“Winter’s long. Embrace it, don’t hate it.”
Those are the wise words of 64-year-old Andy Dragt, founder of Slow and Steady Hikers in Calgary. Dragt escapes the city as often as he can, even in the winter.
I interviewed him over the phone last month. I was curious to find out more about the popular hiking club and to get his take on one of my favourite winter activities — snowshoeing, which is basically hiking with snowshoes.
“We did a hike last week up Grizzly Peak, it was a steep little bugger of a hike with patchy snow,” Dragt says. “My advice, you want to pace yourself, if you can’t hold a normal conversation on the trail you’re going too fast. If you’re gasping you should just slow down a little, where you’re going is going to be there, it isn’t going anywhere. I‘ve done the tortoise and the hare game and the tortoise usually wins.”
There was a time when Dragt belonged to a competitive hiking group. He and the other members would rush up and down a mountain, rarely stopping to take in the beauty that surrounded them.
Eventually, Dragt realized that he didn’t enjoy the competitive pace anymore. At his wife’s suggestion, he created his own hiking group.
Dragt started by posting a few hiking events on Meet-up (a platform where events are arranged to unite people with similar interests).
“I thought Slow and Steady was a great name for the club,” said Dragt. “I thought if I could get a bunch of like-minded individuals of different abilities together, and then work on encouraging our own speed. The philosophy of the hiking club is that we do it at a slow and steady pace. We take time to smell the roses. It’s not a race to the summit. We’re in the mountains after all. What’s the hurry to get back home?”
Slow and Steady Hikers has become a popular outdoor club in Calgary. With over 11,000 members, people can walk, hike, snowshoe and take part in a multitude of other activities while enjoying nature and, of course, the mountains. Events are scheduled every week on the Slow and Steady Hikers Meet-up page.
The corporate headquarters of Meet-up located in New York reached out to Dragt to let him know that the Slow and Steady Hiking Club is one of the most prolific Meet-up clubs they have.
Dragt says that this is partially due to the fact that Slow and Steady has 179 organizers. Dragt has trained interested members and delegated the role of organizer for hundreds of outdoor events, which has helped to support and grow the membership.
The best part of the club is that people of all strengths and abilities can participate.
There’s an opportunity to meet and make connections with others looking for the same type of experiences.
“We do everything from walking in Fish Creek Park to climbing big mountains,” says Dragt. “People find us through Meet-up or Facebook. I saw a trend right from the start, two thirds of the club is made up of women and the members of the club range in age from 40 to 80-years-old.”
“We went on this one hike and there were members in their 70s & 80s and they left us in their dust. They weren’t even getting winded. Some of these people have been doing this for 40 years. Age is not a barrier.”
Slow and Steady has an Introduction to Snowshoes program. Participants learn about proper gear and clothing, how to handle an emergency and how to become a competent snowshoer.
Dragt says it’s all baby steps. The beginner program starts out with really easy trails, with lots of stops, lots of talking and by the end of the program, you become comfortable snowshoeing.
“One of the selling points of snowshoeing is that we have six months of winter, at a minimum. It’s awesome – it extends your hiking season to all year, just add some snowshoes. It’s such good exercise, and it makes you a stronger hiker. ” Dragt says, “Plus, the mountains in the winter are just beautiful.”
“We can be in the mountains in awful weather and we’re like ‘wow this is so much better than being in the city’,” Dragt says. “I’ve done Chester Lake 100 times, it’s one of our snowshoe go-tos, and every time it’s still beautiful.”
Dragt says he usually starts snowshoeing in December in Banff and Kananaskis. Areas Dragt recommends for snowshoeing are Rummel Lake, Sawmill Snowshoe Loop, and Hogarth Lakes Loop Snowshoe Trail.
Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul – John Muir