One of my most vivid winter childhood memories includes a pair of snowshoes. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I was old enough to be wearing snowshoes. My father and I were going ice fishing, and we were going by foot. This was the early 1970s, and snowmobiles were not the ubiquitous winter form of transportation they are today. If you wanted to get back into a distant stocked trout lake, you really were forced to go by foot. And with snow depths routinely hip height for your average adult man, that meant wearing snowshoes.
The memory is foggy, but I definitely had a pair of traditional, old-fashioned snowshoes on that day. They were “hand-me-down” wood and deer skin snowshoes that had been cracked and repaired many times. In wet snow, the strips of deer skin would get soft and become something akin to a mini-trampoline. Because the wood frames had been repeatedly repaired, the shoes were not very stable.
I recall taking a few headers into the snow as I tried to follow my father’s longer stride. Worst of all were the bindings. As I recall, they just would not stay on my feet. About every 10 steps my foot would slip out of the binding, sending me, once again, face first into the snow. Dad and I would then spend another five minutes trying to get my boots back into the frozen bindings.
We got to the lake, and may have even caught some brook trout, although I can’t honestly recall. Despite that early experience, I grew to have a love for snowshoes, and that continues nearly 40 years later. And there have been a lot of memorable experiences since.
One particularly vivid trip took place about 25 years ago just outside of Thunder Bay. It was January, and a friend and I had decided that hunting for snowshoe hares was the thing to do. It was a bright, crisp afternoon, and there was a couple of feet of snow on the ground. A quick foray in the bush with normal boots quickly proved fruitless, but we had the forethought to throw in our snowshoes.
I’d never hunted wearing snowshoes before and quickly learned there was a trick to it. For starters, I was carrying a loaded shotgun, and this created a whole new set of issues when the inevitable face plant occurred. There was one less arm to use as a cushion. Plus the actual hunting on snowshoes was a bit awkward, especially in the tight confines of a twiggy old cut. Yet those snowshoes kept us up on top and allowed us the same advantage the white rabbits had.
Once the balance and other issues had been sorted out, my friend and I had a very good hunt. It was exhilarating to sneak through the bush, kicking up those incredibly disguised hares and trying to anticipate where they would go and what they would do. A very challenging but exciting hunt. And it would have been virtually impossible to do without snowshoes.
In later years, when snowmobiles came into the picture, the snowshoes began to see a little less action. That didn’t mean, however, they got put away. Quite the contrary. In many ways, snowshoes became even more important as the backup plan to get out of the bush safely if and when anything went wrong. Needless to say, things went wrong.
The examples of snowshoes saving the hides of my friends and I are many indeed. One adventure that really stands out occurred deep in the bush north of Nipigon. We’d taken two machines into a distant trout lake, and travelled via a trail used by a trapper. The trip in was pretty exciting. At one point we actually rolled a machine. No one was hurt, but that was just a foretaste of the excitement to come.
When we got to the lake, it looked a little slushy, but we had faith in our long-track sleds. Too much faith, as it turned out. Both machines became badly stuck in slush, and it was deep. However, snowshoes were strapped to the back rack of both machines. This was a life saver.
We used those snowshoes to pack down a hard trail that would take us back to shore. This was not an easy task, as the slush lurked just below the snow. One false step could mean becoming completely soaked. A very dangerous situation when you are 10 miles from your vehicle and your transportation is immobile. Luckily, the brilliant simplicity of the snowshoe allowed us to get out. We even were able to fish a bit, although our enthusiasm for traveling to the good spots on the lake had been taken away. I do wonder what would have happened if we’d left our snowshoes behind that day. It all could have ended quite differently.
There have also been many idyllic walks in the woods with snowshoes on, looking at the beautiful trees and sucking in the fresh air. These experiences are highly enjoyable and provide a great source of exercise in the dead of winter. Yet somehow those snowshoe stories don’t stick with me like the ones I just shared.
This story was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Northern Wilds Magazine.
By Gord Ellis