I’ve recently discovered snowshoeing. Our landlady and her family were big outdoor recreationists, or at least one would be led to believe so by looking at their basement. The sons are grown and moved away, and the father sadly passed away, so when she moved from the house this summer she left most of the winter gear here and encouraged us to use it. This included six pairs of cross-country skis and three pairs of snowshoes. Since there are only two of us (unless you count the dog) we’re perhaps a little over-equipped, but nonetheless grateful for the free “toys”.
Earlier in the week Dan pulled out a couple of pairs of snowshoes and suggested we take Raven out for a quick tour about the property. I think it was the first time either of us had been on snowshoes in years and years. Certainly the last time I recall using snowshoes I was a young teen, and my sisters and I had decided to redeem our Canadian Tire money (basically old-fashioned rewards points for the auto/home/garden/recreation store Canadian Tire) on a pair of snowshoes. The pair we got were a simple moulded-plastic latticework, in white, and most of my memory concerning them is of them hanging in the garage, unused. Probably us kids found them to be more work than they were worth. After all, most of our time outside was spent rolling around in the snow. On those occasions when we decided to strap on some additional footwear, we went “ski-boarding” (for a long while we simply had a single pair of cross-country skis, which we split between two of us kids, each kid getting one boot, one ski, and one pole. We would slide along like one might use a skateboard, alternately pushing with the other foot and gliding on the ski. This was pre-snowboard days, so our made-up name of “ski-boarding” was a play on skateboard).
Returning to the point of the story: effectively, I had never really used snowshoes, so this was a new experience for me. First thing to figure out: how the heck do you strap these things on? There were two pieces of leather, one that buckled around the toe of your boot, and the other that fastened behind your heel. There was a big gap right in front of the straps, and in front of that was a heavy crossbar. It felt weird to have my toe hanging off into space, so I tried placing my toe on the crossbar and doing the straps up for that first outing. For whatever reason I didn’t have any trouble; perhaps I’d left the straps loose.
When I went to do that the second time I went out on them, though, I kept finding that the toe of the snowshoe would catch in the snow every time I took a step. How annoying! It took me half the loop around the property before I realized what was going on. That hole in the snowshoe, in front of the straps? Yeah, that’s for your toes to fit in.
I’ve got it down now. Here I am, in an exaggerated demonstration of how the snowshoe works. You strap the shoe up so your toes fit over the big hole. Then when you take a step, you toe tips into the hole, rather than pressing down on the shoe. Since the straps are only attached at that one point near the toes, and the shoe is heaver at the back than the front, this allows the shoe to remain tip-up even while your free are toes-down. (These are self-portraits, by the way, with me setting the camera in the crook of a tree, putting it on 10-second timer, and hurrying to get in position before it goes off. Hence the goofy poses. Also the well-packed snow. Not being able to see how I lined up meant I took several photos to try to get it right.)
While Dan and I were out, we puzzled over two other design features of the snowshoe. The first is that long tail, which dragged on the ground with each step and often got caught under the other shoe, especially when you were trying to turn around. Was it simply an artifact of bending a long piece of wood around, or was there some purpose to it? Unsurprisingly, it’s the latter. The tail of the snowshoe, as it drags along the ground, helps to keep the shoe pointed straight. This was helpful for me, since I found the leather on one of the snowshoe straps to be worn and a bit wiggly.
And the latticework. In deep fluffy snow, we’d sink in a good three or four inches or more. Why leave all those holes? Why not just make it a solid sheet of leather? There are two reasons, it turns out. The first one is primarily to prevent snow from accumulating on the shoe as it gets kicked up while you walk. The second is to provide grip (Dan realized, as he was descending a small hill) since a solid shoe would have the same effectiveness as a toboggan strapped to your foot. Modern snowshoes are a bit more solid, but still have gaps around the edges to prevent accumulation. They also often have some sort of pick or cleat on the underside for grip.
Despite the couple of inches that the snowshoe sinks in with each step, it’s a huge improvement over wading through on foot. I stopped and used a bit of goldenrod stem to measure how much snow was still beneath my foot here, compacted underneath the shoe. The answer: a good six inches! Of course, in snow that’s less than a foot deep the snowshoe doesn’t make a whole lot of difference energetically from just wading through on foot. And as you can see by some of the photos above, neither does it prevent your pants from getting snowy and wet. It’s still a rather aerobic endeavor, good cardiac exercise. Note the bare hands and folded-up toque in the photos above – I needed to expose some skin to release some of the heat I was manufacturing! Still, once the snow starts getting deeper, where it becomes more of an effort to take each step and you can’t just shuffle along through it, then the snowshoes will make a huge difference.
I’ve noticed even in this shallower snow that I feel more encouraged to go out and break trail while wearing the snowshoes than I would without them. I find myself more adventurous, and I anticipate that when the snow gets deeper they’ll have an even greater influence over where I decide to go and what I check out. I hadn’t been over to the 100-acre woods since before the first snow, so today I decided to strap on the snowshoes and head over to see how it all looked. (Beautiful, of course.)
Although one has to walk a little more straddle-legged than one might normally (probably more noticeable for women than men), one quickly gets used to the gait and it’s possible to move fairly quickly along the trail. I love how each step fits neatly into the curves made by the one previous.
Snowshoes are a development based on the observation that snowshoe hares, with their large, oversized feet, were better able to stay on top of the snow than animals with smaller feet. The traditional snowshoe as we know it is an invention of the North American indigenous peoples, and was especially commonplace in more northern tribes where travel through deep snow was a regular occurrence. Interestingly, each tribe developed its own shapes and sizes and structures for their snowshoes according to where they lived, what they had available, and what they needed to be able to do while wearing them.
The longest belonged to the Cree, and were nearly six feet (1.8m) long and turned up at the toe. They were used for hunting, and the slightly heavier weight of the larger shoe was offset by the greater surface area resulting in less sinkage (the amount the shoe sinks into the snow being referred to as its “flotation”), and therefore less effort to take each step; important for longer trips. Tribes that inhabited the boreal forest, where maneuverability was more important, tended to have narrower and shorter shoes. The current form, resembling a tennis-racquet, is a more modern adaptation apparently developed by lumberjacks in the 1700s. Europeans, especially the French voyageurs (fur-trappers and traders), were quick to adopt the snowshoe for their own transportation.
As a reward for hiking out into the 100-acre woods this afternoon (and to you, for sticking with me through this post), I was treated to a sighting of a male Pileated Woodpecker. I was paused to take a self-portrait of me snowshoeing down the trail, and as I returned to pick up my camera and dust the snow off, a loud swoosh passed not far from me. I was expecting an owl, thinking that perhaps Raven had disturbed one from one of the nearby evergreens. Instead I looked up to see this beautiful Pileated a short distance away, investigating a very stout snag. As they’ve typically seemed to be to me, he didn’t appear all that concerned about our presence, ignoring even Raven dashing about in the snow. He hopped up the trunk, checking out the crevices, until he reached the top. Then he took off, headed away, to search the next snag for goodies.