Snowshoes in History
In February, 1704, my ancestor, Jonathan Hoyt, 15 years old, was captured by a group of French and Indians and marched up to Canada on snowshoes. The town where he lived, Deerfield, Massachusetts, was almost totally destroyed. Though colonists from other towns quickly responded, they were not able to follow as they had no snowshoes.
Jonathan spent less than two years a captive before he was ransomed and returned to Deerfield, but during that time, as well as gaining a great respect for his Indian captors, he saw the need for snowshoes, and learned how to make them and use them. He was, for many years, a Ranger and Lieutenant in the Militia.
In more recent years, my 2nd great-grandfather lived among the Menominee in the 1840s, trading furs. He learned to make snowshoes. Far as I can tell, Menominee snowshoes are no different than those used by other Algonquien speakers - and are known as the "Maine," or "Michigan" style snowshoe. I asked my uncle about it. He is part of the Menominee Mott (la Mott, or la Mothe) family. He said he never made any snowshoes - just bought them at the store. They were very cheap when he was young. I know that the first pair I purchased were $12 - when I was 12 years old.
My great grandfather was a huge man - about a head taller than his contemporaries. In later years, he was a timber cruiser and had a special Duluth Pack made which had a spot on the back to fasten on small snowshoes - in case he got caught out by a sudden autumn snow. His normal winter snowshoes were seven feet long. I was supposed to get a pair of these seven foot snowshoes after my great aunt died, but one of my cousins thought they were trash and burned them.
My grandfather made his first pair of snowshoes when he was abot 12 or 14, and when I was about the same age - he taught me.
Grandma Baker's Snowshoes
An Ojibwe woman in our family, Grandma Baker, was a prolific snowshoe maker. I used to have a photo, ruined in a flood, of her the year she was 97, with some of the 47 pairs of snowshoes she made for the US Forest Service that year.
Unlike me, and everyone else I know who makes snowshoes, Grandma Baker did not use a form to bend her snowshoe frames. She split her frames from green ash, and bent them around a stump. I once asked my grandfather how she could do this. "Intuition," he replied. She just knew her wood that well.
Grandma Baker did not lace the snowshoes she made for herself with moose hide - which was common in that era. As she used moggasins while snowshoeing, she used rawhide from beaver. As none of her snowshoes were varnished, the oily beaver skin was much less likely to stretch.
The lace on Grandma Baker's snowshoes was of a very tight weave.
Splitting Out Frame Lathes
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First you need wood. My grandfather told me, "You can use any hardwood - except oak," for frames. I've seen oak framed snowshoes and they showed the truth of my grandfather's statement - in that - every pair of oak snowshoes I've ever seen - one - or both - snowshoe frames were broken.
Ash is the best wood for snoeshoes. Black ash is good - and is what I generally use. Some folks say green (white) ash is better - but there's not a lot of it around here.
A few years ago, I noticed beaver had felled several large ash trees along the Cloquet River. I bucked them to size (about nine feet) and towed them back home. Some I split into ash frames - others I had sawn. I generally make my frames about 3/4 inch by one inch.
For tools, you'll need a 1/4 inch chizel, wedges and mallet - if you are going to split the wood (this can be very tough), a drawknife, and some way to plane the wood smooth. I sometimes use an electrical thickness planer, but it can be done with a good quality hand plane, or, if the wood has a very straight grain - just using the draw-knife.
Once you have your 8 to 9 foot inch by 3/4 inch lathe, measure to the center of the lathe, and shave it thinner six inches each way (if you have the lathe standing up straight, find the center and shave it thinner six inches up - and six inches down from the center) Shave down from 3/4 inch to 1/2 inch. This is because the center will become the "toe" of the snowshoe and will require the most bending. Some folks saw this part thinner. I use a drawknife. To use a draw knife - you will have to clamp one end of the lathe down. Be careful if you use a drawknife. A good draw-knife is sharp as a razor. As you are drawing the knife toward you (hence the name) you can end up with some nasty cuts. As the draw-knife is so sharp, the cuts don't hurt too much when they occur, but they are usually deeper cuts than you first think. I fear my lower legs are full of drawknife scars from the learrning curve of my early years.
To make the lathe supple enough for bending, you have three choices, steaming, boiling, or setting the lathe in running water for ten days to two weeks. I have done all three, but most often steam them.
To steam them, I use a six inch pipe - stopped at one end - set at a 45 degree angle. I fill the pipe part full of water, and start a fire under the angled pipe. I drill a hole on one end of the lathe pieces, and string a wire through them - then insert them in the angled pipe. The wire is hooked to the end of the pipe so the lathes can be retrieved without moving the pipe.
