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It’s the shoes

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMerrill and Ken Hearnsberger of Ashland snowshoe on Mount Ashland.

ASHLAND -- Chamise Kramer motors up the Mt. Ashland Access Road with all the skiers and snowboarders one sunny winter morning, but they quickly part ways in the parking lot.

Those on sticks and boards head toward the ski area lifts, while Kramer and friends motor up to the end of the parking lot where their fun begins.

They strap on snowshoes and embark on a quiet, and somewhat aerobic stroll through the fresh powder. And they’re not alone.

“This is where you really realize how many people experience this part of the mountain without the ski lifts and seeking out a totally different experience,” says Kramer, of Ashland.

“I really love being out here in the winter, and this time it’s all in the shoes,” she says.

When it comes to getting a feel for Oregon’s wintry outback, snowshoes are the great equalizer.

While thousands of snow lovers carve down the slopes on boards of various widths, a smaller contingent dig back hundreds of years to cross snow drifts with special shoes to keep them aloft.

And it’s no great expense. You can rent a pair of snowshoes and poles at local outdoor outlets for under $30 a day, to hike the backside of Mount Ashland to places like Grouse Gap or traverse meadows that teem with wildflowers in springs.

It’s not rocket science. It’s barely brain surgery. And you don’t need a helmet or a lift ticket.

“You don’t have to worry about feeling comfortable on something like skis or snowboards,” says Kramer, a botanist by trade who does public outreach for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“Anybody can be on snowshoes,” Kramer says. “We put kids on snowshoes.”

The first trick is to strap them on properly, getting your waterproof boots in them so they don’t slip off.

Then grab your ski poles and start hoofing it down the trail.

The back end of Mt. Ashland off Forest Service Road 20 is a snowshoer’s paradise, the shoes gliding easily over packed snow, with the shoes’ teeth gripping any ice.

Veer off the path through majestic meadows and the shoes’ width keeps you from sinking into snow drifts now 6 feet or deeper.

The snow that buoys hikers on the meadows is welcome, but it’s vitally important for the flowers and critters hunkered deep beneath it.

Some of these meadows are high-quality habitat for flowers like Indian paintbrush, pollinators such as rare bumblebees and ground-dwelling critters like voles and marmots, says Sheila Coyler, a Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest wildlife biologist.

The snowpack acts like an insulating blanket, hiding them from the harshness of winter months, Coyler says.

“With the lack of snowpack, they’re exposed to extremes that could lead to mortality,” Coyler says.

And like voles and marmots, snowshoers should dress smartly, but not necessarily heavily.

“You definitely want to dress in layers,” Kramer says. “But once your body starts moving, you generate a lot of your own heat.”

The trail to Grouse Gap is also very popular among cross-country skiers but is closed to motor vehicles.

Signs advise visitors to keep their dogs on leashes, but federal laws don’t require it on these federal forest lands other than in campgrounds.

With a bow to Frank Zappa, everyone knows not to eat yellow snow. But the specter of pet excrement on the trails is more than just a doggie-downer.

Dogs can spread diseases like parvo to foxes and other animals. Plus, not picking up after your pets can diminish the backcountry experience for others.

“There’s nothing worse than being on skis or snowshoes and having to dodge somebody’s woof-waste,” Kramer says. “It’s one of the tenets of ‘leave no trace.’”

Regardless, a snowshoe adventure on Mount Ashland, finished off perhaps with a beverage at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area lodge, is a bucket-list essential for many Southern Oregonians.

To view the vast expanse of wilderness in winter, without the specter of smoky summer wildfire skies, is worth every calorie burned getting there on snowshoes.

“I love you can see so far into the distance,” Kramer says.

“It’s such a good reminder why we love this place,” she says. “It’s tough to come up here in summer and not get to see anything. It can be a little heartbreaking at times. But when you come up here in winter between storms, it’s jaw-dropping beautiful.”

Reach Oregon Outdoors writer Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.