I found a wise old Eskimo hunter online in an Inuit chat room where he told me a story of a brave group of Eskimo hunters that rode an Umiak to hunt walrus and whale for the happy feet back in the igloo. An Umiak (Ooo-me-ack) is a boat that is common from Siberia to Greenland, all across the Arctic Circle. In my round about way of going at things, my quest for further knowledge on the Umiak led me to a snowshoe tour sign stuck in the snow outside of the Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury, Vermont. If I had not been scrunched forward in my car as a result of it being filled with a new-to-me couch that I was bringing home, I probably would have stopped right then. However, my cramped legs and hour plus drive left on my journey told me otherwise, so I elected to wait for another day to take on this snowy adventure.
Later on, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to conduct some research online to find out the mystery behind the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Snowshoe tours.
This online search brought me to my journey’s end when I encountered the symbiotic business relationship that Ben and Jerry’s has with a very well stocked local guide and outfitter called Umiak Outfitters. With this enhanced knowledge, it all finally came together, as I discovered that the Ben and Jerry’s Snowshoe Tours are brought to outdoor enthusiasts by Umiak who is on a mission to, among other things, expose as many people as possible to the unique value that snowshoeing can offer as a recreational outlet while also allowing their guests to enjoy time in the snow-covered natural surroundings of central Vermont.
After a few emails and telephone calls, the stage was set to bring you this story about ice cream, snowshoes, fondue, moonlight walks, moose, bear, sugar shacks, mountains and Cabot cheese… Please proceed.
It was Saint Patrick’s Day, 2013 when I awoke to the shrill call of the rooster but in a hysteric kind of way. The morning started like a good farm should and my trip to Stowe started shortly there after. Coffee in hand and the bumps and heaves of VT 100 South soon became my reality as I made my trip back to Stowe.
When I arrived at my destination, I found a big green van with wooden kayak racks labeled Umiak Outdoors parked outside where my guide J.J. was waiting nearby. After brief exchange of pleasantries, J.J. and I were talking like old friends as he began to show the general structure of each of Umiak Outfitters’ Guided Snowshoe Tours and programs.
Each hiker gets a pair of Tubbs Wilderness Snowshoes. These shoes have a single clip and therefore an easy binding to operate. The crampons are mellow enough for a beginner yet has enough gnar to hold on to even the icy steeps of Vermont in February. Umiak boasts about 60 pairs of these for rentals. Umiak also has an awesome selection of kids’ snowshoes, so no matter who is in your party, this shop will have you covered.
As an added incentive, Umiak offers a deal that allows you to apply your rental fee to the price of any snowshoes you elect to buy, which equates to the true definition of a win-win for those electing to try their snowshoe legs out on a more permanent basis.
After all the tour hikers are outfitted with their snowshoes, they are given a choice of their second vehicle of the day, a sled that would serve as their ticket back down the hill that they were about to climb.
The first sled is called HammerHead, a polymeric evolution of the Flexible Flyer but with wider skis, spring-loaded steering and a nice mesh basket to lay your little body in when cruising down the hill just like when you were a little kid.
The second sled is an inflatable unit called an AirBoard. This thing looks like a big, inflatable, peanut butter egg that has reinforced plastic runners on the bottom and handles up top. This sled offers a smoother ride then the Hammerhead and does not go quite as fast but either way, you will be in for a thrill taking either one of these bad boys for a trip down a hill.
Once everyone picks out their shoes and sleds the Umiak guides lead their group up Vermont Route 108 in to Smuggler’s Notch, which is closed to vehicle traffic from November until May. This hike is not steep but it is long and constantly uphill at a very mellow grade. It takes about an hour to ascend into the “S” turns of “The Notch” where the group rallies with Umiak staff who provide snacks and drinks such as Cold Hollow Hot Apple Cider and Cabot Cheddar Cheese, before picking out their lines for a thrilling sled back down to the bottom of the road. This ride is a nice long run, which is smooth and clear of trees.
This snowshoe tour is a great combination of fun. Shoeing, sledding and observing natural beauty from a perspective only available to those willing to make the hike in to Smuggler’s Notch during the winter months is certainly well worth the price of admission.
If you are looking for a more low-key thought-provoking tour, U.O. also offers Cabin Tours which are ideal for the nature and seclusion enthusiast. These hikes take on two forms, both of which traverse through pristine Vermont wilderness. The first culminates in a sugar shack about .75 miles along a 1.5 mile loop. It is heard that bear can be encountered on this trail.
This tour is conducted on clear and moonlit nights along the Joe Henry Quag Trail, down into a swampy drainage, (of course frozen and covered in snow during winter) through the Weissner Woods and over a small rise to a sugar shack where a warm fire will be a blaze and wine and cheese will be served. In this shack, I saw examples of snowshoes from the generations past adorned along the walls. Bearpaw, Alaskan and Hybrid styles of shoes were stashed in the little cabin lost in the woods, which is reserved only for Umiak guests to experience. On our walk away from this shack, we saw some fresh moose tracks that were some of the biggest I’d ever seen.
Umiak also provides a Gourmet Snowshoe Tour that is a bit more glamorous and ends at the Stowehof Resort on the south side of Edson Hill in Stowe. This resort offers 4-star accommodations in a rustic, tranquil setting with great views. A perfect place for a wedding or retreat, the Gourmet Snowshoe hike ends at the Stowehof with an Austrian Bouguignome featuring beef and shrimp, Cabot cheese, Laughing Moon chocolate fondues, candles, wine and a warm fireplace.
Umiak Outfitters is dedicated to getting people out in the snow using Nordic equipment and it shows by the diversity of the programs they offer. They can even help you ride on a Dog Sled if that is what you want. Just call them up and ask.
If you visit Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory in Waterbury, Vermont during the winter, you can sign up for the snowshoe tour at the Ben and Jerry’s Umiak Outfitters kiosk outside of the main entrance.
I would suggest taking the snowshoe tour first, because it includes a free factory tour that includes a free sample of the day’s flavor, a movie and a question-and-answer session with a factory guide. If you go on the hike, it pays for your factory tour and free ice cream sample. While your there, don’t forget to stop in at the gift shop, where all of Ben and Jerry’s flavors are marketed through t-shirts, hats, mugs, key chains, posters, and much more.
The Ben and Jerry’s Snowshoe Tours take over 200 people per year on a snowshoe hike leaving from the back of the Ben and Jerry’s Factory on a 1 mile loop that crosses two bridged streams and has a guided theme of nature, natural history, use of local resources such as Maple Sugaring, the History of Snowshoeing (like White Ash Frames and Buffalo Intestine for early Native American snowshoe models), Agriculture, the Dairy Trade and Local Wildlife. This hike is not very hard; it has a few ups, but nothing too serious, which makes it an achievable hike for most children and adults.
So go on out and experience the secret of the Umiak for yourself, your sense of adventure and your taste buds will surely thank you for it.
Many of the pictures that accompany this writing were taken by our guide J.J. His photography can be viewed at ©2013 www.jtjphotography.com.
Umiak Outdoor Outfitters Flagship Store in Stowe, Vermont’s Lower Village. Open EVERY day, 9-6. 849 S. Main Street – Rt. 100, Stowe, Vermont 05672 802-253-2317 www.umiak.com. For more information on the “Snowshoe and Ice Cream Too!” tour, visit http://umiak.com/htm/icecream_snowshoeing.html.