Snow Sports / Travel / Winter Vacation

Snowshoeing: Humble Snow Steps in Canada’s Vastness and History

The first time I had heard of and even seen snowshoes, was when I was 12 years old. A father of a boy in my class, occasionally took business trips to Frobisher Bay in the Canadian Arctic. Remember, this was in the early 1970’s when the Canadian Arctic was still a whited-out blizzard blank slate to many southern Canadians. And the Canadian

Snowshoes as transportation for several millennia among the First Nations (native Indians) in North America. Royal Museum of Alberta. Edmonton 2013.

Snowshoes as transportation for several millennia among the First Nations (native Indians) in North America. Royal Museum of Alberta. Edmonton 2013.

government just 15 years ago, had relocated some Inuit in the far Arctic to supposedly better locations for them.

Nowadays at the end of Frobisher Bay, is Iqualuit on Baffin Island, capital city of Nunavut, Canadian’s third territory as of 1991.

Snowshoeing 4 km. to our inn near Lake Louise, Alberta 2012.  I'm backpacking only clothing that I need for  5 days.

Snowshoeing 10 km. to our inn near Lake Louise, Alberta 2012. I’m backpacking only clothing that I need for 5 days.

Tom, the classmate, did bring in snowshoes and even tramped around in them with his parka on, once or twice. The snowshoes were made aboriginal- style of traditional wood and animal hide strappings.

Snowshoeing Hobbled by Lack of Movie Star, Olympic Glamour
Now, in a small city in southern Ontario, snowshoes were pretty foreign to most of us. Skating, hockey and skiing were the reigning sports for us.

However even now, snowshoeing is still probably lacks the cache of glamour, cool and speed, compared to skiing or snowboarding. Who sees paparrazi gossip magazines featuring movie stars kicking up snow in snowshoes?

Snowshoeing hasn’t even made the Winter Olympics yet.

Gerard Cote's snowshoeing medal who held world snowshoeing speed record for several years. Cote was a former Quebec marathoner who won the Boston Marathon 3 times in the 1940's. Canada's Sport Hall of Fame. Calgary, Alberta.

Gerard Cote’s snowshoeing medal who held world snowshoeing speed record for several years. Cote was a former Quebec marathoner who won the Boston Marathon 3 times in the 1940′s. Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame. Calgary, Alberta.

But running in snowshoes up a mountain slope or in deep snow, will convince anyone, that it can be serious work-out, enough to knock out your breath and your legs, if you aren’t careful.

Strapping into snowshoes. Kimberley, British Columbia 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Strapping into snowshoes. Kimberley, British Columbia Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Sport Simplicity of Snowshoeing: Like Walking
In the past 20 yrs., snowshoeing in some North American corners with lots of snow, has gained traction in leaps and bounds. Some fitness fans want to maintain their running, cycling or warm weather fitness but want sport simplicity and lower winter sport costs.

Montreal 1843: North America’s First Snowshoe Club
The first snowshoe club in North America was in Montreal 1843. There in snowshoeing clubs in Eastern Canada and Northeastern U.S. late 19th century into the 1930’s. Then the clubs melted away for a few decades. Frame material innovations in snowshoe design helped make the snowshoe more long-lasting and make the sport more broadly accessible with a revival in the early 1980′s onward.

Snowshoeing will invigorate your winter fitness. Yes, true you can go tramping about along the golf course snowy hills and across the fields. In a terrible winter snowstorm

On Horse Trail, approx. 1760 metres up near Lake Louise, AB. Dec. 2013.

On Horse Trail, approx. 1760 metres up near Lake Louise, AB. Dec. 2013.

when snow plows have not reached your neighbourhood, you’re probably more mobile in snowshoes, not in skis, in a highly urban environment with sidewalks, roads and building corners.

I started snowshoeing in 1992 when I first moved to Vancouver. The city has mountains nearly in our backyard. Back then, there was less choice of snowshoe models. I paid over $300.00 for my MSR Evo pair. Now there seems to be 2 different Evo pairs, with the one model I have,  but now 50% lower at rack price compared to mine.

