From Beringia to North America: A Walk Through Deep Snows

That winter the snows were deep. In those deep woods foot travel would be extremely difficult without snowshoes. On that day I chose to wear my snowshoes constructed from white ash and leather webbing. These are also known as modified “bear paws”. This particular set is quite large and have an expanded surface area. A large human of 250+ pounds needs a big snowshoe to stay on the surface of 24 inch deep powder snow. The snows in this section of woods had no pre-packed trails and were too deep for my hounds to easily navigate so I ventured out alone. I hoped to come across a varying hare and kept an eye out for tracks. Few other mammals can negotiate this depth of snow. The varying hare is also known as the snowshoe hare because of its large feet and its ability to stay on top of or near the surface of the snow. They are prime food for many predators. In these deep snows they are slightly less apt to be preyed upon because of the difficulty of travel for large predators like bobcats, fox, and coyote. However, large raptors like the great horned owl would be happy to dine on one of these delectable forest land residents.

I wore my traditional snow shoes today. My modern snowshoes are fraught with design options that can make snowshoeing easier. For instance, they have ratcheting bindings which are much easier to use, especially in cold weather. They also have built-in crampons which bite into the top icy layers of the snow and keep one from sliding in a reverse direction on hills in icy conditions. They also do not have webbing but space age plastic platforms which do not allow any of the snow to sift through as would the leather webbing platforms that my traditional snowshoes have. But on that day, in those conditions, deep powder and no icy snow surface, these 30 year old snowshoes are exactly what I need. I use balance to dig the tips of the snowshoes into the deep snow when climbing hills. The webbing allows snow to filter through in significant amounts which gives the tip of the snowshoes some counter balance. And going downhill I could slide, much like a very slow ski as long as I keep my weight on the back of the snowshoes. This is something that would be impossible with the crampons attached to the more technical up to date snowshoes.

I arrived at a high ridge and looking east the sky was blue, blue, blue with tall, white, billowing clouds. The snow covered wooded landscape in front of me seemed to go on forever. From this vantage I could only see one house on the north side of my viewscape. With each breath I produced a trail of white vapor signifying that the zero degree temperatures were not imaginary. I was alone as I often like to be when in the wild. This is what it means to be free in my estimation.

I sat on a log and took off my day pack. I extracted a small thermos and poured a hot cup of coffee. My snowshoes remained on my feet and as I admired their age old construction I reflected upon their history. Long before there were any humans known to inhabit North American and towards the end of the last glacier period nomadic people from eastern Asia happened upon Beringia, also known when covered by the ocean as the Bering Straits. Previously the Pacific Ocean had separated Asia from the furthest western area of North American in what now is known as Alaska. During the glaciers the waters had receded and formed a land bridge connecting the two Continents although it remained covered by deep ice for thousands of years. This land bridge, Beringia, was larger than Alberta and British Columbia combine. Thousands of years before glaciers had formed from constant ocean-effect snow. Cold winds over the warmer water produced so much snow that they reduced the sea level in the region and the mounting and packing snow formed glaciers….up to two miles high! As the climate warmed and the Laurentide ice sheet retreated north land was exposed and eventually connected Asia to North America in the area now known as Beringia. Nomadic people crossed the newly exposed land bridge from east to west. Although some of Beringia was grass covered there were still huge areas of snow and ice. These nomadic people used basically long, wide, boards covered with seal skin that were attached to their feet and footwear to navigate these treacherous areas. Lessening the bearing weight of a human by spreading their body weight over a larger area proved to be a successful method of travel. In effect, these were not only the first skis but the first snowshoes.

These people came over in distinct and sometimes unrelated groups over several thousand years. They spread out in different directions primarily following the edge of the receding ice sheet and were quick to realize that traveling in deep snow was both necessary and difficult. The first snowshoes were likely fashioned with branches of different types of trees and rolled caribou hide leather strands fashioned into webbing. Eventually these First Americans learned to use stronger wood strips from the main stem of a tree or large shrub. They found that certain woody stem species were strong and easy to bend. The prevalent willow found in northern climates was likely the first to be used. Later ash, where it could be found, was the target wood for snowshoes. Leather strips from moose, caribou, elk, and deer hide became the materials of choice for the platform made out of webbing. And as different groups, some related and some not related, formed into tribes across the northern latitudes and higher terrain different styles of snowshoes were created.

