One of man’s earliest inventions was the snowshoe. For its time, it ranks in importance with the invention of the wheel. Approximately 6000 years ago the inhabitants of Central Asia observed the ease with which snowshoe hares could travel in the deep snow. It became obvious to them that the large size of the hare’s foot was the key. And so the snowshoe was born.
Eventually the people migrated west across what is now the Bering Strait into the Americas, still others migrated into what is now Scandinavia. It was the innovations of the American Indians that really developed the snowshoe. Despite popular opinion the Eskimos did not use the snowshoe often. Their travels across the sea ice or the wind packed Tundra did not require flotation such as the deep snows. Scandinavians adapted their snow gear into the Nordic ski and rarely used the snowshoe for travel.
The first snowshoes were made of bent twigs laced with rawhide. While White Ash is the most popular wood, birch, willow, and spruce have also been used. Eventually the diversity of the Indian tribes and the terrain they traveled led to four distinct styles of snowshoe: The Alaskan, the Ojibwa, the Michigan and the Bear Paw.
The Alaskan snowshoe was long and narrow, featuring an up-turned toe that could be used to break trail for the sled dogs. They allowed the user to travel swiftly. These snowshoes were approximately 10” by 60”.
The canoe-like feature of the Ojibwa snowshoe meant the user could even travel in reverse. These double-pointed shoes could cross diverse terrain.
Michigan snowshoes were long-tailed and resembled today’s tennis racquets. This long tail made turning around difficult and tripping easy. They did however, allow the hunters to carry heavy loads such as an elk. These shoes measure 13” by 48”.
The most common of all designs is the Bear Paw. The short, wide, tail-less oval was the most versatile and was easy to maneuver on a variety of terrain while carrying a heavy load.
Eventually the snowshoe became less a necessary tool used by Native American hunters, fur traders, trappers, and lumberjacks and more of a toy. In the late 1880’s snowshoe clubs were formed. These clubs were first in Canada for military training, then spread to the United States and become recreational. Snowshoes are still a popular recreational activity, with clubs and races. Some forest rangers of today still rely on the snowshoe as a tool, allowing them a quiet access to remote areas.
Today’s snowshoe enthusiast has the option of the more traditional wood shoes or the more modern aluminum style first developed by Gene and Bill Prater in 1972. As aluminum is light it was a welcome change and thought to be more durable. Adding neoprene lacing, hinged bindings, and cleats for mountaineering were great advances in the snowshoe made by the Praters. Many people still prefer the wooden style for the tradition, as well as the fact that wood provides twice the flotation for the same weight as aluminum. Wooden shoes are also quieter on the snow and less slippery on ice. Which snowshoe would you choose?