Traditional snowshoes. Works of Art? Most definitely. Traditional snowshoes, created by skilled first nations craftspeople are more than a means of transportation; they are in fact works of art.
Many a cabin wall is adorned with a pair of traditional snowshoes hung above the mantle. Handcrafted traditional snowshoes, particularly those crafted by first nations artisans, have intricate decorative designs woven into their babiche filling. Functional? You bet, although some styles do take a little longer to master than today’s models (usually due to their large size), traditional style snowshoes if chosen correctly for their intended snow conditions, perform as well as, or better than many of today’s models.
I got my first pair of snowshoes for Christmas when I was 16. They were made of varnished ash with woven rawhide strips webbed across. The bindings were leather and made in what use to be Czechoslovakia. From heel to toe they were nearly as tall as I was and looked a little like oversized tennis rackets, Huron (Michigan) style. This was 18 years ago.
Over those 18 years snowshoes have undergone some pretty radical changes. Until the 80s, wood was the only framing material used for snowshoes, and your choice was limited to traditional snowshoe styles. The implementation of new synthetic materials has brought snowshoe design into the 21st century. Wood has been replaced with aluminum, molded plastic and composite materials such as carbon fiber. But despite these cosmetic changes, their design is still steeped in the traditional snowshoe designs of the aboriginal peoples of years past.
Traditional snowshoes are generally regarded as any snowshoe that incorporates a wooden frame and rawhide (or neoprene) filling in its design. To fully appreciate the evolution of modern snowshoe design, a look at the traditional snowshoes crafted by the first nations people of North America is essential.
Snowshoes originated in central Asia somewhere around 4000 BC. The first snowshoes were pieces of wood lashed to the bottom of feet, referred to by some as shoeskis. As differing tribes began to migrate to different environments, these early snowshoes began to evolve. Tribes that migrated west, into present day Europe and Scandinavia developed Nordic skis. The tribes that migrated east and crossed the Bering Strait into North America developed snowshoes.
There are a number of traditional styles, each with their own unique features that evolved as a response to the environment for which they were crafted in. As the snow conditions and temperatures changed so did the snowshoes. Snowshoes employed in Alaska differed greatly from those used in Eastern Quebec and Labrador in both appearance and usage. The four main styles, from west to east are Alaskan, Ojibwa, Michigan, and Bear Paw. There are other traditional styles, but they are essentially modified versions of the four main styles.
The four traditional styles mentioned above share certain common elements – wooden frames and decking that is made of babiche, the treated rawhide of moose or caribou. White ash was and still is the wood of choice, but birch, spruce and even willow has been used in the traditional creation of snowshoes.
The Alaskan snowshoe worn by the Athapaskan first nations people is the longest of the four traditional snowshoe styles, reaching up to seven feet from tip to toe. This extreme length made turning difficult, but the Alaskan snowshoe was devised for the open spaces and dry powder snow of northwestern Canada and the Alaskan interior, hence the large size. The Alaskan snowshoe’s long narrow design made for easier travel at high speeds than wider designed snowshoes. Northwestern Canada and the Alaskan interior were dog sledding country, a factor that played a key role in Alaskan snowshoe design. A fast moving snowshoe with an upturned toe was necessary to keep up with, and break trail for a dog sled.
Here in Manitoba (and into present day Ontario), where the ground lies covered with snow for six to eight months (longer the further north you go), Ojibwa style snowshoes played a vital role in aboriginal life. Manitoba, contrary to popular belief, is not simply a flat open prairie. Although the land is relatively level, the prairie makes up but a small portion of a diverse landscape of lakes, rivers, forest, rock and permafrost. In fact, before settlement by Europeans, much of southern Manitoba’s prairie was swamp and flood plain.
This diversity of landscape directly impacted the type of snowshoe employed by the first nations people that called what would become Manitoba home. Being a culture reliant on hunting and gathering, the first nations people of Manitoba required a snowshoe that would be able to traverse difficult terrain at high speeds to follow game.
Ojibwa snowshoes are shaped much like another item of transportation vital to aboriginal life – the birch bark canoe. Ojibwa snowshoes are unique in that both ends come to a point. It’s unique design is much more functional than it appears. Although it will not support the load that other styles can handle, the Ojibwa snowshoe is made for speed and agility. Unlike other traditional tailed styles, the Ojibwa loans itself to stepping backwards. Another benefit of the Ojibwa style snowshoe was the relative ease of construction. The construction of Ojibwa snowshoes uses two pieces of bent wood for the outer frame, rather than the single bent piece in other styles.
The Huron or Michigan/Maine style of snowshoe is the most recognizable of the traditional snowshoes, with its oversized tennis racquet design. Meant for open plains travel, Huron style snowshoes are tail heavy, to help keep the snowshoes tracking in a line. The downside to the long tail is that it becomes a trip hazard, easily caught on undergrowth. Like Alaskan style snowshoes, Huron style shoes do not lend themselves to turning easily, and are at home in open snow. Their ability to support a heavy load enabled semi-nomadic first nations people to migrate year round in search of food and game, such as buffalo or elk. Walking in Huron style shoes does take some getting used to, as their width forces the wearer to walk bow legged until they master the technique of nesting the toe of one shoe into the tail of the other.
The Bear Paw style of snowshoe is the forerunner of most modern snowshoe designs. Oval in shape, the Bear Paw was used extensively throughout Quebec and Labrador. The shortest of the four traditional styles, the Bear Paw is also the most versatile. The Bear Paw’s tailless design makes it easy to move through the dense forests of eastern Canada but it is wide enough to support a heavy load. Its lack of tail makes it easier to turn in than other snowshoe designs.
As the production of traditional style snowshoes moved to commercial venues and away from individual craftspeople, changes began to appear in their design. Unfortunately not all changes were made for the better. The delicate tight weave of the webbing gave way to a much looser weave, not because it was better, but to save time and money. Lost in this change was the creative intricate designs woven into the filling. The rawhide strips became wider, and neoprene was introduced as a replacement for rawhide. Neoprene eliminated some of the upkeep required to maintain traditional snowshoes, but is not as stiff and provides a bouncier snowshoe experience for the wearer.
Fortunately there are still craftspeople out there with the skill to create traditional snowshoes, but they are becoming few and far between. And hopefully with the increased interest in snowshoeing, an increased awareness and appreciation of the traditional snowshoe will follow.