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Snow coats the landscape—light and fluffy, the kind that makes you sink to your shins. After a few struggling steps, you’re ready to go back inside and just look at the snow through the window. But strap on a pair of snowshoes and it’s a different story. Used by indigenous people for thousands of years, snowshoes’ elongated design disperses weight to allow the average person to do the seemingly impossible: walk on top of deep snow.
This winter, with the pandemic marching on, the crowds that a ski resort may attract might leave some active snow fans behind. That is, unless they’ve taken up this novel activity.
“It’s just like hiking, only in the winter,” says Susan Wowk, who over the past five years has become an avid snowshoer in northern Colorado. Indeed, fans say snowshoeing offers a unique way to disconnect: all it takes is a stroll through a snowy park or, for the more adventurous, into deep snow in the woods. For leaders, this may be especially appealing—a refreshing workout and an encounter with nature that’s not only good for physical health but also improves mental outlook.
“We’ve lost our connection to the land,” says Aaron Leggett, who works as a special exhibits curator at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska and is also a cultural historian of Alaska’s Dena'ina people, who have been using snowshoes for centuries. “For many people, there is no better way to reconnect than to go out on snowshoes.”
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To be sure, snowshoeing is much more of a trudge than the long treks of cross-country skiing, for example. And it certainly doesn’t offer the speed and adrenaline rush of downhill skiing. But snowshoeing does invite exploration of out-of-the-way places. Modern snowshoes, which tend to be small and lightweight—made from plastic, aluminum, or composite—make it as easy as strapping them on and taking a step off. No path necessary. “I love how you can make snowshoeing whatever you want, a leisurely stroll or intensive exercise,” adds Wowk, whose enthusiasm for the sport includes being co-owner and editor of Snowshoe Magazine.
What few modern snowshoers may realize is they are actually walking in the footsteps of indigenous peoples who developed this technology more than 5,000 years ago. It’s believed that the first people who migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge into North America came on snowshoes. Over the centuries, indigenous people from Alaska to the Great Lakes to Canada perfected their own unique designs of wooden snowshoes based on their local terrain and winter conditions. For example, oval “bear paw” shapes are good for navigating thick woods and hills, while diamond shapes with pointed toes and tails break through crusty snow.
Among the Dena'ina people, Leggett says, snowshoes were the backbone of the culture, allowing travel over long distances while carrying heavy loads. Their process for making snowshoes started with selecting the perfect straight-grained birch—wood that could be steamed and bent, without splitting, to form the curve of the snowshoe. Once the wooden frame was made, the snowshoes were webbed with thin strips of semi-tanned leather.
Today, only a few traditional snowshoe makers remain, but there has been a small revival of this nearly lost art. Although Leggett is not a regular snowshoer, he says this winter will change that. “During the pandemic, snowshoeing is one way not to feel isolated during winter. You can go out and take stock of the world you live in.”