Mother said,

“Straight ahead,”

Not to delay or be misled. . . .

Mother said,

“Come what may,

Follow the path

And never stray.”

As I’ve often said, there’s a line in Sondheim to cover every situation in life. Following the path seemed like a very good idea indeed when I set out into the woods high up Hollyburn Mountain.

Like Little Red Riding Hood, who sings the lines above in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” I was protected by a hood, the one on the all-but-impermeable gray wool coat I brought to Vancouver.  Unlike Danielle Ferland in the original Broadway production, or probably any actress since, I was wearing snowshoes. 

The occasion was a gathering for newcomers to the University of British Columbia organized by Work-Life and Relocation Services, the people who found my wonderful apartment here andshepherded me through the work visa process. When I stopped by the office to say hello and thank-you, Debbie McLoughlin said, “You’ll have to come to our get-together,” and then added, as an afterthought, “Maybe we’ll go snowshoeing.”

I thought she was joking. But in Canada, snowshoeing is considered a normal thing to do.

Late Friday afternoon, five of us piled into Debbie’s car for the trip to Cypress Mountain on Hollyburn, one of the North Shore mountains I can see across Burrard Inlet from my neighborhood, Kitsilano, or the UBC campus. Cypress was the official freestyle ski and snowboarding venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics and is now a popular recreation area just 45 minutes from downtown. When we left, the weather was, as usual, gray and rainy, but about halfway up someone remarked, “The cars coming down have snow on them.” There was more and more as we climbed, and when we parked, big, round flakes were coming down, and piling up on my coat.

I was absurdly underdressed. The coat was fine, and the wool hat I keep rolled up in one pocket – also gray, with the logo of New York’s No. 1 subway line on the forehead – came in handy. (Here it is called a toque, pronounced tooke.) But underneath, having dressed for city temperatures in the upper 40s, I was wearing just my UBC sweatshirt over an L.L. Bean cotton turtleneck, and alpaca leggings over tights – not nearly enough layers, and none of them waterproof.  Most absurd of all were my boots, purple leather ones I bought in Mallorca, completely without tread. The polar-fleece socks, also purple, that I wore on the plane out here had mysteriously gone missing, so that was another layering opportunity lost. The Canadians in our party of 30 were properly dressed in parkas and waterproof pants and such, but I was limited to what I had packed back in New York. Who knew about snowshoeing?

The old-fashioned kind.

With assistance, I put on my shoes. A disappointment: snowshoes are now metal-and-plastic constructions, not the old-fashioned tennis rackets we outlanders expect (some of which decorate the walls of the rental office). On the other hand, they have the advantage of metal teeth that dig into the snow, a great advantage on an incline, or if balance and physical coordination are not your greatest strengths. They are not mine.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” our guide, Rose,  explained in a five-minute introduction to the sport. I had attached myself to Rose’s group after she noticed my apparent nervousness. “Do you have any health problems you’re concerned about?” she asked. Oh, you mean like the herniated disc and two pinched nerves in my back? “I’ll get you some poles,” she said.

The poles were exactly what I needed. As it turns out, walking on snowshoes is not quite like walking. Snowshoes are several inches wider than your feet, and it’s necessary to remember that to avoid stepping on your own and pitching over. They’re also longer than regular shoes – like short, fat skis — which means you have to be careful not to step on the shoes of the person in front, with similar results.  It’s tricky, if not impossible, to back up, since your heels are loose and the backs flap downward. Walking forward in small circles to turn around takes some practice.

The group of 30 having split, about a dozen of us set off behind Rose across a well-lighted ski trail and, literally, into the woods. The path was narrow, just the width of a pair of snowshoes, bounded by a few (visible) inches of snow on each side. It was also anything but straight – those pesky trees getting in the way — and full of ups and downs, from several inches to several hard-packed snowy feet; they reminded me of the grooves in the sandstone of Ayers Rock in the Australian Outback, which I climbed in 1985. And the path was dark. While the ski trails have lights visible from Kits, the snowshoe trails have none, except in the occasional clearing. Along with our snowshoes, each of us was issued a headlamp of the kind worn by miners — or subway workers  on the No. 1 line, whose logo the lamp obscured.

As I became less self-conscious and more comfortable on the shoes, I grew more aware of my surroundings. In the words of Robert Frost, the woods were lovely, dark and deep. (Am I the only one who’s noticed that poem could easily be sung to the tune of “Into the Woods”?) They seemed to stretch on to infinity, shadowy cones outlined only by the snow resting on their branches. And yes, lovely in the quiet broken only by a dozen pairs of crunching feet.

“How far are we going?” I had asked Rose early on, for fear I might need to turn back. “About a kilometer to the lodge,” she said. “But it’s not a straight line. It’ll take about an hour.” As lovely as the woods were, it came to feel like a long hour, since we were constantly in motion with no lodge in sight; every time I saw the lights on a clearing, I hoped. The oldest and slowest in our group, I tended to fall behind. Still, with each step and swing of the poles, I felt more confident of my ability to stay upright. I began to realize what good exercise this was – how loose my back and hips felt, how my lungs were expanding – and how many calories I must be burning. I wasn’t even cold.

Eventually we reached the lodge, where we would have to remove our snowshoes to go inside. I declined: “These shoes are on, and they’re staying on.”

“But everyone else will have to put theirs on, too,” Debbie coaxed. “We might be here 15 or 20 minutes.”

“Just hand out a cup if you feel like it,” I said. “I’m staying here.”

She bought me not only hot chocolate but also a thick, chewy oatmeal-raisin cookie. I ate and drank clumsily with the poles still strapped to my wrists. But I managed, all the while enjoying the silence, the solitude, the vision of the red lodge outlined by a string of yellow lights, softly out of focus in the mist. When the others emerged and struggled to put on their snowshoes, I was dressed and ready.

As so often on ventures into the unknown, the trip back seemed far shorter and more direct. Rose noticed me falling behind and left the others in the care of her colleague Brad for one last turn through the woods. We waited for them near the entrance to the ski trail that would lead us back to base. As a finale, the more athletically inclined decided to race down the hill, breaking into a run with their snowshoes flapping and clattering behind them.

There remained only Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep.” When Debbie dropped me at my door an hour later, I rose from the back seat to discover that sitting had induced a certain rigor and I could barely walk. An ill-advised trek through Stanley Park the next day left me with a knee reluctant to bend and a hobble that canceled my Sunday morning lap swim. Still, I’m better off than Golnaz, my student who turned up in a leg brace after a snowboarding accident the other week and was still wearing it as she prepared for her spring-break flight home – to Iran. Thanks to those teeth on the bottom of my snowshoes, I’ve left my mark on Hollyburn Mountain – at least, until the next snowfall.

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