LA RONGE — By the time I arrive at the trailhead in Morley Wilson Park, the northern Saskatchewan sunset has come and gone, and temperatures are dipping below -20 C.
The moon — full, bright, almost cartoonishly enormous in the sky — lights up the park and the woods surrounding it, silhouetting the small group of hikers clustered at the park entrance, getting ready to head out.
Matthew Maurer, who will lead the group, hands out headlamps and snowshoes with eager, welcoming enthusiasm.
He has organized summer hikes in La Ronge for the last two years, but this year is his first time taking groups out on winter evenings, too.
“Hiking is just something that I enjoy doing,” he says. “I go for hikes every morning, and I figured there are a lot of people who are interested. They ask me about it. But they don’t feel comfortable going out and exploring by themselves.
“So I figured I’d put something on, and provide people with guided hikes and get them familiar with the trails, because I want people to get comfortable. Then they can show their friends, and their friends can show their friends, and we can encourage more people to get out hiking.”
The group of hikers varies from week to week; it’s an informal, friendly gathering. Earlier in the season, some of the local youth groups came out with glow-sticks, lighting up the dark trails in neon colours. This time, counting Maurer, there are six of us — a mix of old-timers and first-timers clustered together as we hit the trail.
Heading into the trees, sinking deep into the powdery snow with every step, my knees and hips relax into the rhythm of snowshoeing. It surprises me. This is my first time on snowshoes, but I’m almost instantly feeling confident and sure-footed.
Except when we’re going up or downhill, that is. Then my snowshoeing is less ‘steady motion’ and more ‘gawky penguin.’
But everyone is encouraging, offering advice and friendly laughter as we step and stumble along, leaving the lights of the town behind us.
Since September, Maurer says more than 50 different people have joined him for an evening or nighttime hike. People come and try a winter hike for all sorts of reasons — in search of physical activity, for the love of nature, for something to do — and once they get a taste of it, many can’t wait to return.
For Maurer himself, taking up hiking on a regular basis has been life-changing.
“For me, it’s a way to deal with my anxiety,” he said. “Hiking is calming. It’s good for your mental health, and your physical health. It’s a great way to keep balancing your life.
“That’s why I want to share it with everybody, to give them that opportunity to find that balance in their life.”
As we make our way along the trail, passing lines of animal tracks and squelching over pockets of muskeg under the snow, that feeling of calm and balance Maurer described is inescapable.
I start to think that it’s no wonder he and the other hikers have been so eager to come out here all year round, even as the nights get harsh and long.
The atmosphere — the cold, quiet, sparkling beauty — of a winter hike is a completely different way to get to know the woods.
“It feels more vibrant,” Maurer says. “And you feel more connected with the people that you’re with, because you’re sticking together and you’ve got a limited light source. It just feels a lot more engaging.”
Saskatchewan’s winters are famously long. Sometimes, as we head out into yet another day of heavy snow and biting wind, it can feel like winter is just something to endure, day by day, until spring finds us again.
But, since we do live here, we can endure the season if we must — or find ways to embrace it, however we can.
And as we hike our way through the woods around La Ronge, the light from our headlamps bobbing over the snowy landscape, I feel entirely glad to be out here in the cold and dark, enjoying winter on its own terms.
By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Dec 15, 2022 at 09:06