From Bear Paws to Beaver Tails: The History of Snowshoes

Snowshoeing has never in its long and storied history been as popular as it is right at this moment. Snowshoeing has emerged as the fastest growing outdoor winter recreational pursuit and is now a global sport, having reached all corners of the world.

Between 1998 and 2004, snowshoeing participation among Americans aged 16-22 has grown by 50 percent, while enthusiast levels have grown by 300 percent (Outdoor Recreation Participation Study, Seventh Edition 2005).

Snowshoes are flying off the racks of every sporting goods, camping and department store (and still more are being purchased through online shopping options), with sales in the millions annually.

There are a ton of companies producing a bunch of different models of snowshoes. But long before the days of Redfeather and Atlas, before the days of Faber and Tubbs, and before the advent of neoprene and aluminum, snowshoes were handcrafted from wood and rawhide by skilled Native American artisans, not as a recreational item, but as a means for survival.

Despite the lack of archeological evidence, the earliest snowshoes are believed to have originated in what is now central Asia more than 6,000 years ago. These forerunners of the snowshoe are referred to as snowskis. Basically, they amounted to a slab of wood lashed to the bottom of each of the wearer’s feet. As tribes began to migrate from central Asia, those tribes that went west to present-day northern Europe developed Nordic skis (the Nordic ski did not find its way across the Atlantic until the early 1800s). Meanwhile, those tribes that migrated east across the Bering Sea land bridge (Beringia) into what is now North America developed snowshoes.

But the evolution of snowshoes did not stop there. North America is comprised of a vast array of environments, so it only makes sense that snow in Alaska differs greatly from snow in the prairies, which in turn differs from snow along the East Coast. These differences in snow and landscape resulted in snowshoes evolving into a myriad of regional styles. As a result, a snowshoe in Alaska differs from a snowshoe on the prairies, and so on.

Simply put, snowshoe design evolved to meet the environmental needs and intended use of the wearer. Another factor that impacted snowshoe design and evolution was the availability of materials. White ash, prized for its strength and pliability, is the preferred framing material, but hickory, spruce, birch, elm and larch have also been used. Babiche – untanned caribou, moose, or deer hide strips – was used for the lacing.

There are four main traditional styles of snowshoe: Huron, Alaskan, Ojibwa and Bear Paw. There are also a number of lesser-known styles of traditional snowshoes, some of which are: Pickerel, Beaver Tail, Attikamek, Elbow and Green Mountain Bear Paw.

Traditionally, the task of making snowshoes was a job shared by men and women; men made the frames while women laced the deck area with babiche. Frames were formed by bending lengths of wood that had been split and cut to length from straight logs of the preferred wood at hand. Each snowshoe was made from a single length of wood, with the exception being Ojibwa-styled snowshoes, which used two lengths per snowshoe. The lengths are then steamed and bent into the appropriate shape using a form. Crossbars, usually two, were added and the tails were pinned together.

After the snowshoes had dried and holes were drilled, the women would take over, weaving the babiche lacing that filled the frames. Depending on the type of snow that the snowshoes were intended to be used upon, the lacing would be either extremely fine, as is the case for snowshoes produced in Labrador and Eastern Quebec where the snow is deep and dry, or much looser, as is the case in Alaska. Snowshoes also differed from season to season; with a looser weave being used on snowshoes intended for use in wet spring snow and slush. The lacing was so fine in many eastern snowshoes, with intricate designs woven into the deck that they are considered pieces of art.

Manufacturers implemented neoprene as an alternative to babiche as deck material in factory-made traditional snowshoes in the 1960s. Neoprene suffers less abrasion from usage than babiche and requires less upkeep, but is generally not woven as fine, allowing for less floatation. Companies have experimented with a number of alternative framing materials besides wood, such as aluminum and plastic.

Another difference is that factory-made shoes have been varnished to help maintain the wood and rawhide. This should be done on a yearly basis. While factory-made, traditionally styled snowshoes are functional, they lack the delicate beauty of a handmade pair. The webbing on most factory-made traditional snowshoes has become coarse and uses thick rawhide strips. An exception to this is Faber, who produces a couple of nice tightly woven traditionally styled snowshoes – mainly their Montagny and Sport models.

The refinements found in handmade snowshoes (the intricate fine weave of the deck and individuality of each pair) were the cost of mass-production and manufacturing speed. On the positive side, factory-made traditional snowshoes are relatively inexpensive (generally costing less than a pair of modern snowshoes) and readily available.

Unfortunately, traditional snowshoe making is a dying art. There are fewer and fewer practitioners of the craft, and the traditions are not being carried on by today’s generation, making handmade traditional snowshoes difficult to find.

For anyone interested in viewing some incredible examples of traditional snowshoes, check out the online snowshoe exhibit at the Web site for the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine. The exhibit, “Snowshoes: A Gift From Gluskabe,” presents some of the finest pairs of traditional snowshoes produced over the past two centuries. The exhibit can be found at: I guarantee you will not be disappointed and will come away with a newfound respect for the artistry of traditional snowshoes and their makers.

The Huron Style

The Huron snowshoe, also known as the Maine, Michigan or Algonquin snowshoe, is the most popular and recognizable of the traditionally styled snowshoes, with its large oval deck area tapering to a tail of approximately eight inches – imagine a really big teardrop.

The toe may or may not have a slight upward curve to help avoid snags while traveling through brush – the curve is generally found in newer factory-made pairs. It has often been described as an oversized tennis racquet with a hole in the middle, which as a general description isn’t that far off the mark. Its popularity stems from the fact that it is a good all-purpose snowshoe, suited to a number of different snow conditions and environments.

Historically, its usage spread from what is now the northeastern United States (Maine, hence one of the names), west through Michigan and into much of the prairies of both Canada and The United States (there is plenty of geographical overlap in snowshoe styles).

Huron snowshoes vary in size, depending on the size of the intended wearer. A pair made for a youth or child may measure as small as 8 ½ inches wide by 18 inches long, while at the other end of the spectrum, an adult pair can measure up to 15 inches wide by 72 inches long. These are the extremes; the usual pair will range from 36 to 48 inches long and 10 to 15 inches wide.

Photos provided by GV Snowshoes:

This article originally appeared in the first and only print edition of Snowshoe Magazine, Winter 2005. If you are interested in a limited edition of our original Winter 2005 print, please contact us for more information.

About the author

Craig Gillespie

Craig Gillespie is a freelance writer, residing in Winnipeg, Canada (Winterpeg to some), in a 100-year old home with his wife, three children, and the mice that seem to magically appear, like clockwork, each Fall. He has a passion for long run-on sentences, and all thing outdoors.

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