Snowshoe Tracks - headfirstadventures

Walking on Snow

Traveling by snowshoe is an ancient practice made easier by modern technology. Putting something on your feet to spread out your weight over snow is a fairly simple idea, and today’s snowshoes descend from technology used for thousands of years. Snowshoes make it easier to experience the crisp winter environment, to be surrounded by the sight of bright white snow on dark trees and rocks, to see the sun shine on evergreens garnished in fluffy white.


People have been using primitive skis to hunt in snow for at least 8,000 years, but historical accounts suggest that snowshoes are not quite so old. Histories of snowshoeing available online seem to take their ancient history from The Snowshoe Book, a 1971 work by William Osgood and Leslie Hurley. Osgood and Hurley cite a number of sources in their book including images from the Public Archives of Canada.

According to The Snowshoe Book, snowshoes have probably been around for about 6,000 years. Skis were historically favored in Asia and Europe, but when people began to traverse deep powdery snow in North America they began to build snowshoes more.

Aboriginal people across North America built snowshoes in a variety of patterns. Snowshoe shapes were influenced by conditions prevalent in the local environment – broader snowshoes for open areas with deep snow, smaller snowshoes for thick forests. They were extensively used for hunting in winter.

Primitive snowshoes were made with branches and bark, but as the craft evolved, better techniques were used. Snowshoes would be made with a wooden frame, often with crossbars for support. Rawhide webbing woven across the frame created decking to give the shoe more surface area. A gap in the decking for the front of the foot to bend through made walking easier.


Seventeenth century French explorers and trappers were among the first Europeans to closely examine the Native snowshoe and adopt it for their own use.


The effective use of snowshoes to make winter raids during the French and Indian War led to widespread adoption of snowshoes by white people in the regions of North America where deep snow was common. Captain Robert Rogers led English colonists in using snowshoes for military purposes. The 1758 Battle on Snowshoes near Lake George convinced military leaders of their importance. Militia in the northern colonies would be outfitted with snowshoes.

As more Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns settled in North America in the nineteenth century, the ski began to gain popularity across the continent. But the snowshoe was never fully displaced for cross country travel. Community snowshoe outings were common in New England and recreational snowshoe clubs blossomed in Canada. In 1907, 22 Canadian snowshoe clubs formed the Canadian Snowshoer’s Union.


Snowshoes continued to be widely used in the twentieth century. The British government ordered thousands of snowshoes for their troops during the First World War. In 1928, an American Antarctic expedition led by aviator and explorer Richard Byrd brought 75 pairs of snowshoes along.


The second half of the twentieth century saw numerous innovations in snowshoe construction. Within a matter of decades, the ancient snowshoe of wood and rawhide would be overtaken by shoes made of light metals, plastics, and synthetic materials. In the 1960s the use of rawhide began to decline in favor of neoprene decking, which was more durable and less attractive to nibbling animals. In the early 1970s the aluminum framed snowshoe was developed. In the 1980s new synthetic materials used in decking made snowshoes even lighter.

Recreational snowshoeing grew in popularity during the 1990s. A resurgence in snowshoe racing in Colorado helped bring attention to snowshoes. Soon, major snowshoe manufacturers would add an additional set of traction spikes directly on the decking of the snowshoe near the user’s heel. In the mid 1990s MSR introduced a frameless snowshoe made of rigid plastic, an idea copied by other manufacturers. The company later introduced tail extenders, allowing the user to adjust the surface area of the snowshoe for different loads and conditions. Currently, metal framed snowshoes and all-plastic construction compete for popularity.

Most snowshoes today have slightly upturned front edges. A hinged footpad has metal spikes on the bottom for traction. Many models include a curve and a non-metal surface on the bottom of the footpad that deters (but will not completely prevent) snow from sticking to the bottom and forming a big snowball.


A big snowshoe is not great for picking your way between boulders, and it won’t prevent ice from breaking underneath you.

snowy trail - headfirst

But if you want to head across snow unbroken by human footsteps, it’s a great way to go.

Snow in Harriman

Snowshoes add traction and smooth out terrain. So even with big boards on your feet in snow that isn’t very deep, you may still use less energy than if you post-holed and sloshed your way up the hill. Feet without snowshoes often sink into snow at awkward angles. But the large surface area of snowshoes flatten out your steps and make it less likely that your ankles will turn at awkward angles as they sink into uneven snow.

Ice in Harriman

Snowshoeing is basically hiking with additional equipment. Gaiters that are designed to keep snow out of boots will be helpful. It is generally recommended to wear wool socks, a thermal base layer shirt and pants made of synthetic material or wool, a waterproof jacket, preferably waterproof pants, and hat and gloves. You can add or remove insulation layers depending on how you feel. Waterproof hiking boots are highly recommended, but you may or may not want insulated boots. Note that snow in different regions may be more or less saturated with water, which could change the importance of waterproof clothing. In the old days, furs, wool, and high moccasins served to outfit snowshoers.

