Imagine. It is cold and dark and snowy in the middle of the winter woods. The full moon is out and there's no wind. Despite the deep drifts of snow, you have the power to walk freely and explore, padding softly through the still, moonlit silence.
The frozen Colorado Rockies are drenched in snow. You are competing with a hundred superbly conditioned athletes in a grueling race running up and down 3,000-meter mountainsides. For 4 hours.
In both cases, you are wearing snowshoes.
From urbanites to mountain men, fur trappers to furniture makers, rescue workers to elite military teams, the 5,000-year-old sport of snowshoeing is both recreation and a very practical tool. The key word is ``freedom.''
``Snowshoeing allows you to go into areas that you couldn't with skis or boots,'' explains long-time snowshoer Dave Hodgden of Boston. ``They are very light and maneuverable in dense brush or forest, yet they are very stable, so they're ideal for naturalists, photographers, and hunters.''
Because snowshoes provide access to otherwise inaccessible backcountry areas, Hodgden travels around the country training members of the National Ski Patrol in snowshoe techniques for emergency rescue operations.
``In rough wilderness terrain, where there is 10 feet of snow, traveling in boots is like trying to swim through stormy seas; you are worn out in 10 minutes,'' he explains.
It took a lot longer than that to wear out snowshoe expert Jim Kahkoska in the second annual ``Mountain Man Winter Triathlon'' held recently in and around his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo. He completed the 15 miles of cross-country skiing, 9 miles of snowshoeing, and 12 miles of speed skating in just under 5 hours to earn runner-up honors in the event, which received nationwide TV coverage on ABC's ``Wide World of Sports.''
Kahkoska also used his pair to climb all 20,000 vertical feet of Mount McKinley in Alaska. ``Snowshoes are pretty much standard issue in modern professional climbing,'' he says.
But competition and rugged climbing are only a small part of the picture. Snowshoes are so versatile, and relatively inexpensive, that they provide recreation for thousands of urbanites who don't have time to run up mountains or engage in rescue operations. The price of a new pair ranges from about $60 to $150.
``Snowshoeing is a great family sport,'' says Cassie McLean of the International Snowshoe Federation in Wassau, Wis. ``It's inexpensive, and you can do it just about anywhere - roads, golf courses, parks, your backyard - with or without snow!'' she adds, recalling that a portion of the Mountain Man Winter Triathlon features snowshoers racing at top speed across dirt.
Cy Hempges, management assistant at Mount Rainier National Park in Ashford, Wash., disputes the stereotype that snowshoes are cumbersome and heavy. ``Anybody who can walk can snowshoe,'' he says.
Snowshoeing holds a special appeal to some urban fitness seekers because it is less of a strain than jogging over hard city pavements.
``There's less stress on the knees and ankles than in street jogging,'' says Cheryl Field, co-owner of Iverson Snowshoe Company in Shingleton, Mich. ``You're running on a cushion and there's not the shock or impact of the shoe hitting the pavement.''
Snowshoes come in a tremendous variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. The earliest known snowshoes, which were round, were used by North American Indians, and certain snowshoes have actually been carbon-14 dated at 4,000 to 5,000 years old. Carbon-14 dating is a technique used for dating archeological objects by measuring the quantity of a particular carbon isotope in the objects.
Modern snowshoes range from the very long and narrow Alaska type to the shorter and stubbier ``Modified Bear Paw'' to a modern synthetic shoe, featuring tubular aluminum alloy and a synthetic gut stringing called Neaprene.
The various types are used for varying purposes.
``I've spent my whole life in the woods on snowshoes, and I prefer a wooden modified Bear Paw with an upturned toe so that you don't pick up a lot of snow with each step,'' says John Kulish, who has been a fur trapper and hunter in southern New Hampshire for 50 years. On the other hand, the aluminum alloy synthetic shoes are used for racing because of their lightness and durability.
Sherpa Inc. of Chicago, one of the largest snowshoe manufacturers in the United States, employs Kahkoska in its designing process because of his racing experience.
``Basically we work for lightness and flexibility,'' he says, ``using a rotary hinge pivot so that the shoe moves with your foot naturally.''
While aluminum and steel snowshoes can be made by modern techniques, wooden snowshoes require more delicacy.
``The process of making wooden snowshoes is really a craft,'' says Hodgden. ``You have to select, cure, and bend the wood, usually ash or maple, and then lace the entire shoe with usually only two to three pieces of gut,'' he says.
The craft was originally learned from native Americans, who in some cases, are still producing. Faber and Co., a 100-year-old snowshoe firm located outside of the city of Quebec, still taps this source of expertise.
``We are located next to a Huron Indian village and, yes, our snowshoe making skill comes from the Indians,'' explains president Guy Faber.
Faber produces about 35,000 wooden snowshoes a year, of which it exports 30 to 40 percent to the United States and another 10 percent to Europe.
Old snowshoes, particularly wooden ones, don't die easily. ``I've seen people put their old snowshoes like crossed-swords over their fireplaces,'' says Boston snowshoer Al Buczynsky. In fact, L.L. Bean, the venerable Maine outdoor outfitter, even goes so far as to advertise snowshoe furniture - a rocker, an armchair, and a coffee table - in its catalog.
But those seeking to put their snowshoes to use in the traditional Jack London setting may enter the 100-mile Iditashoe snowshoe race through the Alaskan wilderness. ``The Iditashoe is a continuous race, and you have to carry a certain amount of survival food, as well as a tent, saw, stove, and propane, and a flare,'' says McLean.
For more information about snowshoeing, contact Cassie McLean of the International Snowshoe Federation, at 8720 North 28th Ave., Merrill, Wis., 54452, or the US Snowshoe Association, P.O. Box 170, R.D. 1, Corinth, N.Y., 12822. An excellent book on the subject is ``The Snowshoe Book,'' third edition, by William Osgood and Leslie Hurley, from Steven Greene Press in Brattleboro, Vt.