The history of snowshoes • Snowshoe Magazine
Snowshoeing has never in its long and rich history been as popular as it is today. Snowshoeing has become the fastest growing outdoor winter recreational activity and is now a global sport, having reached all corners of the world.
Between 1998 and 2004, snowshoeing participation among Americans aged 16 to 22 increased by 50 percent, while amateur levels increased by 300 percent (Outdoor Recreation Participation Study, Seventh Edition 2005).
Snowshoes are flying off the shelves of every sporting goods, campground and department store (and even more are purchased through online shopping options), with sales in the millions every year.
There are a ton of companies that produce a bunch of different models of snowshoes. But long before the days of Redfeather and Atlas, before the days of Faber and Tubbs, and before the advent of neoprene and aluminum, snowshoes were handcrafted from wood and rawhide. by skilled Native American artisans, not as a recreational item, but as a means of survival.
Despite the lack of archaeological evidence, it is believed that the earliest snowshoes originated in what is now Central Asia over 6,000 years ago. These precursors of snowshoeing are called snowskis. Basically, they were equivalent to a wooden plate attached to the bottom of each of the wearer’s feet. As tribes began to migrate from Central Asia, tribes moving west to present-day Northern Europe developed Nordic skis (Nordic skiing only crossed the Atlantic at the beginning. from the 1800s). During this time, the tribes who migrated east across the Bering Sea (Beringia) land bridge to what is now North America developed snowshoes.
But the evolution of snowshoes did not stop there. North America is made up of a vast array of environments, so it makes sense that snow in Alaska differs greatly from snow in the prairies, which in turn differs from snow along the east coast. These differences in snow and landscape have evolved snowshoes into a myriad of regional styles. As a result, a snowshoe in Alaska differs from a snowshoe in the prairies, and so on.
Simply put, the design of snowshoes has evolved to meet environmental needs and the wearer’s intended use. Another factor that impacted the design and evolution of snowshoes was the availability of materials. White ash, valued for its strength and flexibility, is the preferred framing material, but hickory, spruce, birch, elm and larch have also been used. Sinews – strips of untanned caribou, moose, or deer skin – were used for lacing.
There are four main traditional styles of snowshoeing: Huron, Alaskan, Ojibwa, and Bear Paw. There are also a number of lesser-known styles of traditional snowshoes, including the following: Pickerel, Beaver Tail, Attikamek, Elbow, and Green Mountain Bear Paw.
Traditionally, the task of making snowshoes was a job shared by men and women; the men made the frames while the women laced the area of the bridge with sinew. Frames were formed by bending lengths of lumber that had been split and cut to length from straight logs of the preferred wood at hand. Each racquet was made from a single length of wood, with the exception of the Ojibwa style racquets, which used two lengths per racquet. The lengths are then steamed and folded into the appropriate shape using a shape. Crossbars, usually two, were added and the tails were pinned together.
Once the rackets were dry and the holes drilled, the women took over by weaving the sinew lacing that filled the frames. Depending on the type of snow on which the snowshoes are intended to be used, the lacing would either be extremely thin, as is the case for snowshoes produced in Labrador and eastern Quebec where the snow is deep and dry, or much looser, as is the case in Alaska. Snowshoes also differed from season to season; with a looser weave used on snowshoes intended for use in wet spring snow and slush. The lacing was so thin in many oriental snowshoes, with intricate patterns woven into the bridge that they are considered works of art.
Manufacturers implemented neoprene as an alternative to sinew as a bridge material in traditional factory-made snowshoes in the 1960s. Neoprene suffers less abrasion from use than sinew and requires less equipment. maintenance, but it is usually not as finely woven, allowing less flotation. Companies have experimented with a number of alternative framing materials in addition to wood, such as aluminum and plastic.
Another difference is that factory-made shoes have been varnished to help maintain the wood and rawhide. This should be done on an annual basis. While factory-made, traditional-style snowshoes are functional, they lack the delicate beauty of a handmade pair. The webbing of most traditional factory-made snowshoes has become coarse and uses thick strips of rawhide. An exception to this is Faber, who produces some beautiful, traditional style tight-weave snowshoes – mainly their Montagny and Sport models.
The refinements found in handmade snowshoes (the fine, intricate weave of the bridge and the individuality of each pair) were the cost of mass production and the speed of manufacture. On the plus side, traditional factory-made snowshoes are relatively inexpensive (typically costing less than a pair of modern snowshoes) and readily available.
Unfortunately, traditional snowshoe making is a dying art. There are fewer and fewer practitioners of the craft, and the traditions are not carried on by today’s generation, making it difficult to find traditional handmade snowshoes.
For anyone interested in seeing incredible examples of traditional snowshoes, check out the online snowshoe exhibit on the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum website. The “Snowshoes: A Gift from Gluskabe” exhibit showcases some of the finest pairs of traditional snowshoes produced over the past two centuries. The exhibition can be found on:
www.umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum/Online%20Exhibits/Snowshoes/index.php. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed and will walk away with a new respect for the art of traditional rackets and their makers.
The Huron racquet, also known as the Maine, Michigan, or Algonquin racquet, is the most popular and recognizable of the traditional-style racquets, with its large, oval-shaped bridge area tapered to a tail of about eight inches – imagine a very big tear.
The toe may or may not have a slight upward curve to prevent snagging when going through brush – the curve is usually found in newer factory-made pairs. It has often been described as an oversized tennis racket with a hole in the middle, which, in general, is not that far from the truth. Its popularity stems from the fact that it is a good all-purpose snowshoe, suitable for a number of different snow conditions and environments.
Historically, its use has extended from what is now the northeastern United States (Maine, hence one of the names), to western Michigan and much of the prairies of Canada and from the United States (there is a lot of geographic overlap in racquet styles).
Huron snowshoes vary in size, depending on the size of the intended wearer. A pair designed for a youth or child can measure up to 8 ½ inches wide by 18 inches long, while on the other end of the spectrum, an adult pair can measure up to 15 inches wide by 72 inches. inches long. These are the extremes; the usual pair will go 36 to 48 inches long and 10 to 15 inches wide.
Photos provided by GV Snowshoes: http://www.gvsnowshoes.com.
This article originally appeared in the first and only print edition of Snowshoe Magazine, Winter 2005. If you are interested in a limited edition of our original Winter 2005 edition, please contact us for more information.