Modern snowshoers carry on 6,000-year-old winter tradition

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

With the longer days of March and the milder temperatures, snowshoers can experience some of the best outdoor exploration of the entire year. Mornings offer the fastest travel with hard frozen snow that is easy to traverse. As temperatures warm up, the snow softens and requires more effort, but travelers can peel off layers to enjoy the simple comfort of a long-sleeve T-shirt.

Snowshoeing has become one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. Although snowmachines still outrank snowshoes in Alaska, snowshoes are rapidly catching up. The simplicity and technical advances of modern snowshoes make the sport easy to learn and the gear simple to maintain.

With the advent of modern snowshoe gear with its aluminum, plastic and nylon components, it is amazing to realize that snowshoes are the oldest form of "foot extender" used by human beings. Snowshoes can be traced back at least 6,000 years, with the oldest snowshoes dating to 4,000 B.C. in central Asia. Both skis and snowshoes were used in Eurasia, with skis more dominant in northwestern Europe and snowshoes more common in Asia. In North America, snowshoes were the only type of foot extender used by aboriginal people, who probably recognized the virtue of a broad footprint from snowshoe hares and lynx.

The earliest materials used to make snowshoes included wood branches and bark. As snowshoes progressed, rawhide webbing replaced bark ties. Native Americans brought the most innovation to snowshoe design by creating the oval or round bear paw style. Next, tails were added to help align the shoe in the direction of travel.

A distinctive variation of the tailed snowshoe was the Ojibwa snowshoe, named for the Canadian tribe that designed it. This shoe had a pronounced upturned point at the head of the shoe to pass through brush and a pointed tail to align the shoe. Snowshoes were critically important to Native Americans for hunting big game, especially before the Spaniards introduced horses in North America.

With long winters, Native Alaskans relied on snowshoes for winter travel, hunting and trapping. In Alaska, the most distinctive early snowshoe was the Alaskan Trapper, an elongated, tailed snowshoe that measured 4 feet or more. This snowshoe was well designed for long treks across flat tundra expanses and frozen rivers.

Modest modern advances in snowshoe design included hinged bindings, which allow for more forward directional control. This feature is found in some shoes dating from the 1920s, but was not widely employed until the 1980s.

Neoprene lacing introduced in the 1960s replaced rawhide lacing, making snowshoe care easier because neoprene does not need varnishing like rawhide.

The mid-1970s brought strong, lightweight aluminum frames, which also do not need to be varnished, unlike wood frames. Neoprene decking was added to provide a smaller support area than required for rawhide-laced shoes, which meant smaller, more compact shoes that could move easily across the snow.

The "Snowshoe Revolution" that began in the 1980s continues to this day. Lighter, stronger synthetic decking materials have completely replaced lacing. Easily adjustable bindings hold boots extremely well without slipping. Claws or crampons have been added for increased stability on hills for ascending, descending and sidehill contouring. There are now "specialty" snowshoes for recreational walking, hiking, jogging and mountaineering. There are youth and women's shoes designed for their specific anatomical needs.

At the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I am often approached by folks looking for winter activities. I encourage snowshoeing because it is an easy, safe way to enjoy our six-month snow season. Snow-shoeing is a great way to watch wildlife and get good exercise while seeing some beautiful country, and it provides a means of access for other activities like ice fishing, trapping, skiing and snowboarding.

If you're one of the fortunate folks who take advantage of spring snowshoeing, remember while enjoying the sunshine and warm temperatures that you are also continuing a pleasure and tradition begun 6,000 years ago.

Candace Ward works as a park ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, specializing in visitor service and natural history education. She has enjoyed snowshoeing on the Kenai Peninsula over the last 18 years with her husband, Walter, and their human and Labrador friends.

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