The Ojibway (aka Chippewa) eventually fashioned the still present “Beaver Tail” snow shoes. These were made from a single piece narrow ash frame that was bent with steam or hot water so that the front was round (and turned up) and the back was a double band of wood fastened together to create a tail. The tail provided counter balance and reduced fatigue by being lighter and providing a slight kick when stepping forward. They were better in deep snows where thick woods were not present. The Wyandot (also known as Huron) perfected the deep snow woodland snowshoe by creating what is known as the “Bearpaw”. This nearly oval snowshoe is wide and only moderately long. It is constructed out of one single piece of ash with leather webbing. The back of the snow shoe completes the oval where the two ends of the of the ash have only a very short connection. The Cree often used two seperate long and narrow pieces of wood creating a point in the front and a tail in the back. The toe of the snowshoe was bent in an upward direction to aid in traveling through deep snow and heavily wooded areas. These snowshoes were long. It is important to note that in all of these snowshoes the leather webbing was intricate and beautifully woven. The patterns, some having an artistic quality, represented the web of life. Something North American Indigenous people knew about long before Europeans.

After Europeans arrived in North America it did not take European fur trappers long to catch on the the primary method of foot travel in snow laden lands. The snowshoe was taken back to Europe and introduced in the early to mid 1600′s where the primary design with new configurations traveled east into Asia completing a human evolutionary circle of technology over thousands of years.

These traditional snowshoes were the foundation for modern snowshoe constructed with aircraft aluminum frames or space age plastic frames and modern deckings made out of super plastic sheet materials capable of performing in wide temperature ranges without too much damage. As mention earlier, the bindings are much easier to use than the old leather strap bindings although I will say I have had some fracture rendering them useless. Sometimes emergency repairs will suffice when they fail (I learned to always carry some extra nylon straps in my pocket the hard way). Navigating deep snows over long distances with only one working snowshoe is way beyond irritating.

As I sat on this high ridge it occurred to me how much snowshoeing had changed over the years. It had a resurgence of popularity in the 1970′s leading to modern innovative designs. There is no doubt that the modern snowshoe is more convenient. The one thing that really changed over the years is where people travel on snowshoes. By far and away most modern snowshoe enthusiasts hike on packed snow terrain. Snow mobile trails are popular. There are also commercial areas that have miles of packed trail. The fact is you could walk on most of these packed snow trails in normal winter boots. Still this is an adventure for many and anything that gets people outside, especially in the winter, is a good idea. For me I choose to walk off the beaten bath. Yes, it requires skill and balance in deep snows. And yes, it is infinitely more difficult and physically challenging. My preference leads me to where others do not go. I can be alone with the forest and the creatures that inhabit it. For me this is a what it is all about.

But on that beautiful day thinking about the history of snowshoes created a wondrous moment. I was here because of the evolution of a technical device. From Nomadic tribes from Asia to our Indigenous People of North America to the modern material of our present age the snowshoe has been perfected for winter travel. I could not help but conclude that is was in its own right a miraculous journey!

The sun lowered in the western sky and I started the trek home. While descending the mountain back towards our homestead I came across a varying hare. Camoflaged by his white fur I could only see him because he moved as I approached. He easily navigated the terrain on top of the snow on his huge paws. We had something in common. We both were adorned with snowshoes and both were free to enjoy the beauty of this deep forested terrain.

And that, my friends, is a superb and wild winter experience.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in January 2018.

  • Ratty

    I really like this history of snowshoes you’ve shared. People have been telling me for most of the years I’ve written my blog that I should get some snowshoes for my hiking. Up until now I’ve just kind of ignored that advice because my nature trails were already kind of well-traveled. I didn’t really need anything other than my ice cleats to help keep me from sliding on ice. Now the nature trails around here where I live now don’t seem to be visited by anybody but me. We’ve had a lot of snow this year and I’ve let that deep snow keep me from going out. After all those years of ignored advice, it didn’t occur to me what to do about that. But after reading this post I decided to finally go and at least check prices for some snowshoes for myself. I think maybe this winter is beginning to wind down a bit, but I’ll definitely be ready for next year with my own snowshoes.

    Your posts always make me think a lot about my own situation in very good ways. And I’m always glad when I read them.

  • Wild_Bill

    You don’t need really expensive snow shoes to enjoy them. If your not doing a lot of back country, off trail, snow shoeing a modest pair will suit you just fine. Make sure they are sized for your weight. You know just the other day I read one of your posts and all I could think about was how inspirational they are. Always innocent, positive, and fun. I love to see the natural world through your eyes.

Nature Blog Network