Story by Rod Charles
THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, ONTARIO — As we gathered for our snowshoeing tour, our guide opened the back of his van and removed weird-looking metal contraptions and gently dropped them on the frozen parking lot by his feet.
I was just about to ask the very dumb “What the heck are those?” question when he spoke up.
“There you are, snowshoes for everyone,” said Free Spirit Tours‘ Jim Samis, who dressed in waterproof salmon pink pants and an aqua-coloured jacket looked more like an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins than a guide.
A veteran outdoorsman, Samis knows every nook and cranny of the Kolapore Uplands, about half-hour drive from Collingwood in the town of The Blue Mountains. According to the Ontario Trails Council, the trail starts at Duncan Crevice Caves, where distinctive fern, moss, liverwort, and lichen vegetation is one of the best developed and preserved on the Niagara Escarpment. And Samis is so knowledgeable of the area, he might convince you he is on a first-name basis with every deer and woodpecker in the park.
This ain’t no game of tennis
Admittedly, it had been a while since I was last on snowshoes so I was expecting to be walking on giant tennis rackets. These snowshoes didn’t look anything like the ones I grew up with. In fact, until you got up close and got a good look at them and saw the rubber bindings and plastic ratchet straps they didn’t look like snowshoes at all. They were metal, slender light grey and orange coloured, and very light. Underneath the snowshoes were jagged metal picks that helped the user go up and down icy or rocky surfaces without sliding.
It took me a few tries to get them onto my boots and I found that tiring in itself. It reminded me of my days playing hockey and having to lace up my skates, which seemed a lot easier before age and belly padding began to get in the way. But with some help from my guide (or Sherpa as he sometimes called himself) we were off on a 90-minute trek through beautiful Ontario country.
Even from the parking lot, you could see the majestic face of Metcalfe Rock. According to the Getaway to Grey website, the rock climbing heights at Metcalfe Rock range from 20 to 80 feet, and the rock face runs 500 feet in length. Rock climbers use these rocks all the time, but our journey allowed us to do an end run around the rocks and travel to the top.
“Your foot will hold”
I found that I adapted quick on flat surfaces but had to really focus when climbing or going down hills. The jagged, metal pick at the bottom of my snowshoe really did help secure me and keep me from sliding backwards, but it took some getting used to.
“Just plant your feet and go forward,” says Samis. “Trust that your foot will hold.”
Once your brain accepts the fact that the shoe can be trusted and you won’t fall on your behind, you can focus on the beauty around you. While breathtaking, The Blue Mountains has also had to deal with a winter that has produced very little snowfall. Samis says in 30 years of living in the area he couldn’t remember a winter with less snow.
Samis stops the group to show us tracks around a group of maple saplings, their buds eaten right down to the stem by hungry deer who stopped for a snack. Later on, we stop at the foot of a birch tree, where a large branch has been hammered into millions of beige and white pieces of chips by a determined woodpecker. Then we see a rock that doesn’t seem to belong, and learn from Samis that it was carried and dropped in this location from somewhere else 10,000 years ago by an ice-age glacial erratic.
Apple cider near the Apple Pie Trail
And once on top of Metcalfe Rock, we go as close to the edge as we safely can and look out over snow-speckled Beaver Valley. We finish off our journey with a hot cup of apple cider — a refreshing and fitting drink that you can really appreciate when snowshoeing near the Apple Pie Trail.
We were staying at the Westin Trillium House, Blue Mountain, which is the place to be if you want to ski in southern Ontario. Blue Mountain is the largest ski resort in the province with 251 acres of terrain for skiing, including 36 day trails and 25 night skiing/snowboarding trails, three half pipes and terrain parks. The property has 13 lifts and two fully equipped rental centres.
But other winter activities such as snowshoeing, tobogganing, ice fishing, and the Ridge Runner Mountain Coaster are also available for people who may want to expand their horizons.
For Samis, getting out into the countryside with snowshoes is an amazing, affordable, and unobtrusive way to get close to nature and get in shape.
“It’s not like skates, you can switch them between different people and they’re more versatile because they’re made out of better materials now,” says Samis. “But what I love most about snowshoes is you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to go to a rink or ski slope. You can snowshoe right in your backyard. You can do it in a park with your kids. Anyone can enjoy this.”
MORE ABOUT THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
To Book: Visit Free Spirit Tours, or call 705-444-3622 or 519-599-2268 for more information.
Cost: $50 per person. Price includes pickup and drop-off, snowshoe rentals, guide, and a hot cup of apple cider.