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National parks in winter

Snowshoeing off to admire the galaverna of the Casentino forests

In central Italy, on the Apennine ridge between Tuscany and Romagna, there's an enchanted forest…
It could, of course, be the classic beginning of a fairy tale, but we're not in the realms of fantasy and imagination but in the kingdom of His Majesty Winter and his icy consort, the Cold Season.

The area we're talking about is that of the Parco Nazionale del Falterona, of Campigna and the Casentino forests, a large, unbroken, green cloak (white in winter) covering 10,601 hectares, a stretch of the Apennines that runs from the Passo dei Mandrioli to Monte Falterona. "A full-blown, wild botanical garden" (Pratesi-Tassi), these extensive beech woods, mixed with silver fir and Norway spruce, have managed to remain intact right through to the present day thanks to careful management of the area over the last thousand years; this was begun by the monks of Camaldoli, continued by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and is now the responsibility of the government since the area became part of State lands.

In this particular climatic zone, which is influenced by its proximity to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas, there is abundant snow and also - more so than in other areas - a phenomenon known in Italian as galaverna: a myriad of ice needles that, pushed by the prevailing wind, form on branches, tree trunks and pretty much everything else, forming a fantastic and highly-original landscape not dissimilar to a strange seabed.
Related to snow and frost, galaverna (which in Tuscany is also called bioccio or bruscello) is a natural wonder that only occurs in the intermediate seasons of spring and autumn in the mountains of central Italy. It sometimes results in considerable damage, with the sudden snapping of tree trunks ("… e senza alcun rattento li rami schianta, abbatte e porta fori", Dante, Inferno IX, 69); more often, fortunately, it provides a fabulous experience for those fortunate excursionists who brave the cold and have the good fortune to witness it. But like all magic spells (which is what it is), it doesn't last long, and just the merest hint of warmth from a ray of sunlight is enough for it to vanish, as if by magic, into simple, ordinary drops of water.

To enjoy such experiences and admire magnificent landscapes, there's no need to undertake goodness knows what expedition to the Arctic Circle; all you have to do is come to these forests, put on a pair of snowshoes, and start walking. The whole area can of course be crossed using either downhill or cross-country skis but in my view, given the particular contours of the land and above all the thick web of beech trees that almost completely cover the area, it's much more practical to use snowshoes, the ancient method of winter locomotion. Long considered obsolete, and hung up years ago on rusty nails in mountain cabins and refuges, snowshoes are the product (at least in Europe) of a mountain culture and a knowledge of how to adapt in order to move around in the mountains even in very deep snow. Made with wood and dried animal gut, they were developed in the distant past by semi-nomadic peoples inhabiting Arctic areas, for example the Inuit, the Athabaskan and the Algonquin Indians, who used them to go hunting. In recent years they have been rediscovered by the outdoor pursuits industry, which has designed and mass-produced modern versions, applying the latest technology and using lighter and more modern materials like aluminium alloys and plastic.
But why all this success after so many years of neglect? Well, let's consider the pros and cons.
Snowshoes enable you to walk in woody or rough terrain, going places skis can't go and making it possible to carry heavy loads. They distribute bodyweight over a larger surface, thereby applying less pressure on the blanket of snow so you don't sink in too much.
They are light, non-bulky to carry and easy to use. The forward-movement technique depends somewhat on the type of terrain and the quality of the snow, but involves easily-grasped movements to which one can adapt with the same naturalness as walking, without having to learn any special ascent or descent techniques, as you do with skis. Used together with sticks, it's always possible to place them flat, thereby maintaining good equilibrium and a good pace, both on the level and when climbing. Going downhill is a real pleasure, because you can feel what it's like to be a deer, jumping and sinking into the snow as you execute exciting rapid slides in the snow combined with little jumps.
Until a few years ago, when the scarcioni or the ciaspole (dialect terms for snowshoes) were still of the old-fashioned kind, there could be problems on hard snow or when the slope was too steep. Now, thanks to a semi-moveable, quick-fastening device similar to that used in downhill skiing, and to crampons positioned on the front and sides, this form of equipment has become much more technically-advanced and safe, even on icy patches.
In short, in a more natural way than with skis, snowshoes enable you to penetrate the muffled and magical world of the white forest, to follow the trail of animals, and to witness one of the most wonderful shows that Mother Nature gives us each year… the arrival of the Cold Season and her royal consort, icy Winter.

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Text and pictures Gianfranco Bracci
Translation: Jeremy Carden

 
 
 
   
 
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