Bushwhacking with my poles, I dig the cleats on my snowshoes into the steep grade of the hill, duck walking upward at a precarious angle.
I’m enveloped in thorn bushes and brambles, parting the underbrush with my gloved hands as if I’m swimming the breaststoke. Just after sunrise, it’s only 8 degrees, but I’m sweating freely as I pick my way among the overturned trees and clumps of deadfall. The only sound is the distant clatter of a woodpecker, and the creaking pines that grow thickly on the slope.
Just like in rock climbing, each move I make creates a new problem that must be solved; an equation that takes into account the geometry of the hill, my body weight, the solidity of my footing, and the contour that lies ahead. It’s like playing a life-size, nearly vertical game of chess. Only in this case, I’ve strapped what amounts to a pair of banjos on my feet, and a misstep will send me tumbling downslope into the bracken.
It’s a weekday morning, and I have the entire landscape to myself. But I’m not ascending one of New Hampshire’s White Mountains or negotiating a knoll at Acadia National Park in Maine. I’m climbing the old, abandoned ski slope in my hometown of Methuen, on the edge of the 126-acre town forest.
A low-cost, low-impact family activity that can be adapted to just about anyone’s fitness level, time constraints, and physical abilities, snowshoeing is the perfect antidote to the sort of cabin fever that usually befalls most in midwinter.
The beauty of snowshoeing is that, after a good-sized storm, you can begin in your own backyard, or at the playground down the street, later venturing out to the suburban tundra of town forests and local wetlands. No matter where you live, or find yourself, in Greater Boston, there are great snowshoeing venues — from Arnold Arboretum in the city to Wompatuck State Park in Hingham to various Essex County trails. From December through March, I carry my gear in the trunk of my car for this very reason.
Here and there, I encounter the hoof prints of a full-grown deer that threaded its way downhill earlier in the morning. Figuring the deer knows the terrain, I attempt to follow the cloven track, but it soon disappears into tangles of brush, and I have to find my own line.
In just five minutes, I gain over 350 feet in elevation and reach the brow of the hill, the blood hammering in my ears from the exertion. The sun crests the ridge behind me, and as I strip off my backpack and take a few swigs of water, my view stretches approximately 50 miles to the horizon. Less than a minute after stopping, the cold air stings my face and seeps between the layers of my clothing.
Gearing back up, I consult my map and after tricky-trotting along a ravine, I reach the bottom of another formidable hill that rises from a stand of white pine.
Once on top, I can see Harris Pond to the west in neighboring Pelham, N.H. Then, angling southeast on a route that occasionally takes me off the trail into the woods, I arrive back at Forest Lake, where I began my 2½-mile hike an hour earlier. Going past the burnished disk of the lake, I hear a deep gulping noise, like some prehistoric beast is sounding beneath the ice.
Once you have your gear and some experience with different types of terrain, you can find challenging hikes within a few miles of where you live. At least twice a week, I head out alone for a heart-thumping workout in the woods of my hometown, or down the road in Haverhill at Kenoza Lake, or the deer leap trail along the Merrimack River in Andover.
Snowshoeing is a superb family activity. When I take my young nephews, I lower the degree of difficulty, but still concentrate on building a little New England self-reliance in the next generation of adventurers.
A few days after my solo trek, I’m in Sandown, N.H., snowshoeing with my 8-year-old nephew Reese, a tireless, good-natured kid who’s been skating on ponds and roaming the woods since he could walk. On a cold, brilliant Sunday, with his brothers off playing hockey, it’s just the two of us, the wind rattling the branches of the trees as we meet the trailhead.
Showing Reese how to orient the map in the direction we’re going, I explain that, with a couple of short water breaks, he’ll be able to traverse the entire park for the first time, a 3-mile hike in moderately deep snow over rolling terrain.
The first stretch runs uphill along a snowcapped wall of boulders, then into a meadow that contains several balsam firs dusted with snow. As I’ve done with my 19-year-old son, Liam, and Reese’s 11-year-old brother, Owen, the trek allows me to share what my father taught me about cold weather adventures. In my backpack, I carry a map, first-aid kit, cellphone, and water. But the kids, down to the 5-year-old, always haul their own stuff, and are expected to know exactly where we are on the marked trail — and how to get back, if anything goes wrong.
For half an hour, Reese troops along in near silence, retracing the double peanut shape of my tracks, but sometimes going ahead to break trail. He’s a thoughtful guy and, after a while, he mentions that his best friend is colorblind and wouldn’t be able to discern the blazes that identify the different trails.
How would your friend find his way back? I ask. Reese mulls this over. “He could make it with a map, or by following tracks,” he says. At the halfway point, we hike down a narrow path to the Exeter River, located on the northern boundary of the town forest. After discussing the perils of moving water, we head upriver to a swamp where we pick our way among tufts of frozen reeds to the far bank. Sharing a fallen log, we eat our lunch, gazing at the ribbon of snow wending its way among the pines.
Two hours after setting out, Reese and I return to the parking lot. My brother Patrick’s family lives 10 minutes away on Phillips Pond. When we pull into their driveway, Liam, who’s visiting from the University of Maine, and his cousins Owen and 5-year-old Shane come boiling out of the house, carrying their snowshoes and backpacks. Reese gives me a look that says, “No way,’’ and goes inside.
The older boys quickly buckle on their snowshoes and head across the pond, chattering in a bright chorus. There’s a frozen creek that meanders through a thicket over there, and they are eager to check it out.
As I sort out my equipment, Shane calls over, “You comin’, Uncle Jay?”
Without much deliberation, I reach into the trunk of my car and grab my snowshoes and poles. After all, you never know how much winter you’re going to get.