Snowshoe-making class teaches patience on a practical project

Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- In addition to a new pair of snowshoes, Mark Audie was building patience.

He sat at a table staring at the toe of a half-constructed snowshoe he had propped between his legs. In one hand he held a piece of 1/8-inch polyethylene rope. With the other he scratched his head.

Audie already had weaved the heel of the shoe and he was about halfway through the toe when he stopped and focused intently on the lines of rope crisscrossing back and forth. He thought he knew where to go next but he wasn't quite sure.

''I'm a little hesitant to go any further because I know I'm going to make a mistake,'' Audie said with a smile. ''Just when you think you've got it right he tells you you made a mistake five minutes ago and you've got to unwrap it all.''

''He'' is Mark Knapp, a small bear of a man with long salt-and-pepper hair and a beard to match. He holds his blue jeans up with a pair of yellow tape measure suspenders and usually wears a ballcap.

Knapp is a trapper, a shop foreman and an artist. He is a gregarious man with a quick wit and his hands have to be busy for him to be happy, all of which make him the perfect instructor for the snowshoe-making class he teaches in Fairbanks.

He also is a very patient person, which is another attribute you have to possess if you want to weave a pair of snowshoes.

Or as Audie put it, ''You better have a sense of humor.''

Audie was one of eight students enrolled in a recent class taught by Knapp and sponsored by the Alaska Trappers Association. The two-day class provided students with the materials and instruction needed to build a set of 12-by 30-inch snowshoes.

''It's been a back-burner project of mine for a while, to build a pair of snowshoes,'' said Audie, a 48-year-old Alyeska Pipeline Co. security officer. ''It's something I've always wanted to do but it's a little intimidating to do it on your own. This is perfect.''

Knapp's snowshoes resemble a pair of Tubbs or Sherpas but instead of aluminum frames, they are built with galvanized steel frames bent and welded by Knapp. Rather than plastic webbing riveted to the frames, the webbing on Knapp's shoes consists of about 200 feet of hand-woven polyethylene rope for each shoe.

The only other materials needed are a few strips of black electrical tape, something for splicing and locking rope and six straps of binding material (three for each shoe) equipped with quick-release adjustable buckles.

It also helps to have the 33-page manual Knapp wrote, complete with photos and step-by-step instructions about how to build the shoes.

''I wanted to do something people could build themselves,'' Knapp said.

While the price tag on a similarly sized pair of Sherpas runs between $200-$250, the materials for a pair Knapp's custom-made shoes cost about $20. The fee for last weekend's class was $70 for association members and $95 for nonmembers.

When Knapp began pursuing the idea for a snowshoe-making class a few years ago, he called one of his hunting buddies, Delbert Harrington, a former teacher in his home state of Minnesota. He had seen Harrington teach a snowshoe-making class for a Future Farmers of America class about 20 years ago.

''All he could remember was they used 1/2-inch conduit and 1/4-inch polypropylene rope,'' Knapp said.

Knapp took it from there, putting his years of mending snowshoes to use by formulating a pattern to fit a 12- by 30-inch steel frame. It is an intricate pattern involving 31 half-hitch knots tied around the frame. The rope is woven up and down and back and forth across the shoe using the knots to create a woven web.

The basic rule of thumb, Knapp said, is that you treat all parallel cords the same.

''You don't go over and under on parallels,'' he told the class. ''Either you go under them all or over them all.

''If you come to ropes that crisscross you go over and under,'' Knapp said. ''This is perfect for people who like puzzles.''

''The same patterns have been being used for hundreds of years,'' Knapp said. ''If you look at a pair of wooden snowshoes you'll see the same thing.''

Some people are disappointed to find Knapp doesn't work with traditional wood and babiche materials -- preferring steel conduit and polyethylene rope, which he feels holds up in the cold better than polypropylene rope.

''These are a lot more durable and take a lot less maintenance,'' Knapp said. ''As long as you protect them from (ultraviolet) rays, they should last for a long time.''

The snowshoes are just as functional as more expensive brand-name shoes.

''I made them so they fit easily on a snowmachine, in a dog sled or in an airplane,'' Knapp said. ''They're good enough for our snow conditions. Someone up to 200 pounds should be able to walk around on these carrying a pack unless the snow is really deep.''

With much assistance from Knapp, it took about nine hours for each student in the class to complete a pair of shoes. Knapp can complete a pair of his shoes in two hours, a shoe per hour. Almost all that time is spent weaving the webbing.

''It's a lot more complicated than it looks,'' Raymond Heuer said after completing his first shoe.

The six words students dreaded but heard often during the class were, ''You made a mistake back here.''

To his credit, Knapp tries to be tactful. When he looked over Heuer's shoulder to inspect the webbing on the heel of his shoe he said, ''Looks good. Now you want to hear the bad news?''

Knapp pointed to a flaw in Heuer's webbing. He had crossed under two vertical straps when he should have gone over one and under the other.

''I love you Mark,'' Heuer said sarcastically as he started to unravel his shoe to correct his mistake.

Knapp wears a pair of fingerless gloves when he works to protect his hands from the pulling, wrapping and weaving involved in constructing each shoe.

''It makes the hands a little raw,'' Knapp told the class. ''I cut the fingers out of gloves because I was blistering my hands too much working with the rope.''

It was a technique at least three students had adopted before the class was over.

Despite the painstaking process of weaving the webbing for the shoes, all who took the class enjoyed it.

''I wanted a pair of snowshoes and thought it would be fun to build them myself and it was,'' said 31-year-old John Basile, who drove from his home in Clear to take the class. ''I probably won't use them much, just strap them on the back of the snowmachine when I'm trapping.''

Pilot and aircraft mechanic Barry Mortensen shares a Cessna 180 with a friend and they only had one pair of snowshoes between the two of them, which is the reason he took the class.

''If we're both in the plane and something happens, we're going to be in trouble with only one pair of snowshoes,'' Mortensen said. ''For me, it was a survival thing.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press



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