Walk this way
Even if there's snow on the ground, you can still take a hike
For most Chicagoans, February and March conjure images of digging cars out of drifts and trudging through oily slush. But this year, several snowshoeing events in Chicago offer a different view of winter’s snowy terrain. Walk on top of the snow—rather than slogging through it—and you can relax in snow-blanketed silence, breathe in cool, crisp air and catch a glimpse of winter wildlife.
At first, it might seem complicated to maneuver atop the snow with tennis racket–like contraptions strapped to your feet. But using the shoes is surprisingly easy—anyone who can walk can enjoy this sport. During this unseasonably snow-free winter, the only hard part has been finding the required four inches of powder.
A good way to start snowshoeing is at the Chicago Park District’s Polar Adventure Days at Northerly Island (1400 S Linn White Dr at Museum Campus Dr, 312-742-4907). On Saturday 18, from 11am to 3pm, free snowshoes will be available to visitors, as long as a sufficient amount of snow is on the ground (and the forecast looks good as of our press time). This event is oriented more toward families than athletes (hot-chocolate breaks keep the kids entertained), but you’ll still tread on top of the snow, taking in views of the museum campus and skyline, and feeling the cool breeze while you work up a sweat.
Unlike most sports, you don’t need to learn any complicated new motions to participate. Snowshoeing is just like walking, with a few essential differences. “When you’re going downhill, drag the back of the snowshoe,” says Pat Cogdal, snowshoe expert at REI Oakbrook Terrace. “You don’t want to plant the shoe and then cantilever over. When you go uphill make sure you plant that toe in and grab the hill.”
That’s not to say that it’s an average walk in the park. “Snowshoeing is a lot of work on your legs,” Cogdal says. “You have to pick your legs up higher than you usually do. You can feel it in your quads and your butt—it’s a pretty strenuous workout.”
To challenge yourself with a more difficult backwoods excursion, Cogdal recommends the nine miles of trails in Waterfall Glen (Cass Ave at Northgate Rd, Darien, 630-933-7200), the rugged forest preserve surrounding Argonne National Laboratory. Staying off the trails is a requisite; the groomed paths are reserved in the wintertime for cross-country skiers. But you can go on the deer paths, where you’ll likely spot owls and white-tailed deer.
With 30,000 acres of land, the Morton Arboretum (4100 Illinois Rte 53, Lisle, 630-968-0074) is another serene snowshoeing spot. You can head out on the Main Trail through oak and maple woodlands, or get off the path and explore the conifers. Plus, the arboretum rents snowshoes on Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 2pm.
The arboretum’s Gina Tedesco sums up the experience: “The white snow is in stark contrast to the dark on the trees, and you might see some deer. It’s so peaceful.”
Buying snowshoes can get pricey—a top-of-the-line pair can cost a few hundred bucks—but Viking Ski Shop (3422 W Fullerton Ave at Kimball Ave, 773-276-1222) and REI (17W160 22nd St, Oakbrook Terrace, 630-574-7700) rent them for cheap. Snowshoeing in Illinois tends to be done on fairly flat terrain, so there’s no need to pony up for high-end gear, at least initially. Snowshoes can be complicated contraptions, complete with varied crampons, decking and pivot points. But the staff at REI or Viking can get you started.
If you’re doing more than shuffling around an urban park for a few hours, you might want additional equipment. “Go with a hiking boot,” Cogdal says. “I would wear a base layer, an insulating layer, a waterproof pant and a gaiter,”—a waterproof lower-leg covering—“and I recommend trekking poles for snowshoeing and backpacking; they help alleviate the stress on your legs.”
Take a walk on the white stuff (provided it comes in time) at Northerly Island’s Polar Adventure Days, on Saturday 18.