My wife Debra surveyed the lush grounds of Bolingbrook's 14-acre Hidden Lakes Park as she buckled into snowshoes for the first time. The sun was brilliant. The four lakes were half-open, half-frozen. No one else was in sight. Our only company was birds chirping.
"I'm going to fall flat on my nose," she said.
I assured her that unless she tripped over her own feet (not an impossibility with snowshoes) such an embarrassing pratfall would not occur.
With temperatures rising for a February thaw, some might think it peculiar for me to endorse one of the most pleasurable outdoor winter activities now.
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Actually, late winter is the most comfortable time for snowshoeing. Snow will last longer in shaded areas of woods of forest preserves. And if the temperature hits 40 degrees you can probably 'shoe in a sweater rather than all bundled up.
As I told the Mrs., if you can walk, you can snowshoe. And if you still want to hedge your bets, use ski poles for balance. Our snowshoes are metal framed with synthetic bottoms, unlike the traditional tennis-racket type.
We set out in morning, when it was 20-something degrees with a slight breeze. So we felt a chill. Neither of us hoped to set a land-speed record, so we walked and talked, stopped and admired the bare branches on trees and the open water along the DuPage River Greenway.
"I'm going to fall no matter what," Deb said.
The main difference between walking on snow and walking down Michigan Avenue is focusing on taking steps more side-to-side. That will prevent stepping on the oversized shoes. The path was freshly coated with three inches of snow. Softer snow beside us was about eight inches deep. The wonder of snowshoes is that they disperse your weight and prevent you from sinking.
Fifty steps into the journey, I asked Deb how it was going.
"I haven't fallen yet," she said. "That's a good sign."
Without any other winter outdoor enthusiasts out, we were enveloped by silence. At the same time of day, on a Sunday in summer, runners, bicyclists, fishermen and hikers would have surrounded us.
Footprints of small animals were visible on deep snow areas winding through the woods. Rabbits accounted for some, but I hoped to see deer.
"An animal has been here," Deb said, pointing to the ground a foot away. "Yellow snow."
When we snowshoed to the river, walking more on snow than through it, the handful of ducks retreated to the opposite bank about 25 feet across the water. They did not appreciate our presence.
Naked tree branches seemed to form an architectural display. Tall trees poked holes in the blue sky. Flimsy trees were broken, limbs cracked in half and twisted in death spirals.
We saw vacant bird nests and one squirrel. I detected movement up a hill between the trees. Deer on the run, four running single file, leaped over branches with the grace of ballerinas and disappeared into wooded camouflage in seconds. Pretty cool.
We doubled back and the trail split. The tag line on a Greenway sign of rules of behavior read, "Take only memories. Leave only footprints." Another sign warning against ice-skating on the lakes featured a Casper the Friendly Ghost image, arms upraised, looking as if he was drowning. We snowshoed around and between the lakes, careful not to approach too closely to snow-covered indentations that represented danger.
"Hurray for me! I found the lakes!" Deb declared.
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"Are you going to draw up a map for future generations?" I asked.
"Nah," she said. "I don't have the time."
A couple of open lakes attracted a horde of ducks, wary of human intruders. They seemed to enjoy swimming in the water that only a week or so earlier was probably a block of ice.
As we meandered around the lakes, movement caught my eye again. Deer, one, two, three of them, sprinted down a hill. The fourth had fallen behind but materialized. It stopped, sniffed the ground, and looked around. You almost could hear it thinking, "OK, guys, enough hide and seek." The deer darted off in the direction of the invisible trio.
A runner ran onto the trail. A couple walking a dog went the other way. Two women parked a car. Time to go. Hidden Lakes was getting crowded.
"I thought it would be harder," Deb said of her snowshoeing debut.
In an hour and a half, she didn't fall once.