SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

Red Wool and Webs: In the Tradition of the 1890s

I own two pair of snowshoes. Both pairs have wooden frames. One pair, from Freeman’s in Turin, N.Y., has neoprene webbing and “Sherpa” bindings, which I use mostly in wet snow conditions.

My other pair are a beautiful pair of 48-inch long Fabers from the century-old snowshoe builder in Loretteville, Quebec, that were given to me by my parents roughly 35 years ago. They were the first pair of snowshoes I ever owned, and even today, the babiche (rawhide) webbing is still tight, the varnish only needs an occasional touch up before the season starts, and they are enough of a work of art to hang over the fireplace when I am not using them. But I do use them. Right now I am waiting on a new set of leather bindings, but then again, I am also waiting on snow. It’s been a snow-dry winter in this part of Minnesota this year. When both arrive, you can bet I will be out on those Fabers.

I work as a state park ranger here in the North Star State, where part of my duties include the grooming and maintaining the five-mile long cross-country ski trail system and a two-mile snowshoe trail in Sand Dunes State Forest, near Zimmerman, Minn. I am a very active cross-country and backcountry skier, when there is snow. As I said, I’ve been snowshoeing since I was in high school, about five years before I started skiing. Over the past couple of years, I have developed a growing interest in “historical” snowshoeing, as well as the traditional winter travel methods described by Garrett and Alexandra Conover in their excellent book, The Winter Wilderness Companion. (My wife refers to their book as my Winter “constant” Companion. It is always either next to my chair, on my desk or in my briefcase.) I have nothing specifically against “modern-style” aluminum, neoprene and/or thermo-plastic snowshoes. They just don’t make it for me, and at age 50, I just don’t look very good in stretchy Lycra either. (Because of my interest in historical snowshoeing, however, I am considering buying a pair of magnesium and wire mesh U.S. Army surplus snowshoes which have ice “cleats” built into the frame.)

I have used modern snowshoes, and have access to them at work, but I enjoy my traditional ‘shoes. I am used to the way they feel, and the way they travel over the snow. The Freeman’s are a foot shorter than the Fabers, and I use them for “bushwhacking” between trails in the forest, and when traveling on packed trail surfaces. I have also noticed that my wooden snowshoes provide much better traction, without resorting to crampons. Another advantage of traditional shoes is that the crampons are optional. I usually carry a four inch set in my pack, which I can clamp onto the base of my ‘shoes in just a couple of minutes. More than once I have observed people who rented modern snowshoes in the park, tramping around with a six-inch wide ball of snow stuck to the crampons making movement very difficult. Frequently when the snow is shallow, we also hear complaints that the fixed crampons on the modern snowshoes cause pain in their ankles and arches of their feet.

About 110 years ago they didn’t have any of those “new-fangled” equipment and people just didn’t run around town in what looks for all the world like a neon colored Union Suit. (That’s one piece long-underwear with a button-up panel in and for the rear, for those who don’t know.) But they did have snowshoes, wool, and leather, and you know what? Those things are all still working just fine for me, even today.

My typical snowshoeing “ensemble” consists of my Faber snowshoes, Steger mukluks, green Johnson or Codet wool pants and a wool sweater over original Duofold long johns, covered by a scarlet red wool C.C. Filson Makinaw coat. Around my neck is a wool scarf, and on my head is either a flat-brimmed, ranger-type Stetson hat, or a fur and leather “trooper hat” with ear flaps. (I will admit though, that due to allergies, the “fur” in the hat is synthetic.) On windier days, I will substitute a bright red, wool-lined mountain parka for the Makinaw, but I am hoping to get a Empire Canvas Works Arctic anorak later this season, which can be worn over the wool coat or the sweater.

The mittens are one piece of equipment where I have to concede to progress, wearing Polartec liner gloves under leather and nylon choppers with a Polartec fleece inner mitten. In wet weather or changing conditions the mukluks are replaced by Kamik Pac boots or leather hiking boots, on the neoprene-laced Freeman snowshoes. If I am carrying my skis lashed to my backpack, they are usually my Trak Bushwackers (which are no longer made, but the Karhu “Orion” is very similar) with Berwin bindings that can accommodate whatever footwear I am wearing with my snowshoes. The choice of footwear is flexible, also depending on the snow conditions I will encounter. All three choices; mukluks, Pac boots and hiking boots can be used with both the leather “H” binding on the snowshoes and the Berwin binding on the skis.

Why would the color really matter, you may be asking? To me it matters because it is part of the history that makes up the outfit. I am originally from the northeastern part of the country, (New York State) where the forest rangers and game wardens traditionally wore red wool jackets during hunting season and in the winter time. I still have an old red Johnson Woolen Mills jacket that is identical to those that were issued to the New York State Forest Rangers and Vermont Game Wardens for many years.

Although I have never been able to locate a source for the scarlet uniform coats issued to Maine Wardens and New Hampshire Conservation Officers, the Filson coat comes very close in appearance, and is very warm yet breathable. I wear the red wool out of respect for those officers, among whose ranks I still have a number of friends. It also helps to stimulate memories (and discussion) of earlier times, when the ranger or warden may have been the only law enforcement officer in a rural or Adirondack or Allagash Township. The green wool pants are the same color as my Minnesota uniform pants, and a heck of a lot warmer.

Finally, rather than using two ski poles while snowshoeing, I try to have my hands free, or at most use a wooden hiking stick. That way I can still use my hands when I am snowshoeing at work.

As snowshoeing has gained popularity in the Twin Cities area, where I live and work, my web and wood snowshoes are somewhat of an oddity, and never fail to prompt discussion. (The same thing can be said of my short, wide Bushwacker skis.) Usually, other snowshoers, skiers and snowmobilers think the ‘shoes are DNR-issue, which opens the door for a talk about snowshoeing history, and anything else I want or need to talk to them about. So, if you are ever snowshoeing in the woods of Minnesota or Northwest Wisconsin and happen to meet another snowshoer who looks like a ranger from a century ago, stop and say “hello.” You’re not seeing a ghost. It’s probably just me, in my 1890s traditional gear.

Gear Sources cited in the article:

Faber Snowshoes: http://fabersnowshoes.com

Steger Mukluks: http://www.mukluks.com

Johnson Woolens: http://www.johnsonwoolenmills.com

C.C. Filson Woolen Mills: http://www.filson.com

Codet Wool: http://www.themoosehunter.com/codet.htm

Trak Bushwackers: http://www.karhu.com

Berwin Backcountry Bindings: http://www.akers-ski.com

Kamik Pac Boots: http://www.kamik.com

I was not able to find a reference for Freeman’s Snowshoes in Turin, N.Y.