Walking on clouds must be similar – the pillowy sensation with each step, moving above ground where only birds can fly, and all those nitty, gritty details of landscape, like rocks and undergrowth, obscured by the fluffy stuff underfoot. Granted, cloud walking happens in my imagination without huge tennis racquets strapped to my feet and sweat pouring down my back, but other than that, it bears a striking similarity to snowshoeing.
Millions of snow crystals collapse with a muffled huff as I walk a metre above the soapberry bushes and wild roses, their very tips poking out like fingers testing the air for spring. Around them rise the trees, stiffly as if the blanket of snow is something they scorn. Finally I’m tall enough to inspect the holes a woodpecker hammered into two poplars. My breath billows out in a miniature fog bank to the powdery tree trunk, settling on it – suddenly we’re connected, the poplar and I. Does it feel the tiny heat wave I’m breathing on its bark?
I stick my finger into the woodpecker hole, explore for a nesting cavity. Instead, I encounter spongy, stringy wood fibres. The tree rises majestically above me, unperturbed by the human fingering its insides. Its branches break up the sky into a blue jigsaw puzzle, a few old leaves still gamely hanging on to the very tip of its crown. No sign from the outside that its core is rotten. Did the woodpecker know before he started hammering, or was it the sound of the first test knocks that tipped him off? No nesting holes in either poplar.
I swish on, the tail of my snowshoes hissing through the snow before the “hmpf” of setting my feet down. Sh, hmpf, sh, hmpf, my winter melody. The wooden frame and rawhide webbing sieves the top layer of snow and throws it aside. Sunlight glitters in each small cloud of snow, the dazzling sparkle of tiny cold stars. I’m mesmerized as usual, the beaded sun on my mukluks winking at me with each step, and watch as my ratty old snowshoes emerge from the snow and disappear again.
Poor things: they’ve been laughed at by a tourist who thought I was pulling her leg when I explained that this is what I strap on in the winter. She’d pictured snowshoes as sturdy and warm boots, made for cold temperatures, not these pockmarked wooden hoops, the ancient rawhide patched with newer stuff and odd pieces of string.
An aura of mystery came with my snowshoes when I purchased them at a secondhand store in Prince George over 20 years ago. Did a trapper own them once? Old leather bindings and homemade crampons were attached to them in an attempt to let them bite into crusty snow and ice, mostly wishful thinking I found out. I’ve since added my own adornments to them, largely of the unintentional kind: chainsaw nicks and dog-tooth marks where years ago, old Leshi was overcome by a sudden attack of hunger and devoured the rawhide webbing plus part of the frame.
Maybe I ought to throw them out. Sam is lobbying me every year to get a new pair when I take my battled-scarred snowshoes out of summer hibernation. But I don’t like new stuff; I’m a sucker for old equipment that has a history, that’s done things, has had things done to it.
I labour uphill, my ski poles digging into the deep snow, following fresh rabbit tracks. The leg-twisting deadfall that’s hidden underneath is like the memory of another lifetime, grown irrelevant, existing and not existing at the same time. The marshy meadows and ponds that I could only skirt in the summer beckon to me now: snow crystals stacked on ice sitting on top of liquid water. Water piled on top of itself in different incarnations.
My snowshoes are the ticket to this freedom, because that’s what it is. No matter that my legs end in hole-punching small feet – with a bit of wood and rawhide I’m transformed into a snow walker, set free to wander through the bush at will a metre above ground and find out what the woodpeckers had been up to last summer. There is some magic in it, like walking on clouds.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.