering rentals and scenic, groomed trails.
“I’m hearing more and more that there are snowshoeing clubs popping up around the province,” said New Brunswick Tourism Minister Trevor Holder.
“We’ve got a great trail system in this province and this is an example of one of the things that you can do on the trail system.”
Holder said he is thrilled by the fact more people are using snowshoeing as a way to stay active in the winter.
After asking around, it was recommended that I try Elmhurst Outdoors, a family-run facility east of Saint John near Hampton, N.B., which offers a variety of activities, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
They offer a beautiful lodge and a well-stocked rental centre offering all you’ll need to snowshoe or ski.
“A trail pass is $6 and that lets you snowshoe or ski, and rentals are $6 as well,” said Gig Keirstead, who owns the business along with his wife Denise Howlett.
He said snowshoeing has caught up to cross-country skiing in popularity.
“I think it’s because of the simplicity of it. You just get a pair of snowshoes and go out. The skills aren’t that great so most people can do it. We see a lot of people here who wouldn’t try the skiing but do the snowshoeing and seem to like it a lot.”
Keirstead believes the jump in popularity is because of the development of modern snowshoes. No longer are they the large wooden, tear-shaped snowshoe of the past that were difficult to lace to your boot and awkward to use.
“The new ones are smaller, are aluminum, have synthetic webbing and the bindings go on in two seconds and don’t come off . . . I really like them,” said Mike Mesheau of Burton, N.B.
Mesheau, who has been snowshoeing for five years, was just finishing a hearty bowl of soup at the Elmhurst lodge. On Wednesdays they offer a program called Snowshoeing and Vittles, which includes a group hike for about an hour in the morning and then a return to the lodge for homemade soup, bread and desert.
“A lot of people stay in their houses at this time of the year and look out,” Mesheau said. “Today was like a dreamland. It snowed all of last night and the trees are full of snow and the sun is out, the sky is blue, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t describe how pleasant it is to be out there.”
Keirstead said the sport is attracting people of all ages who are getting out for the exercise, the scenery, or just a love of the outdoors.
At 71, Carol Ring of Rothesay, N.B., shows no sign of slowing down as she keeps up with the group deftly making their way up a hill behind the lodge. The snow is waist-deep but their snowshoes allow them to float on top.
Ring has been snowshoeing for about 10 years and has a simple answer when asked why she does it: “The snow’s there, you”ve got to use it.“
Unlike most in the group, Ring uses walking poles while she snowshoes.
“They help with balance and help with getting up hills and getting down hills as well,” she said.
The poles also give you an upper body workout.
Ring also snowshoes on other trails in the province and at the Irving Nature Park in Saint John.
“The great thing about snowshoes is you can go just about anywhere.”
The Trans-Canada Trail system and any of the municipal and provincial parks in New Brunswick are other options.
At Sugarloaf Provincial Park in Campbellton, on the north coast of the province, there’s no charge to use the snowshoeing trails.
“We have three designated trails covering about 10 kilometres, one of which goes around a lake, so you get some pretty nice scenery,” said Greg Dion, park manager.
“It’s a great sport and it’s fun,” he said. “The scenery is unreal in the wintertime . . . it’s magical out there.”
For anyone deciding to try snowshoeing for the first time, Keirstead recommends renting a pair and getting out with a group. Buying a good pair of snowshoes will cost you about $150.
These websites offer directions as well as maps of the trail systems“