Bringing drinking water is a must in the cold and challenging conditions of winter, and even on a short outing some snacks will be nice. Some people like trekking poles too. They can help you balance and push off more easily but to me they are extra equipment that prevent your hands from being free and are not worth the trouble. As always, a map, compass, knife, and emergency kit are recommended.

People have traveled through winter landscapes for thousands of years. Today’s snowshoers are usually outfitted differently than their predecessors, but they can still feel the snow crunch underneath them as their body heats up surrounded by the cold air of winter.

Snowshoeing Harriman - Head First


Head First Adventure Checklist.

First Skiers – A History of Skis. National Geographic.

Layering Basics, REI.

Meany Jr., Joseph F. “Frigid Fury: The Battle on Snowshoes, March 1758.” The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.

Osgood, William and Leslie Hurley. The Snowshoe Book. The Stephen Greene Press, 3rd Ed., 1973.

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN, (Retired), (1888-1957) Naval History and Heritage Command.

Prater, Gene. Snowshoeing. The Mountaineers Books, 2002.

Tubbs Snowshoes Through the Years.

Tucker, Jim. “History of Snowshoeing.” United States Snowshoe Association.

Historic Images: Library of Congress and US Navy. Click on images for source.

Forage War

On January 20, 1777, colonial militiamen waded across the icy Millstone River in water above their knees. The maneuver enabled them to get around the cannons their enemy had set up at a bridge, defeat a large foraging party, and capture tons of supplies the British had been trying to take to their winter encampments. The Battle of Millstone, sometimes called the Battle of Somerset Court House, was one fight in a series of engagements known as the Forage War.

Millstone River

For much of late 1776, George Washington’s forces had been enduring defeats and were forced increasingly farther out of New York. They retreated across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania . As the British began settling into winter quarters, Washington feared for the survival of the Revolutionary cause. He decided to act boldly.

On Christmas night the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River in small boats. Early the next morning they surprised the 1200 strong Hessian garrison at Trenton and routed them. Washington won another important victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. The Continental Army took to winter quarters in Morristown and the British to their own winter garrisons.

A major winter task for each side was to preserve the fighting shape of their army until campaigning began again in the spring. For this purpose the British sent numerous foraging parties into the countryside, where they were often met by militia. Dozens of engagements are recorded for the months when the main forces of the armies were camped in winter quarters.

On January 20,  Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby commanded a force of about 500, including British regulars, Hessian soldiers, and a pair of Three-Pounder cannon. The formidable company was on a successful pillage mission when they began loading their supply wagons around Van Nest’s Mill in Millstone, New Jersey.

Under orders from Washington, Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson brought out 400 New Jersey militiamen, together with a company of about 50 men from the Susquehanna Valley area armed with rifles and muskets. The latter were commanded by Captain Robert Durke.

After battling around the bridge, the American forces broke through the ice at the Millstone’s edge, forded the river, and surprised the enemy with a renewed attack. The British were driven from the field, leaving most of the pilfered supplies behind. The Americans captured 107 horses, 49 wagons, 115 cattle, 70 sheep, 40 barrels of flour, and numerous other supplies including cheese, butter, ham, and other foodstuffs. The Americans suffered 3 to 5 men killed and several wounded, while the British took away more casualties in wagons as they retreated.

Van Nest’s Mill is long gone, and the bridge over the Millstone has been replaced with a sturdy causeway. Just downstream (north) of the bridge, a small dam lays across the river. The water that spills over it still gets cold, but gives no indication that a bloody battle over critical food supplies was fought very close to here.

Manville Causeway


Battles and Skirmishes of the American Revolution in New Jersey.

Everts and Peck, History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey, 1881.

Rees, John U. “’The road appeared to be full of red Coats…’: An Episode in the Forage War: The Battle of Millstone, 20 January 1777.”

This Day in History, Jan 20, 1777: Battle of Millstone, New Jersey.

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Road Under Paulinskill Viaduct

I like the new Head First Adventures site, and I hope you do too. I think it is more visually appealing and user friendly than before. I also like that I have featured posts at the top of the page. This way I won’t have to worry how every new post will make the top of the frontpage look, and I can feature some of my favorite posts. I will make some visual and organizational adjustments but I’m pretty happy with this. The new theme should give me more inspiration to do great visuals as well as try different post styles.

The theme (site layout) is Twenty Fourteen, a free theme from WordPress. I tried using Oxygen, which was listed as a free theme but appeared to require downloading packages that cost money if you wanted it to look any good. At the moment, this free theme does everything well enough for me.

