There’s No Shoes Like Snowshoes

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I like to walk. This is probably a good thing since my job for the postal service requires me to hoof an average of 8 miles per day. But this is not where my love of walking lies. What I really enjoy is snowshoeing in the winter.

There is nothing more captivating than to strap on a pair of snowshoes on a moonlit winter’s night and feel the crisp snow underfoot, see the starry night above and listen to sounds of wildlife in the distance. If I am real lucky, I may catch a glimpse of a deer, rabbit or other creature out for a moonlight stroll also.

If you think this is a strange passion, consider that snowshoeing has been around for hundreds of years, born first out of necessity and later evolving more into recreation. By definition, snowshoes are footwear for walking over snow. They work by distributing the weight of the person over a large area so a person’s foot does not sink completely in the snow, a quality called “flotation.”

Traditional snowshoes have a hardwood frame with rawhide lacings. They are made of a single strip of some tough wood such as white ash, curved round and fastened together at the ends and supported in the middle by a light cross-bar. The space in the frame is filled with a close webbing of caribou, leaving a small opening just behind the cross-bar for the toe of the moccasined foot. They are fastened to the moccasin by leather thongs or buckles. This type of original snowshoe is still made and sold by native peoples.

There are still a large group of snowshoe enthusiasts who prefer these wooden varieties. Wooden frames do not freeze as readily as the new ones made of aluminum do and the wooden variety tends to be quieter. Even so, many of these wooden shoes have been destined to become decorations, mounted on walls or on mantels in ski lodges.

The “modern” snowshoe known my many today was “born” in 1972 by Gene and Bill Prater while they were experimenting with new designs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. They began using aluminum tubing and replaced the lace with neoprene and nylon decking.  They developed a hinged binding and added cleats to the bottoms of the shoes to make them easier to use in mountaineering.

The Sherpa Snowshoe company started manufacturing these shoes which became very popular. They were a lighter, more durable version which required little maintenance. The use of solid decking  challenged the belief that lattice was necessary to prevent snow from building up on the shoe. These more athletic designs helped the sport regain its popularity with the number of snowshoers tripling during the 1990’s. Some ski resorts are beginning to offer snowshoe trails to visitors.

There is often the sentiment that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Mostly this is true, however walking on shoes requires some slight adjustments to regular walking. I know, it sounds strange that you have to tell someone how to walk, but when you first strap a snowshoe on your foot it literally feels like you have strapped “clodhoppers” on because of their sheer size. The best method of walking with these attachments is to lift the shoes slightly and slide the inner edges over each other with an exaggerated stride.

To make matters even more complicated, after you have mastered straightforward snowshoe travel, you have to then master the art of turning. With lots of space, this is simply done by walking in a semicircle. In close quarters or on a slope this method isn’t practical so you must execute a “kick turn” similar to the technique used on skis: lifting one foot high enough to keep the entire snowshoe in the air while keeping the other planted, putting the foot at a right angle to the other then planting it on the snow and quickly repeating the action with the other foot.

One word of caution; whatever you have to do to avoid it, do not (and I repeat) do not fall! I learned the hard way that once you fall with three-foot long showshoes attached to your feet you will not be able to get up. The snowshoes dig into the snow and it was only with some agile maneuvering  that I got myself upright without calling in the troops. My motto when I first started was “If I fall, forget it!”

For this very reason, many snowshoers often use trekking poles as an accessory to help them keep their balance on the snow. These are especially useful for descending a mountain or hill. Cleating and traction improvements to modern snowshoes help climbers get up a slope. Coming down is a whole different scenario. Many snowshoers have found a way to speed up the descent that proves to be fun and rests the leg muscles. This is simply called glissading, or sliding down on their buttocks. Where this method is not practical, they run downhill in exaggerated steps, sliding slightly on the snow as they do. The trekking poles come in real handy here.

In past times snowshoes were essential for anyone who had to get around in deep and frequent snow such as fur traders and trappers. They are still necessary today for forest rangers and others to be able to go where motor vehicles cannot trek.

Besides the necessity for snowshoes in some conditions, some people just enjoy them for the sport of it. Although snowshoe racing has been around for as long as there have been snowshoes, it is relatively new as an organized sport. The United States Snowshoe Association was founded in 1977 to govern competitive snowshoeing. It is headquartered in Corinth, New York which considers itself the “Snowshoe Capital of the World.” These races are part of the Arctic Winter Games and the winter Special Olympics even though they are not yet an Olympic event.

I am definitely not interested in the races. For me, showshoeing is a way to get a little extra leg exercise and enjoy winter nights in the great outdoors. I always come back feeling refreshed and calm.  What more can you ask from a sport.