Snowshoeing with Jim Joque
When my granddaughters Jade and Amber were ages 6 and 2, they put on their Little Bear snowshoes the day my wife and I took them and their parents to Rib Mountain State Park near Wausau, Wis. We began our snowshoe ascent at the trailhead leading up to Sunrise Lookout.
Both girls started out the hike with high energy. About a 100 yards in, I noticed Amber was slung over her mother’s shoulder and getting a free ride up the hill. Jade continued on until we reached our destination. We then headed back down toward the trailhead and decided to snowshoe through the forest. The snow was deep. Jade observed that when the front person broke trail, it was easier for others to follow. So, she followed in her mother’s footsteps all the way down the hill – bright child.
Little kids on snowshoes can be so cute. And getting kids snowshoeing at an early age helps to instill an interest and love for the sport, as well as help promote healthy outdoor values.
Of interest though, is a National Wildlife Federation website with studies revealing that in the last two decades childhood has moved indoors. One of the studies showed that an average American child spent as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, but more than seven hours daily in front of an electronic screen. The shift, they note, impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids, stating, “Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out, because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world.”
Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder gives hope. Louv wrote that nature-deficit “can be reorganized and reversed, individually and culturally.” He contends that we “can become more aware of how blessed our children can be – biologically, cognitively, and spiritually – through positive physical connection to nature. Indeed, the new research focuses not so much on what is lost when nature fades, but on what is gained in the presence of the natural world.“
What better way to get kids outside and in touch with the natural world during winter than to take them snowshoeing? Such activity could result in impressionable and memorable moments that positively impact them for a lifetime.
Things to do
At the top of the list for things to do with kids on snowshoes is to take them on a hike. Keeping in mind their age and a reasonable distance to hike, consider going to a county or state park trail designated for snowshoeing. For littler ones, perhaps take them for a short hike on the school grounds or in a neighborhood park.
Use the hike to explore nature. Bring along a track-and-scat guide and show kids how to identify animal tracks in the snow. Read up on trees and show them how to identify conifers by their needles.
Games are always a fun way to hold kid’s interest when outside in the snow. Traditional games on snowshoes like Simon Says, follow-the-leader, and tag games such as hide-and-seek are always fun to do with children. Have kids write their name in the snow (but not the way adults do). In an open area covered with fresh snow, have them stomp out the letters of their first name. See who can make the biggest letters.
As a child, my siblings and neighborhood kids played a game we called “Pie. “ We would stomp or shovel out a large circular maze in fresh snow with some of the paths having dead ends. We then would break into teams to play tag within the maze. It was frustrating to run into a dead end, and … tag, “You’re out.”
Snowshoeing education programs for children
A number of grade and middle schools in our snow-belt regions have secured grants or other funding to purchase snowshoes. They use snowshoeing as part of their physical education and recreation programming.
Nature centers sometimes offer snowshoeing activities for kids and families. For several years, I co-facilitated an annual children and parents snowshoeing weekend at UW-Stevens Point’s Treehaven near Tomahawk. The program included instruction on snowshoeing, winter dress and safety, followed by hiking, games and a campfire with storytelling. Treehaven also annually introduces snowshoeing on their 1,400-acre outdoor classroom to inner city children from Milwaukee and Chicago schools.
Another example is the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, Wis. They offer “Snowshoe Science” to second- through fifth-grade kids in their elementary school programs. Unique to their program is that they offer sit-skis for students with physical disabilities, in order to explore the trails.
Community events and races
Look for community-sponsored snowshoeing events for families. Day hikes, nighttime candlelight and moonlight hikes, and winter festivals or carnivals are fun-filled weekend events held throughout the Midwest that bring families and communities together. City recreation departments and county and state parks periodically sponsor these events.
Google “Minnesota DNR Candlelight Events” for a list of snowshoe, ski and hiking events. Google “Wisconsin State Park Winter Candlelight Events” for their updates. An interesting website listing a 2017 guide to candlelight events in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and a few in Iowa and Illinois, can be found on the Midwest Weekends site. For listings, Google “Midwest Weekends Ski or Snowshoe by Candlelight.”
Also, there are many snowshoeing races held in communities within our snow regions. Several of those events include youth and kids races. At the state level for example, this past January the Badger State Winter Games in central Wisconsin had a 400-meter snowshoeing race for kids ages 12 and under.
At the national level, this March the United States Snowshoe Association will sponsor the 2017 Dion Snowshoes U.S. National Snowshoe Championship races in Bend, Ore. That event includes a “Kid’s Kilo” race. In 2016, when the USSSA nationals were held in Eau Claire, Wis., I enjoyed watching little kids compete in the same race.
Check local newspapers, park and community recreation flyers, and the Silent Sports calendar during the winter months for racing and other community snowshoeing events. Go online to www.silentsports.net/test.
Online organizations for kids on snowshoes
There are nonprofit organizations credited with getting kids outdoors in winter. Their websites tell it all.
WinterKids (www.winterkids.org) is a statewide program in Maine, developed for families, school and communities to keep children active in winter. Their mission states, “WinterKids helps children develop healthy lifelong habits through education and fun outdoor winter activity.”
Winter Trails (www.wintertrails.org) was created to provide opportunities for both children and adults to try snowshoeing (and cross country skiing) at no cost. In January for the past 22 years, Winter Trails promoted an annual event that involved numerous ski centers, resorts and federal public lands across the country, and got about 11,000 kids and adults out in the snow.
SnowSchool (winterwildlands.org/snowschool/) is a national education program of the Winter Wildlands Alliance, whereby kids are introduced to winter fun. Their reports show that each winter, students and teachers in grades K-12 within 16 snow-belt states venture out on snowshoes as an educational activity. More than 50% of those kids are under-served, with many being first time snowshoers. They are noted for getting over 30,000 kids outside in winter annually.
Kids grow up
Many years later, my granddaughters Jade and Amber – at ages 18 and 14 – put on snowshoes as we headed out along the Big Eau Pleine Flowage near my home. We were going on a short hike that snowy winter day. On this adventure, however, their snowshoes were adult size and their stamina much stronger from when they were 6 and 2 years old.
Although they were no longer “cute little kids on snowshoes,” they were “cute teenagers on snowshoes.” But, I may save that story for another time.
Our children’s safety on snowshoes is of utmost importance
• Be sure that kids dress appropriately for winter. This includes having them dress in layers with breathable, comfortable, waterproof or water resistant materials. They should have all appendages covered – head with cap or hood, hands with gloves or mittens and feet with boots. Bring along some extra clothing in a daypack, such as mittens, socks, sweater and pants.
• Judge if it is safe to go outside to begin with, and what would be a reasonable time outside. Your decision would depend on a child’s age and keeping in mind temperature, wind chill and weather conditions. Check the National Weather Service for conditions that are safe for kids.
• Check kids periodically to be sure they are warm and dry. And, check for potty-time needs, too, and make sure they go before you leave home. A nice outing can go bad with wet pants.
• Keeping kids hydrated and nourished is important for play in the cold. Bring along snacks, beverages and water. Hot chocolate is a welcome treat.
• Finally, watch for snowshoeing dangers such as ice on trails, frozen water, cliffs and snow covered overhangs, deep snow, oncoming storms and dropping temperatures. These can be life- and health-threatening dangers to take seriously.