Outdoor recreation doesn’t stop when winter hits

Andrew Johnson ajohnson@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

Winter.

Perhaps no other word can cause such a diverse reaction in people that call South Dakota home.

“In my opinion, there are two extreme types of personalities when it comes to winter in South Dakota,” said Calvin Meyer, park ranger for the state Game, Fish and Parks Department. “There are people who want nothing to do with it and would prefer to stay inside, cuddled up on the couch, and then there’s the other extreme, where people want to take advantage of the short winter season we have.”

As hunting seasons wind down and close for the year, Meyer said ice fishing takes over as the most popular wintertime outdoor activity in northeastern South Dakota. However, until safe, fishable ice takes hold on the region’s sloughs, lakes and rivers, he said people shouldn’t forget about the other outdoor opportunities that state parks can provide during the winter months.

“There are rumors out there about state parks being closed in the winter, but that’s not correct,” he said. “They’re open year-round, and some parks have winter activities and programs. People may have grown up ice fishing or even ice skating, but they don’t realize it’s also a great time to go sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and even birding, especially now that there’s fewer leaves on the trees.”

Snowshoeing

Meyer said snowshoeing, in particular, has really become popular the past few winters at state park and recreation. He said snowshoes can be checked out from some park offices at no charge.

“I’m based out of Watertown, but in the winter I cover the whole northeast park region, which is about 22 counties,” he said. “For snowshoes, those are based out of certain parks, but if someone calls far enough ahead of time, park staff is pretty good at coordinating and getting snowshoes to one park or another to check out.”

Snowshoes have been around for thousands of years, but until the 1970s they were used primarily for employment and survival rather than recreation, according to a report by the U.S. Snowshoe Association. The report also said snowshoeing’s origins can be traced back 6,000 years to people who lived in central Asia. It is believed that as they migrated from Asia to North America they brought snowshoes, which were basically modified slabs of wood they strapped to their feet with leather or crude rope.

However, today’s modern snowshoes are a far cry from their wood and rawhide predecessors, featuring lightweight aluminum frames and high-tech rubber fittings that can accommodate most any boot.

Snowshoeing is an easy, enjoyable way to get outside during snowy, winter days. Basically, if you can walk, you can snowshoe, Meyer said.

“With snowshoes you don’t need as much snow, and you don’t need to worry about ice conditions,” he said. “You just strap them on and go.”

He also said people shouldn’t worry too much about whether snowshoes will fit, because an individual’s actual boot size doesn’t matter when it comes to snowshoes.

“For sizing, snowshoes go by weight,” he said. “The more you weigh, the more weight displacement you need, which means a bigger shoe, and the parks basically carry two different sizes that fit most people.”

Meyer said dressing in layers is key when snowshoeing or doing other physically challenging outdoor activities, and that people should avoid wearing heavy parkas as their primary cold-weather garment.

“It might be really cold, and when you’re all bundled up when you first hike down the trail it isn’t so bad,” he said. “Then you go a bit farther and it really gets warm. Bring a backpack with water and a snack, depending on how long you plan to be out. You can shed layers and put them in the backpack instead of holding them. I’m no expert at snowshoeing, but I’ve wiped out a couple times and like to keep my hands free.”

Snowmobiling

Meyer said snowmobiling is another popular winter activity when there’s enough snow. The state’s snowmobiling season opens Dec. 15 and closes March 31.

Meyer said all snowmobiles must be properly licensed to operate on public and private lands and any frozen public water. The exception is private lands owned by the snowmobile’s operator.

“These license fees help supplement South Dakota’s Snowmobile Trails Program, which is entirely self-sufficient,” he said. “The program receives no general tax fund dollars. There is also a five-day temporary permit that may be purchased by resident and nonresident snowmobilers that have an unlicensed snowmobile.”

In the eastern part of South Dakota, there are more than 1,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, many of which are maintained by local snowmobile organizations contracted by GFP.

For example, the Aberdeen Driftbusters Snowmobile Club is in charge of marking and grooming the 73-mile Dakota Midland Trail, which connects Aberdeen, Westport, Frederick, Richmond Lake and Mina Lake.

When the snowmobile season opens, it’s easy for people to keep track of trail conditions and find detailed trail maps by visiting gfp.sd.gov/to-do/snowmobile/map.aspx. More information on snowmobiling in the state is also available online through the South Dakota Snowmobile Association’s website, snowmobilesd.com.

Regardless of activity, Meyer said he hopes more people take advantage of the outdoors throughout winter.

“People will learn what works for them and what doesn’t, and they can adjust from there,” he said. “You never know if you’ll like something unless you try.”

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Snowshoeing is an easy, fun winter activity that’s rising in popularity, and rental snowshoes are available for free at many state park and recreation areas in South Dakota. Courtesy photo