I do almost all of the writing and take the majority of the photos, but many of the adventures here would not have even happened or would have been less fun were it not for the fine fellowship that I have in adventures near and far. Friends and family make it possible. Also, it takes a team to make good video (unless maybe you are Les Stroud) and we have a great one in the works.

Naturally, I updated the page late at night when it would be least disruptive, but still I’m excited to see what we come up with… going Head First!


Hamilton Stone

The Dueling Grounds

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr left Manhattan in small boats with their companions. They were heading to New Jersey to duel with pistols. The rules of the affair were well-established, as were the dueling grounds where they would meet. After the shots rang out below the rocky Palisades, Hamilton fell mortally wounded while Burr was left standing.

While it is well-known that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, fewer people realize that the deadly meeting occurred not far from the Lincoln Tunnel, a busy traffic artery where thousands of people travel between New York and New Jersey each day, usually for less bloody purposes. In fact, the dueling grounds are marked on Google Maps.


There are even some reviews, but they don’t all seem legit.


Historians differ on exactly where the dueling grounds were, but the Google location is at least close. It is difficult to determine exactly where the grounds were because the ledge where gentleman went to prove their willingness to fire pistols at each other was long ago leveled to make way for a railroad between the cliffs and the shore.

River Road

Hamilton and Burr were certainly not the first, nor the last, to duel in Weehawken. They knew exactly where the challenge would take place. While dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, resourceful gentlemen found a great spot to conduct the affair hidden from view and with a convenient escape back to their homes. About twenty feet above the shore of the Hudson River was a grassy ledge about 60 by 100 feet in area. The steep slopes of the Palisades sheltered it from view.

A historic marker on top of the Palisades gives an idea of how well-known the dueling grounds must have been. This is where the most respected men in society came to fire pistols at each other over perceived insults.

Weehawken Dueling Grounds Marker

The marker sits next to a large bust of Alexander Hamilton. The town of Weehawken was not interested in raising a monument to Jersey-born Aaron Burr, despite the advocacy of the Aaron Burr Association.

Hamilton Bust and Flag

Even Alexander Hamilton’s oldest son died after being wounded at the Dueling Grounds, three years before his father would meet the same fate. It almost seems like a mean joke that the markers are on a street called Hamilton Avenue.

Hamilton-Burr Duel

In 1804, Hamilton and Burr were two men who had made major impacts on the American government but were past the apexes of their political careers.

alexander-hamiltonAlexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the West Indies in 1757. His intelligence and drive attracted benefactors who sent him to New York for education, where he attended King’s College, later renamed Columbia University. He was an aide to George Washington during the American Revolution and showed his courage in many engagements, including the siege of Yorktown.

After the war, Hamilton became a prominent advocate of a more centralized national government. He collaborated with James Madison and John Jay on The Federalist, a series of letters advocating the adoption of a new Constitution. When Washington assumed the presidency, he appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury, the first person to serve in this post. Hamilton put the federal government on a more solid financial foundation while strengthening its power and its ties to wealthy merchants. He later again worked with Washington to reorganize the army during a crisis with France in late 1790s.

aaron-burrAaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756. His father, who died when Aaron was young, was the president of the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. Aaron Burr began his studies at the College of New Jersey at the age of 13 and he graduated at 17. He had many roles in the American Revolution, the last of which was protecting territory in New York against loyalist guerrillas. After the war he became a well-to-do attorney and entered politics.

The presidential election of 1800, when the highest office passed from Federalist hands to Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, proved to be the undoing of both Burr and Hamilton. Or rather, it presented both men with opportunities to wreck their political careers – and they grabbed the opportunity as hard as they could.

Party politics were new to Americans, and some of Hamilton’s poor decisions in the Federalist campaign to re-elect John Adams could be excused. But writing, signing, and circulating a secret letter trashing Adams, which, not surprisingly, was found and published by the opposing party, was an insult that caused his influence in Federalist circles to wane.

Aaron Burr should have fared much better. He was on the ballot as Jefferson’s running mate, and the two of them won the election partly due to Burr’s ability to hold New York. But because Jefferson and Burr got the same number of electoral votes, the presidency could legally go to either one of them, and Congress would have to choose the victor. Even though Republicans had clearly intended Jefferson to be president, Burr withdrew to his home instead of conceding. He may have hoped that Federalists in Congress would give him the presidency because they really did not like Jefferson. Hamilton tried to lobby for Jefferson, but his effectiveness was probably limited by his recent bungling.

Hamilton’s attitude is revealed in a letter.

Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power.

But Congress was convinced to go with Jefferson. Naturally, Jefferson no longer trusted Burr and didn’t give him a major role in the administration. He chose Burr’s rival George Clinton as his 1804 running mate.