On Snowbird Trail, a groomed Nordic skiing area managed by local cross-country ski club. Kimberley, British Columbia Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

On Snowbird Trail, a groomed Nordic skiing area managed by local cross-country ski club. Kimberley, British Columbia Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Snow Steps: Humble Reminders of Canada’s Vastness and History
Unlike skiing, snowshoeing does mean traversing slower. When I’m ploughing up the mountain slope or through an evergreen forested glade drooping with snowy boughs, I feel like trudging in the traditional snow steps of the Canadian aboriginal Indians centuries ago.  Even in  recent memory, they and others may have to snowshoe to hunt and do other chores in deep snow.

Dogsleedding teams for visiting tourists while we were all on the Continental Divide route at the British Columbian border  near Kicking Horse Pass after leaving Lake Louise, Alberta. 2012. Photo by J.Chong

Dogsledding teams for visiting tourists while we were snowshoeing on Continental Divide route , shared with also cross-country skiers at British Columbian border near Kicking Horse Pass after snowshoeing from Lake Louise, Alberta. 2012. Photo by J.Chong.

When I snowshoe across white deep snow and that’s all I see for many kilometres: I am humbly reminded how enormous tracts of Canada are like this in winter.  Canada is so friggin’ vast!   Huge hunks of our land are still in wilderness and often, uninhabitable. It has been argued that large areas of Canada were explored by snowshoeing since horses cannot nor skis (did not appear in North America from Scandinavia until 1800’s) can penetrate some areas.

My first snowshoeing foray on rented Atlas snowshoes. Manning Park, British Columbia 2004.

My first snowshoeing foray on rented Atlas snowshoes. Manning Park, British Columbia 2004.

Different Snowshoe Shapes for Varied Snow Conditions
Snowshoes are believed to originate in central Asia 6,000 years ago and were brought over by tribes migrating across what is now Bering Strait, into Alaska and across the continent. There are 4 main styles of snowshoes shaped by different native Indian groups in various regions because of different snow conditions: Bearpaw, Huron, Objiway and Alaskan.

On a snowshoe trail that we broke since last night's snowfall. Horse Trail, Lake Louise AB Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

On a snowshoe trail that we broke since last night’s snowfall. Horse Trail, Lake Louise AB Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong. This area is in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

I thinking my MSR snowshoes are based on Bearpaw. They are squat and broad. Not long tapered elegance for snowshoe running or racing.

Men shaped the wood snowshoe frames while women created the babiche, the lacing made from untanned caribou, moose, or deer hide strips, to provide snowshoe flotation over the snow. Native Indians in Labrador and Eastern Quebec made far tighter and finer meshes for the dry, deep snow there. Looser weaves were for slushier, warm snows by the coast and early spring.

Snows starts falling while snowshoeing. Revelstoke National Park, British Columbia 2006. Photo by J.Chong

Snows starts falling in the mountains, while snowshoeing. Revelstoke National Park, British Columbia 2006. Photo by J.Chong

I can vouch that the drier powder snow in prairies is noticeable compared to more softer snow on the coastal and interior mountains in British Columbia where it’s a touch warmer  –that is if you consider -10 degrees C warmer than -24 degrees C in Albertan Rocky Mountains.

Moon glows through morning  sky while we're snowshoeing. Kimberley Nordic Ski Park, British Columbia. Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Moon glows through morning sky while we’re snowshoeing. Kimberley Nordic Ski Park, British Columbia. Dec. 2013. Photo by J.Chong

So layer up, and tramp upward along gentle mountain slopes on snowshoes. You will plumb into winter’s magical soul.

More Stories and Photos
Chong, J. More Snowshoeing for Snow Mountain Addicts and the Vertigo-Inclined. In Cycle Write Blog. Feb. 12, 2011.

Gillespie, C. From Bear Paws to Beavertails: The History of Snowshoes. In Snowshoe Magazine. Jan. 1, 2007.

GV Snowshoes.  Snowshoe History.

