Sunday, February 13, 2011


I fell in love with snowshoes when I was yet a teenager and spent much of my time outdoors chasing all manner of wildlife and exploring hills and valleys and rivers and such. I was trying to learn how to catch fox in traps and having some success. But when the snow became too deep for easy walking even I had to concede to something more reasonable. However, I thought, if I had snowshoes there would be no safe fox for miles. I made my first pair from scrape plywood and a couple of miles of bailing twine. The result never lived up to the anticipation but the course was established, and snowshoes would become necessary winter gear for myself.

I broke my first snowshoe on my first winter camping trip. Some friends and I set up in the Whitewater River valley and explored the river bottom like we never had before. The open river winding through the snowy woods and meadows was a sight. Somewhere along the way we broke into a rowdy game of snow tag and I was running full out when I caught a toe or hit a hole or something. I went tail over teakettle and when the explosion of snow settled I looked down to see the frame of my shoe broken in two places. Little did I know then that I was about to embark on a lifetime of broken snowshoes, skis, canoes and other assorted outdoor gear. I still have that shoe with the metal splints I attached to keep it all together, but it was never the same.

This is a year for snowshoes if I ever saw one. There is no going into the woods without them and I dislike being confined to the plowed yard and roads. Even the powerful snowmobiles seldom leave the groomed trails – I asked a neighbor motor-head if he could break a shortcut ski-trail for me to the groomed trails of Big Aspen on his monster Polaris, or Ski Doo, or whatever it is. No, he reckoned, it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck out in those woods. So I broke the mile trail myself, on my snowshoes.

I’ve used bearpaw and beavertail style snowshoes but long ago became convinced longer and narrower Alaskans were the way to go. Ojibwas have a pointed toe but are otherwise about the same as Alaskans. I’ve tramped through a lot of brush on snowshoes and can’t say a pointed toe is any real advantage. They all get tangled and the best thing is to avoid the worst of the brush. When the course is more open the Alaskan, or pickerel, style allow a more natural stride but when the snow is deep like now, it’s still a leg burner. Rubber bindings are fast on and off, but for long hauls the A-type binding offers me more stability and I’m experimenting with the old wick binding described in The Snow Walkers Companion.

I like the art of traditional wood and rawhide. Now that I’ve re-laced a snowshoe of my own, I really appreciate the technique of the snowshoe craftsman. Even though I’ve broken a number of ash frames in various mishaps, I don’t see the day soon approaching when I’d buy a pair of the new metal and composite materials. They may work fine and some have a binding/crampon combo that would be awesome climbing hills, but the ash and rawhide shoes give me a feeling something akin to old double guns and felt hats. There is modern gear out there that may be as good or even better, but some of the old ways seem worth hanging on to.

It’s a real winter, here. Roofs are collapsing under snow loads and there’re plenty of 25 –35 below zero temps. The ski trails are excellent, grouse are comfortable in snow roosts, and the deer are yarded up. The woods are snow filled and beautiful and snowshoes provide the means to get out and see it. Neat.

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