I was just a teenager on the farm when I first strapped a pair of snowshoes onto my pack boots. Skeptical that that the long, wood-framed things with their gangly appearance and gaping webbing could possibly keep me vertical, much less on top of deep snowdrifts, I nonetheless took my first gingerly steps into the snow-filled woodland.
It was like learning to walk again. I stumbled, I mistakenly stepped onto my own snowshoes, I fell, but I soon managed to make slow progress in the powdery snow, deep drifts, and around and over obstacles.
The exhilaration of walking on the snow instead of punching through it was almost like walking on air. I was not unlike the cottontail rabbits or, more so, like the snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse—their tracks that I encountered here and there were all on top of the snow, just like mine. Indeed. Tentative and incredulous steps were soon replaced with enthusiasm, confidence, and wonderment.
Back in the day, snowshoeing was much more popular than perhaps it is today. In fact, from “The Snowshoe Book” written by W.G. Beers in 1874, snowshoeing clubs were once widespread throughout Canada and such clubs have their roots as far back as the French Canadian days.
Members of these clubs were noted for their penchant for brightly colored sashes and knitted stocking caps, or tuques as Canadians call stocking caps. And over the course of time, the choice of color for these outfits helped to distinguish the clubs and the area they were from. For example, blue was the choice of snowshoers from Montreal and red the color of preference for Quebec snowshoers.
Snowshoeing clubs became so popular that by 1907, 22 Canadian clubs organized the Canadian Snowshoer’s Union. It is recognized as perhaps the largest organization of snowshoers yet today. Then, as now, snowshoers would gather for moonlit treks, evening hikes to inns and taverns for a hearty meal and then back on the trail to home, as well as racing events between members and clubs.
Yet with these images of contemporary and late 19th century Canadian snowshoe clubs fresh in your mind, or of French fur trappers strapped into snowshoes while checking their miles of trap lines, one may be surprised to learn that the snowshoe dates back much farther in history than even this. Believe it or not, some 6,000 years: before the North American Indian, before the Eskimo, to perhaps around 4,000 BC!
Basically there are four types of snowshoes, in addition to many styles of lightweight, high-tech modern snowshoes.
Of the traditional wood-frame snowshoes, the “Bearpaw,” a favorite among trappers, is crafted in three forms: a narrower, modified Bearpaw for hills and mountainous terrain, a square-tailed model for less tail drag, and the more common, standard Bearpaw. The Bearpaw’s compactness and generous width gives the wearer mobility in wooded terrain and stability on slopes.
The “Michigan” model is probably the most widespread of the traditional models because of its supreme versatility in varied conditions. Michigans are long and teardrop-shaped with an upturned nose that narrows posteriorly into a distinctive tail. They are a good choice for trails and open country.
The “Alaskan,” a snowshoe built for speed and deep snow, is longer and narrower than other models. These shoes are handsome, comfortable and, despite their length, surprisingly easy to maneuver.
Because of the Alaskan’s narrow design, a person’s legs need not be spread far apart when walking. I have had little difficulty navigating in the woods with these snowshoes. In fact, I’ve often used the shoes’ size to push down and walk over brush. However, turning around or backing up is tricky with snowshoes like Michigans and Alaskans.
Another less common shoe is the “Ojibwa” or “Objibwe.” This snowshoe, because of its two-piece construction, incorporates pointed tips that slice through the snow. The design doesn’t allow snow to accumulate on the tips. Its overall length and width, comparable to the Alaskan, is suited for similar conditions.
With modern times comes modern snowshoes. The combination of lightweight materials and technology has made a snowshoe that, though lacking in the beauty and elegance of traditional snowshoes, equal or surpass conventional snowshoes in many ways.
Couple the technological advancements of modern snowshoes with their highly evolved binding systems and you have a snowshoe that’s hard to beat. Choices are numerous depending on your experience and intended use. Models especially built for hiking and backpacking, recreational and sport, and running and fitness are available. Many sporting goods stores carry wide selections of modern snowshoes, but some traditional models often have to be ordered.
Even though I prefer the aesthetics of traditional snowshoes, I also own a pair of modern snowshoes. I was at first doubtful and not very fond of their appearance, but I soon discovered you can’t judge a book by its cover. The shoes are extremely durable and are so lightweight and maneuverable that it’s as though I’m not wearing snowshoes at all. The bindings, heel spikes, and crampons provide this comfortable snowshoe with dependable traction unmatched in any snowshoe I’ve ever strapped on.
Snowshoeing is fun and can fit most any winter outdoor activity. If you like to jog, there’s a snowshoe for you. Or, if it’s just a leisurely hike on a wooded trail, there’s a snowshoe made for you. There are even snowshoes made just for children.
With snowshoes, one can go where skis cannot. We can go where no one else can. As well, we get to experience the pleasure of winter landscapes by effortlessly gliding over deep snows and observing wildlife and their tracks, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.