Burr, seeing that he was on the outs, tried to get his career going again with a run for governor of New York in 1804. Again Hamilton campaigned against him. Though it is unclear how powerful Hamilton’s influence was, he would soon draw Burr’s wrath.

Burr read a letter in a newspaper that said “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government…I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

Burr may have been looking for an excuse to challenge a man he saw as a rival or an impediment to his political comeback. Whatever his motivation, he demanded Hamilton answer what “despicable opinion” he may have expressed or disavow the remarks in the letter. Hamilton dodged Burr’s questioning and on June 27, 1804, a challenge was given and accepted. Amazingly, both men attended the July 4 banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati while the days to the duel counted down.

While many men died in duels, many more lived through the deadly ritual to uphold one’s honor. Typically a few shots would be fired by each opponent, and honor was restored before anyone got seriously hurt.

Accounts differ as to whether Hamilton or Burr fired first on July 11, but it was Burr’s bullet that found its mark. Hamilton fell with a mortal wound. Hamilton’s shot went high. He may have fired involuntarily after being hit by Burr’s bullet or have misjudged the trigger pull. It is even suggested that he tried to cheat by setting a hair trigger on his pistol which he then miscalculated.

Hamilton was carried back to his boat and died at home. Burr was portrayed as a bloodthirsty man who killed a noble statesman. He was charged with murder by New York and New Jersey prosecutors. He fled to the South, then resigned as vice president and headed west.

Perhaps proving Hamilton’s charges of being overly ambitious and self-serving, Burr soon became embroiled in a failed conspiracy to take over some of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and was charged with treason. After his acquittal, Burr went to Europe in 1807 and returned to new York to practice law in 1810. He was able to get his murder charges dropped and died a private citizen in 1836.

The death of Hamilton prompted greater outcry against dueling. The practice was condemned more vocally by opponents and many gentleman’s societies passed resolutions against it. A monument to Hamilton at the dueling site was destroyed in the 1820s by locals who saw it as glorifying a barbaric practice. Another monument to Hamilton was destroyed by vandals in the 1930s, and the current bust was placed at the top of the cliff in 1935. Behind the bust sits a stone that legend claims Hamilton rested against after being shot.

Hamilton Stone
But tradition died slowly. According to Joseph Fulford Folsom, the last confrontation on the Weehawken dueling grounds occurred in 1845, and nobody was hurt because the duelists’ seconds had loaded their pistols with cork. Too bad they didn’t have little flags with “BANG!” written on them.

The Hamilton-Burr monument is a good stop along the scenic Palisades – though it would be easier to access if a stairway north of the monument wasn’t locked shut.

Palisades Stairs

When America was a young nation, a little ledge that no longer exists served as a field for a violent and illegal social ritual popular among the most respected men in society. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is one of the stories along the road, one event that sticks out in a record of change.



“The Duel,” The American Experience, PBS

Folsom, Joseph Fulford. “The Burr-Hamilton Duel.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, January 1929, Volume XIV, No 1. Newark, NJ

Larini, Rudy. “Dueling Over Burr: Society, Weehawken at odds over bust,” The Star-Ledger, May 16, 1993. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.

Letter from Edward J. Kirk to Harry B. Weiss, July 29, 1960. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis – 1800. Dec 23, 1800. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Risjord, Norman K. Jefferson’s America, 1760-1815, Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Van Winkle, David. Old Bergen: History and Reminiscences with Maps and Illustrations. 1902.

Bonus Ruins

A few days after my post about Roaming in the Ramapos, I went back to the Ramapo Mountains to get some fall foliage views and photos. I also decided to head farther down the road from where I turned back last time to see if I could make it to the border with New York.

Not more than a minute down the road from where I had stopped on my last trip, I spotted a large stone structure poking out from behind the brush.

Stone House

When I went around the back of the house I saw a cellar built into the hillside behind.

Cellar at Abandoned House

There was nothing inside the cellar except for graffiti. There wasn’t a whole lot of graffiti, but the spray paint on the walls read like a checklist of rural delinquency: penis drawing, swastika, satanic or occult signs, and a couple of sexually explicit and violent messages.

Much more interesting was the inside of the big house. It had once been several floors high, but all that remained of its height were the walls and chimney.

Chimney Stack

The easiest way into the house is through one of the windows, but there is a stairway in front.

Old Stairs

And just like the other house nearby, there is an abandoned car out back.

Overturned Car

I am pretty sure that I did make it to the border of New York after I left the abandoned house, because I got to a place with features and road junctions that looked right based on my map. However, I wasn’t sure if the land on the New York side of the border was private property, so I didn’t mill around and take pictures. Regardless, it was another cool hike in the Ramapo Mountains.

Scarlett Oak Pond Morning Mist

Exploring History.