Walking on Snow

In the 1970s, when I worked in the Adirondacks, I spent a considerable amount of time on snowshoes during the winter months. My job as a wildlife manager required that I venture into the snowy backcountry in what is characteristically the snowiest part of the state. There were times when I had to stay afloat on top of three feet of snow and the only way to do that is with snowshoes.

The use of snowshoes dates back perhaps 6,000 years to the land now known as Siberia. When the predecessors of our Native Peoples migrated across the frozen Bering Strait from Asia to North America centuries ago, they brought a crude version of the snowshoe with them. But the American Indian gets the credit for refining the classic snowshoe into the efficient wintertime mode of travel that it is today. They made and traded snowshoes to 17th-century French-Canadian fur trappers who found them essential for getting around during the winter months when pelts are at their prime. The trappers called them “racquettes” because of their similarity to sporting racquets.

While the technology for manufacturing snowshoes continues to evolve, their basic function remains the same: Walking on top of deep snow without sinking in. The concept is simple: By distributing a person’s weight over a much larger surface area, snowshoes provide enough floatation to enable one to stay pretty much on top of deep snow.

For maybe hundreds of years, snowshoe construction remained essentially the same. In Native American cultures, the men gathered, split, and steam-bent the frames around a prefabricated form and the women laced the webbing. While white ash has always been the preferred wood for making frames, hickory, spruce, and tamarack were also used.

L.L. Bean has been making the Maine Snow Shoe the same way for over 100 years. Faber & Co., the world’s largest producer, has been making snowshoes in Quebec for more than 130 years, originally using babiche, or strips of caribou hide, for webbing.

The first significant advance in snowshoe design occurred during World War II when a lightweight magnesium-framed version with nylon-coated wire webbing was developed for the U.S. Military. With the exception of the materials used in their manufacture, these snowshoes retained the characteristics of their wooden forerunners, which includes a turned-up toe that prevents the buildup of snow on the front of the snowshoe when walking. Today, a number of lightweight sporting varieties are available, which are manufactured from metal tubing and polymer or rubber webbing.

But I prefer the traditional wooden snowshoe, which has a bit of sentimental value for me. I still own the L.L. Bean snowshoes that were issued to me 45 years ago and—after an occasional application of varnish to keep them watertight and the webbing taut—they are as good as new. However, I have had to replace the leather harnesses twice.

Today, snowshoeing has become a popular wintertime activity even in the Finger Lakes Region. Many state parks and most state forests and Wildlife Management Areas have trails and logging roads that are ideal for snowshoeing. The only ingredient that’s needed now is some snow deep enough to make it worthwhile.

adamski_profile_Apr21Story and photo by John Adamski

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