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Winter is Kim Starbuck's least favorite season, but you wouldn't know it by the scene of snowy satisfaction she and Chris Sanford cast on a recent visit to Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington.
The couple spent a Sunday afternoon snowshoeing the main trail through the whitened salt marshes and woodlands at the 1,000-acre state preserve, poles in hand to help steady their way as they left a chain of Yeti-style footprints behind them. Smiling, they rounded the path back to the trailhead at the end of their trek, the icy world around them starkly bright in the winter sunshine.
"I'm not a big winter fan, but with all the snow, it's all there is to do," said Starbuck.
"It's good to be outside," said Sanford, adding that he took up the sport four years ago, but before this snowy season, he had to travel a ways north to practice it.
Along with snowshoers like Sanford and Starbuck, cross-country skiers are also finding a lot to like about this winter - or, maybe they're just the ones who realized that, since there's no point in getting mad at the weather, they might as well enjoy it.
"It gives you a reason to go outside and forget about being cold and miserable," said Drew Hafey, exercise physiology manager of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Department. He recently enjoyed making tracks at Haley Farm State Park in Groton with aluminum snowshoes strapped to his feet, carrying his young son in a backpack. Instead of sinking like he would in boots, the snowshoes kept him atop the deep snow.
Both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, Hafey said, are good aerobic workouts that can be safer alternatives to trying to walk, run or bicycle on roads and sidewalks rendered narrow, slippery obstacle courses by snow mounds and ice patches. Lots of local places are suitable for either sport - Bluff Point in Groton, for example, as well as golf courses and town parks - wherever the paths, trails or wide open fields stay snow-covered.
"You can do them in a variety of settings," said Dr. Anthony Alessi, a Norwich neurologist affiliated with The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. Snowshoeing, he added, is particularly easy to master - "the only skill you need to have is to know how to walk." But with both sports, he added, the vulnerability to injury is minimal, "and you get a good workout in a short amount of time."
While complaining about the weather may seem to be everyone's favorite pastime this winter, that hasn't been the case for many of the customers Heidi Gargano has seen lately.
"Especially the ones who like cross-country skiing are excited," said Gargano, assistant manager at Action Sports in Old Saybrook. Some dug equipment out of attics or cellars that hadn't been used in years, only to find mice had chewed holes in the boots so they came to her store for replacements.
"We've turned a lot of runners into skiers this year," she added.
Her store sold out of its stock of snowshoes a few weeks ago, she said, and has sold and rented more pairs of cross-country skis than in any winter in recent memory. Favorite nearby spots for both sports include Hammonasset State Beach Park in Madison and Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth.
Ted Avedesian, owner of Avi's Ski Shop in Westerly, finds himself wishing he'd stocked more cross-country skis this winter. The 15 to 18 pairs he had in stock sold out quickly, he said, and he didn't have more on hand because the demand can be so erratic from year to year, depending on snowfall. He also sold several pairs of cross-country ski boots and bindings, and cleaned out his entire supply of snowshoes, about a half dozen pairs. Restocking now, he said, is not an option, because most suppliers are also out.
"Next year, I will carry more," he said.
Business in downhill skiing equipment and for bus trips to out-of-state ski areas the store sponsors also have been strong this winter, he added. But with so much snow at their doorstep this winter, many local residents are also eager to get their winter sports fixes closer to home. Favorite spots for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the Westerly area include the Westerly Forest, River Bend Cemetery and Burlingame State Park in Charlestown, R.I.
"You don't have to go far to play in the snow," Avedesian said.
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