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A whole new world

NEW LONDON -- Replace the swish, swish, glide of cross country skis with the woosh, woosh, crunch of snowshoes breaking powder, and the world is yours to explore.

NEW LONDON -- Replace the swish, swish, glide of cross country skis with the woosh, woosh, crunch of snowshoes breaking powder, and the world is yours to explore.

Snowshoes are the ticket for those who want to leave the beaten trail and explore the woods, wetlands or open fields that are often inaccessible through the warm months of the year.

Snowshoes are also the way to go for those who prefer to stay on the beaten path, but are looking for a healthy and fun wintertime activity, according to Dick Clayton, the park naturalist at Sibley State Park.

As he has been doing for more than two decades, Clayton introduced a dozen newcomers to the sport of snowshoeing last Saturday.

Through all of these years, Clayton said he's always been expecting snowshoeing to take off in popularity.

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And now, it is. "It's getting very popular,'' said Clayton.

The reasons are simple. Snowshoeing offers great exercise, is easy and fun to do, and is relatively inexpensive to take up. A good pair of snowshoes can be had for anywhere from $100-200, he said.

About those snowshoes: Today's snowshoes are light, small and nearly indestructible.

The indigenous peoples of North American developed snowshoes thousands of years ago, and relied on them for survival in a northern climate, said Clayton.

The older-style snowshoes that we are most familiar with were typically made of ash and rawhide. The ash was steamed and bent to create the frame and the rawhide woven to create a mesh.

The park purchased a number of these ash-framed models some 25 years ago, and thanks to good maintenance, they've more than proven their worth. Thousands of people have hiked the park in them, and only two pairs were lost to breakage, he said.

The snowshoes developed by indigenous peoples came in a variety of styles, based entirely on need. Larger, elongated snowshoes with tails like the Alaskan style were favored in areas where hunting and traveling took place over longer distances and along trails. They allow a long stride for covering distance easily.

The round, Bearpaw style is better suited to deep powder and wooded terrain, where users had to make sharp turns around fallen tree limbs.

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Technology allows modern snowshoes to do it all. Snowshoes provide a walker with buoyancy by displacing snow. Replacing the open mesh of earlier models with a slick, but uniform synthetic fiber means that a greater area of snow can be displaced with a smaller, overall frame size.

Modern snowshoes often include crampons or teeth on the bottom to prevent back-sliding as well.

Modern versions also feature flexible bindings that make it easy to strap on a pair and get a comfortable, but tighten binding as desired.

A typical pair of snowshoes will support a 250-pound person, and models for larger people are available.

Best of all, said Clayton, is that modern technology has also made it possible to offer smaller and lighter snowshoes designed for young people. It's never been easier to introduce young people to the sport, he noted.

Sibley State Park now offers a groomed, snowshoe trail. Clayton said it was developed for those who are not comfortable leaving familiar sights behind.

As always, Clayton said the park's 2,500 acres are open to those who love nothing more than venturing back country to explore those areas they otherwise might never visit.

Snowshoes are not allowed on the groomed ski trails and, for safety reasons, the snowmobile trails in the park.

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Clayton tries to offer a snowshoe hike every Saturday during the snow season at the park. He has added a couple of Sundays and some mid-week moonlight hikes to the schedule as well.

The hour-long sessions are free but require pre-registration. Snowshoes are provided.

The park also has snowshoes available for rental at $6 per day at the main office. Nearby, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center also offers snowshoes for rental. Snowshoes are also available for rental at the Upper Sioux Agency and Glacial Lakes State Parks.

To join a hike led by Clayton or learn more, call the park at 320-354-2055.

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