FREEPORT — On a starlight snowshoe hike with L. L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery School, you’ll take part in what looks like a line dance with a posse of yetis. It begins with a side step, everybody stepping to the left, then to the right. “Tails together, tips apart, tips together, tails apart,” says guide Kevin Hinds, directing the group in the art of turning on snowshoes. “Now, everyone make a 180-degree circle,” Hinds instructs. “Open your poles, plant them, and turn each shoe 180 degrees.” Or you can do a hop turn, he says, which proves to be a popular move, especially with the kids in the group, who execute full 360-degree turns. And then someone starts an impromptu chant: “Put your poles in, put your poles out, do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself about!”
We’ve gathered outdoors at Fogg Farm in Freeport, Maine, an 80-acre plot of land owned by L. L. Bean, to suit up in snowshoes and headlamps and discover the glories of a Maine winter’s night. For some participants, it’s their first time on snowshoes; for others, it’s a chance to try something different and maybe learn to love the snowy season. Folks in our group seem united in their love of the outdoors. But winter? Not so much.
“I love that light bulb moment, when someone says, ‘Hey! There’s something I can do in the winter that makes me enjoy it,’” Hinds says. “If I can help people discover a lifelong sport, I’m happy.” In fact, snowshoeing has shown a steady rise in popularity. “It’s very accessible, it’s easy, and it’s inexpensive to get into the sport,” Hinds says, and you can make it as challenging as you like, progressing from flat trails to hills to mountain summits. To get folks started, Hinds — a Chicago native and registered Maine recreation guide — starts with the basics, like how to dress for warmth and how to choose gear (it’s available for Discovery School participants to use at no cost), followed by a safety briefing, some warm-up stretching, and a how-to snowshoe lesson.
Swathed in layers, with headlamps lighted and snowshoes fitted, we couldn’t wait to get outside on the trail. But we needed one final pointer: how to fall. “There are two types of people: Those who will fall, and those who have fallen,” Hinds said. Demonstrating, Hinds doffed his poles. Then, he got on the ground, tucked his knees to his chest in a crouch, grabbed the tips of his snowshoes and rolled to his knees. Voila! He was upright, with snowshoes intact. “If you can get a little momentum, you can pull yourself right up,” Hinds said. “As we go into the woods, I’ll tell you how to go up hills, stomping so that you activate your crampons.” By now, everybody knew what a crampon was.
And so, at around 7 on a Friday night, we set off on a trail into the woods. We could’ve used a bit more snow — what was still on the ground was pretty crusty — but the weather was pleasantly warm, around 30 degrees. It was also very dark. “There’s no light pollution here, even this close to Portland,” someone said, as we followed Hinds through an open field toward the forest. A swirl of low clouds masked the moonlight, adding an eerie ambience to the landscape. The tiny lights on our headlamps pierced the darkness, like a platoon of bobbing fireflies. But any momentary sense of spookiness was obliterated by the squeaky — and very loud — crunch-crunch-crunch of 10 pairs of feet landing on hard-packed snow. This was no quiet walk in the woods. We could only imagine how romantic this would be during a full moon, in a foot of fresh powder. “When there is moonlight reflecting through the trees, it’s very bright. Just magical,” Hinds said.
Even with less-then-optimum conditions, it was a uniquely pleasant experience to prowl the woodlands under cover of darkness. Since we couldn’t see much beyond the pinpoints of our headlamps, our other senses seemed sharper. Who knew the woods still smelled green and piney in winter? Now and then, we sidestepped off the trail to check out the pattern of peeling bark on a white birch, and pondered the various sets of animal tracks we saw. “I’ve seen deer, rabbits, and coyotes out here, and there are even moose in this region,” Hinds said. He recalled one special moment when he was grooming the trail on a snow machine, and a huge snowy owl flew overhead. “I turned off the engine, and we just stopped and looked at each other. It was pretty amazing,” Hinds said. Bending down to step over and around obstacles in the path, we noticed the sparkle of snow crystals illuminated by our headlamps.
Mostly, people chatted as they hiked, sharing tales of past outdoor adventures, good and bad. Some had participated in other L. L. Bean courses (options include kayaking, fly fishing, archery, stand-up paddleboarding, and more.) “The guides are fabulous,” one woman said, and we all agreed that Hinds was a gem, his passion for the outdoors contagious. His skill set is also pretty solid, given that he’s a wilderness first responder and a firefighter. The consensus was that nighttime snowshoeing is cool. And of course it’s a great workout. “The more powder there is, the more you sink, and the better the workout you’ll get,” Hinds said.
Suddenly, everyone was quiet. “Look up!” someone whispered. As if a scrim had been lifted from a stage, the clouds parted, revealing a night sky ablaze with stars. “There’s Orion’s belt!” Hinds pointed out. “Wow, I haven’t seen stars in years!” someone remarked. To help us figure out which constellations we were seeing, Hinds pulled out his phone, loaded with a star app. Passing the phone around, we each held it straight up, and the app displayed the constellations we were looking at.
We were having an outdoor moment, and, tech-aided or not, it was lovely. Even those who have been on snowshoes many times felt the magic of walking in the woods under a starry sky. In minutes, we’d be gathered around a picnic table sipping hot chocolate, and mentally plotting our next winter adventures.
L. L. BEAN OUTDOOR DISCOVERY SCHOOL Starlight Snowshoe Tours in Freeport, Maine, Friday nights through March 7, 6-9 p.m. (Age 15
and under with participating adults; minumum age 10). $40 fee includes hot cocoa and snacks (crackers or granola bars) and use of snowshoes, poles, headlamp, and gaiters. Snowshoe
discovery course ($20, weekends through March 9), and cross-country ski discovery course ($20, through March 9) are also offered. 888-552-3261, www.llbean.com/adventure .