Fresh powder snow doesn’t just look beautiful, it also swallows noise, making everything impossibly silent. But walking through deep snow is so strenuous that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy this simple pleasure — unless you strap on a pair of snowshoes. A recent article on the excellent 10engines blog sparked my interest to read more about the history of wooden snowshoes.
It is believed that snowshoes were invented in northern Asia about 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. (Since the materials don’t last that long, there is no archaeological evidence.) Historians think that the ancestors to the Inuits and Native Americans were using (or at least carrying) snowshoes, when they migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Street.
The Inuit and Native Americans (most notably the Athabascans, Algonquin, Attikamek, Montagnais, Cree, Naskapi, Labrador and Iroquois) mastered the development of snowshoe making. Although snowshoes were also used in Europe, mainly in the Alps and Scandinavia, their development was not as sophisticated as of those across the Atlantic. In Europe there was a stronger focus on the development of skis to facilitate walking and traveling through deep snow. The snowshoe, in its advanced form, was introduced in Europe only when the first settlers brought them back from North America around 1600.
For Native Americans that were living in the northern part of the continent, snowshoes were essential for hunting and gathering materials in wintertime. They were manufactured with great care, and with materials that were best suited for the job — the hard wood of the white ash and the durable hide of the caribou or moose. Occasionally moose intestines or tendons were used as well. If none of these were available, sealskins for the top section and larch for the frame were substituted. The introduction of the cow by the Europeans lead to a greater use of cowhide, a practice that continues to this day. Native Americans fastened their moccasins with leather thongs to the snowshoe.
Different indigenous tribes constructed different types of snowshoes, depending on which design fitted their local topography and snow conditions best. There are literally hundreds of different shapes and varieties, suitable for different terrains. In areas where sharp maneuvers were necessary (as in forests or steep climbs), shorter and wider shoes were developed. In more open terrains, long, narrow shoes were the preferred choice.
Over the past centuries, the making of a wooden snowshoe hasn’t changed much. A single strip of wood is soaked or steamed to make it pliable, before bending it into shape. In order to ensure its longevity, it is important that the wood doesn’t have poor grain or knots. The frames are then dried, usually in a kiln or hot room. This takes two to seven days.
The frame is then laced with rawhide. A heavier lacing is usually used for the center part of the shoe, where most of the load is carried. For the lacing, it is best to use “green hides.” Green hides are rawhides after the fur, fat and meat have been removed, but before drying. As the rawhide dries in the frame, it tightens and smooths. For the Native Americans, lacing was an art in itself, with intricate patterns and colors.
For European settlers in the northern parts of America snowshoes became essential for traders, trappers and people whose life or livelihood relied on the ability to travel in areas of deep snowfall. In an age when roads and walkways were less maintained, people living in rural areas depended on snowshoes to get around town. Settlers usually bought their snowshoes from the Native Americans. Ironically, in part, it was a Native American invention that helped European settlers spread across their continent.
As legend goes, snowshoes became a crucial tool in two (1, 2) 18th century battles during the French and Indian War (North America’s part of the world-wide Seven Years’ War from 1756-1763) between France (who joined forces with the Native Americans) and the British. Apparently the events, which were won by the French and Native Americans, led the British military to make snowshoes part of their basic equipment.
With growing cities and the white man’s need to ‘tame’ nature by developing and maintaining roads, the demand for snowshoes diminished. However, in the 19th century they started becoming a popular form of recreation. In 1840 the Montreal Snowshoe Club was the first to organize hikes and competitive races. Other clubs soon followed (Minnesota alone is said to have had more than 60 clubs), and snowshoeing grew (especially in French Canada) into a serious sport with intense rivalry between its participants. Brightly colored themes crafted in wool blankets, worn with matching hats, identified the club or the region.
With the growing demand, more and more snowshoe manufacturers started popping up, some lead by non-Native Americans. The general designs followed the traditional Indians ones, but with some technological development, for example the implementation of metal buckle bindings.
In recent decades, snowshoeing has had a revival, and is now practiced more than ever as a winter exercise. The United States Snowshoe Association, founded in 1977, serves as a governing body for competitive snowshoe racing and hurdle jumping. Similar organizations exist in Europe, Canada and Japan. (Among snowshoers, there are some hopes that it may soon be recognized as an Olympic sport.) It is believed that the snowshoeing revival is partly caused by snowboarders’ desire to reach untouched powder snow slopes. Today, about 500 American schools, mostly in the Northeast, offer snowshoeing in their P.E. classes, and the Canadian Forces still use snowshoes as basic military equipment for all soldiers.
In the 1950s, with the introduction of synthetic plastics, snowshoe manufacturers started to experiment in integrating these new man-made materials. Today, in modern snowshoes, the wooden frame is usually replaced with aluminum, and the rawhide webbing and leather binding with nylon, neoprene or PVC.
There are several reasons why many people prefer modern snowshoes over their wooden ancestors. The main ones are that the rawhide needs maintenance (waxing or varnishing to keep the hide from drying out) once a year, and because modern snowshoes have superior bindings, including crampons for better grip on ice and when climbing uphill.
However, there are still manufacturers of wooden snowshoes, and it is said that the best wooden snowshoes are still made in Indian reservations. Manufacturers of traditional snowshoes have also started using newer materials. The binding seems to be the center of focus. 10engines put it beautifully: “The pisser with old-old bindings is if your heel pops out of the straps; trying to fix iced leather straps and buckles with bare fingers is no fun.”
A plus for wooden snowshoes is that walking in them is much quieter than in their metal and plastic alternatives. And isn’t a peaceful hike in the woods what snowshoeing should be all about?
To me, snowshoes are a typical representation of the last hundred years of product development, where natural materials have increasingly been substituted by synthetic ones. This switch offers a solution to some of the problems and inconveniences (in snowshoes for example the annual maintenance of the rawhide laces), but a satisfactory result has not been reached. I don’t know how you feel, but I think the use of PVC and other plastics in snowshoes is both aesthetically questionable and environmentally unacceptable. Snowshoers are still a rare breed, but if any of you have more experiences with wooden vs. modern snowshoes — let me know what they are.
Snowshoes are also a good example of illustrating how different cultures offer separate solutions for the same problem. Westerners frantically clean their sidewalks, as soon as the first snow hits the ground, whereas the Native Americans prefer to ‘float’ on top of it. An old Native American saying goes: “The white man always attempted to avoid the snow or skirt it, whereas the Indian always looked for the best way to walk on it and live in harmony with nature.”