By Indrek Kongats
When it comes to a real wintertime experience, it is snowshoeing. Nothing beats trekking over that white stuff that falls out of the sky, usually in copious amounts at this time of year. I’m not talking about using snowshoes on packed down trails when it is even questionable if you really need them. I’m talking about using snowshoes when you really need them— over two or more feet of snow, blazing a trail and going where no man has gone before!
Imagine walking on a cloud, if we only could. Walking over deep snow with snowshoes is just like that heavenly experience— step out of those shoes and you’ll find yourself waist deep in it.
The original concept of snowshoeing was never for sport, as it was for survival; not quite as old as fire, but definitely older than the wheel and considerably more useful in winter months. Invented over 6000 years ago, snowshoes carried Asian migrants across the Bering Sea to North America, giving birth to the Inuit and Native American cultures. It wasn’t until after this time that the snowshoe began to evolve into its modern form, handcrafted from wood and raw hide by the Inuit, Huron, Algonquin, Cree and Ojibwe.
Living in northern climates meant gathering food and fur during the harsh and unforgiving winter months that lasted up to six to eight months, depending how far north you were. Areas north of the 49th parallel receive annual snowfalls of five to 10 feet, enough for a full grown man to completely disappear in. Setting trap lines was and still is the number one use for snowshoes in the great white north and in the Rocky Mountains region. Not only were they used to get to the traps, but they were used as shovels to dig the traps out from under several feet of snow. In extreme cases, they were also used to dig snow caves to ride out a blizzard when travel was impossible and staying put meant staying alive.
Today’s small high-tech snowshoes are designed for sport more than they are for survival and will do little to help you cross open spaces of deep snow, especially with an overnight pack strapped to your back. Although aluminum frames are strong, they can still break and are harder to repair in the wild. A wooden frame can be lashed back together with a sapling, sharp knife and strip of rawhide. The webbing created by weaving strands of rawhide has been replaced by solid sheets of modern, indestructible synthetic materials. The problem with this is that the snow rides on top of the shoes and makes them heavy. Native Americans could have used solid hides the same way, but knew that if the snow fell through the webbing, the shoe would be lighter and easier to use.
The length of the shoe depends on the weight it needs to support over loose freshly fallen snow. If you are a child, then a shoe roughly a length up to your waist might be enough. If you are a heavy adult carrying a pack, the shoe should be longer to give you maximum lift. Besides increasing the length, you can also increase the width of the shoe, but the wider they are, the slower and more awkward they will be to use. On the other hand, the shorter they are, the easier they are to maneuver with in tight quarters, but provide less float.
The argument for the design of high tech shoes is that they are lighter, have better bindings and have crampons on their underside to help climb steeper slopes. Going straight up a snow covered slope is not easy and is exhausting with whatever snowshoe you have on; it is a lot wiser to traverse the slope or in extreme climbing situations, side step up it. Keep in mind that the number one rule in all outdoor activities, and especially in survival, is to keep from getting hot, sweaty and exhausted; slow and steady is the safer route to go. Another rule, equally important, is to not to risk injury to yourself or damage to your equipment, both of which can lead to death in remote locations and situations.
Traditional wooden snowshoes in the beaver tail style of the Huron are universally considered the best, a proven design that has stood the test of time. The body of the shoe provides float, while the extended tail acts like a rudder keeping the shoe from spinning as you walk and the upturned nose rides up and over the snow. The Huron, if elongated and with points at both ends, is
called the Ojibwe, a shoe designed to travel quickly over wide open spaces with a very pronounced ski tip-like design. By removing the tail of the Huron, you get the Bear Paw, the forefather of the modern high-tech shoe design, but only useful in extremely tight quarters or in conjunction with a snowmobile fitting neatly under the seat or strapped along the side.
A Native American would have a pair of each depending on what task he or she had to perform and what conditions existed at that moment. The footwear for use with the snowshoe is equally important. Native Americans used a style of moccasin called a Mukluk. This soft-soled moccasin was easy to slip into the rawhide bindings and stayed secure. Today’s hiking boots with Vibram soles don’t slip easily into the rawhide style bindings and are hard to stay fastened. High-tech snowshoes have thus developed bindings that resemble snowboard bindings, with quick release ratchets that can really clamp down on stiff boots.
So rather than displaying your “old snowshoes” over the mantle, take them down, dust them off and give them a whirl over some freshly fallen snow. Oh, and don’t forget those mukluks!