To make extra certain of my toe bend, I wrap the middle of the lathe to be bent in a towel, and pour boiling water on the towel. Then I clamp the lathe to the template, and make my bend.
I could explain how to make a template, but others - such as Gil Gilpatrick - have done an excellent job , so I pass that part of the explanation on to him.
The 1/4 inch chizel will be used to make a "groove" or "slot" in four places on the inside of the frame. Each of these grooves will face another on the opposite side of the frame. The two slots toward the toe of the snowshoe - will be for a single piece of wood called the "toe bar." The two slots toward the tail of the snowshoe will be for the piece of wood called the "heel bar." The toe bar and heel bar should be fashioned from wood about 1/2 inch thick - with the two ends of the bar shaped to fit in the 1/4 inch slots in the frame.
Care While Steaming
A word of Caution:
I should mention - care needs be taken while steaming. On my first attempt at using the six inch pipe method, I stopped up the bottom end of the pipe whith a welded cap. The top end, I used a cap, wired down, to keep too much steam from escaping. I drilled a hole to let some steam escape. It soon became apparent the hole size was not large enough.
Once enough steam built up, the cap shot off the top end of the pipe with a loud "bang!" All my kids cheered!
Fortunately for me, the angle of the pipe was high enough that the cap did not hit the house, and instead shot over the ridgepole of the roof - landing about 30 yards out in the lake on the other side of the house. It took about three days snorkeling to re-locate the cap. I'd suggest about a one inch hole in the cap - to let the steam escape, and only wire the cap down on one side.
Snow Shoe Frame
I like to use moose hide - if I can find it - for my rawhide lace (babiche). Cowhide will work as well. If you use moggasins to snowshoe (who does that anymore?) you can make a tight weave with thin babiche or lace. If you wear boots while snowshoeing, you will want a weave that is less tight using thicker (1/4 inch) babiche. To prepare the hide for babiche, I get the hide wet, bundle it up, place it in a plastic garbage bag and throw it on the roof of the shed for about three hot days. Removing the hide, the fur or hair sloughs quite easily. If it doesn't, I either scrape it off, or throw the hide back in the bag and back on the roof.
Once the hair is sloughed, I cut the hide in circles about the size of a garbage can lid. To make babiche or lace, I cut the circles, round and round, in 1/4 inch, or less, lace. I use a large scissors, but, if you have a steady hand, a sharp utility knife can be used, or even - as my grandfather did, a sharpened hunting knife.
Before you begin lacing, you will have to wet your babiche so it is elastic and supple. I usually let the babiche soak overnight - or longer - to prepare it for lacing.
Once again, I will refer to Gil Gilpatrick's excellent book - to educate anyone wishing to make snowshoes. His step-by-step diagrams are the best I've seen. The only thing I do different - is one less wrap on the frame - which gives you more room for a tighter weave. I would however, follow Gilpatrick's instructions on my first attempt.
Weaving snowshoe babiche, if done correctly, is one of those tasks which will be hard on your hands - if done correctly. Tension needs to be constant on the lace - until fastened to the frame on both ends of your babiche - if your weave is to be successful.
Bindings or Hitches
There are many bindings you can use to fasten your feet to the snowshoe. Some of the easiest to use can be fashioned out of an old truck inner-tube - or purchased in sporting goods stores. There are also various leather bindings with buckles that are available. Personally, I use lamp-wick bindings with a variation of what used to be called "the squaw hitch." As "squaw" has become a dirty word - this is now often referred to as a "trapper hitch.
The diagram accompanying must be followed closely to come out with a decent hitch or binding. I apologise that the rendering is so small, but if you are careful to follow the diagram - you will come out with a decent hitch.
Purchasing lampwick - in the lengths needed - often requires purchasing it from a Canadian origin. Lampwick has asbestos in it - and is not sold in the US in lengths longer than what is required for its stated purpose - as a wick for a lamp.
My main reason for using lampwick hitches - is ease of storage. As you can imagine, a lampwick hitch lays flat when the snowshoes are stored.
Why snowshoes? Something that was once a neccessity, is now much more of a sport. Many more people cross country ski today, than snowshoe. Many people who snowshoe today, use small aluminum framed "snowshoes," that wouldn't hold you up in deep snow. This is not what I'm talking about when I say "snowshoe."
For me, old enough to remember the advent of snowmobiles, snowshoes have always been a way to visit the deep woods in winter. As a child, frozen rivers and swamps became my highway to places not easily reachable in summer. Making snowshoe trails through bowers of evergreens hung with snow is still a favorite winter past-time. If you want to go - where no one else goes - snowshoeing is the ideal form of locomotion.
Kenneth Avery on November 04, 2016:
The Colonial Ranger image brings back tender memories of my youth.
You are a great writer. Keep up the great work.