Snowshoeing through Revelstoke National Park, British Columbia 2006. Photo by J. Chong

Snowshoeing through Revelstoke National Park, British Columbia 2006. Photo by J. Chong

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38 thoughts on “Snowshoeing: Humble Snow Steps in Canada’s Vastness and History

  1. Now this sounds like something I’d enjoy! I have seen snow only a few times in my life, tried skiing once (the boots hurt my feet too much and I couldn’t keep it up), tried snowboarding once, but am reluctant to even try those again due to age + inexperience probably rendering me more likely to be injured. I would really like to try this though. Thanks for the post :)

    • My partner’s cousin learned to snowboard in his early 50′s, which amazed me. Yup, I agree falling often during a sport doesn’t get easier or better with age after mid-life. I think you would really like snowshoeing in the mountains. It’s a natural fit with cyclists.

    • Too complimentary, Diana. I just like cycling and snowshoeing. You yourself seem to enjoy lots of walking which for me I actually tend to like to walk shorter distances than I snowshoe. Latter is tied to what I see in snowy wilderness landscapes.

  2. LOVE seeing the snow photos, Jean! I’ve wanted to snowshoe for a long time, but it would happen here unless one gets about 17,000 feet or so.

    I’ve been away from the blogosphere for nearly two weeks. We’ve had guests from the US and have been traveling around our new home country. We are at the airport getting ready to fly from Quito to Cuenca, at which time posting should return to normal. Sorry to have missed posts of yours and my other “blogmates.”.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Kathryn: First congrats. on getting Freshly Pressed by wordpress.com..again!
      In-person friends from far away are always a priority, especially if you haven’t seen them for awhile.

      You and your partner probably would love snowshoeing. Never say never. Life has strange, hopefully happy twists that present opportunities. Just take advantage of it.

      Warm wishes for 2014 with lots of good learning, creativity and luck.

  3. Dear Jean,
    It`s such a joy to read your posts and when the subject is winter your posts evoke memories for me. In this article again you share your love of recreational snowshoeing. That makes me smile because my background is quite different from yours, Jean. I have memories of being trapped in cabins for months on end in cold rural and backcountry places – remote wintry places and spaces. When I was a kid my parents used the old fashioned style of snowshoes and skis to get around, but sleds pulled by our dogs were the main forum of transportation in winter months. We did have trucks but it was frequently too cold for them to start and we were off the grid so plugging the engine blocks into hydro was not possible. I have no interest in returning to such places and spaces during months with below temperatures now. However, I love reading about your mountain adventures. May your New Year be an exceptionally happy one full of many memory making moments and may you capture them all in images you share with us here.

    Love, joy and peace be with you.

    • Wow, timethief. Off-the grid, dogsledding (!) for practical reasons and in remote wintery spaces: that’s tough for a kid for many months. I’m sure you had a number of simple chores even as a kid since you are like me, from a big family. I readily know that I am an urban baby..I grew up in a southern Ontario town of 2,000 for lst 3 yrs. of life (which I don’t remember) and then to a small city of 30,000 (when I was a child) as the smaller areas. So I enjoy the rural and wilderness areas only temporarily …a few days of Nature. Not long term living, timethief: I like my transit services, little shops, restaurants, services near by and also preferably a college or university in the area for expanded learning by locals (I think that’s important. The Internet is limited by still isolating people from face to face interaction/reality.)

      Clearly your upbringing helps you greatly appreciate island coastal living where winters aren’t as frigid/hard.

  4. I discovered showshoeing in the French alps, and can vouch for the workout / exercise you get! I love the feeling of getting away from the crowds into the quiet of woods and mountains that showshoes enable, and I’m imagining with the sheer scale of Canada that would be pretty easy!

    • French Alps sounds impressive for snowshoeing. Would be a different experience when /if one ended up in the villages: they would be older, probably more scenic architecturally, than Canada’s mountain villages/towns. In the right Canadian climate regions, they offer a lot of impressive, if not also intimidating (some avalanche prone) snowshoeing areas in the mountains. Another big difference between French Alps and Canadian wilderness mountain areas is Canada just has more protected large wildlife to roam across much greater distances …bears, moose, elk, cougars, bighorn sheep (with curved horns), wolves, etc.

      If you ever hanker to visit Canadian Rocky Mountains, you know who can give you ideas. :)

  5. Wonderful!! Maybe you could send some of that snow our way? In the Pacific NW U.S. — NO SNOW. It’s been dry since early December. I love your photos. You haven’t changed a bit since 2004.

    • My sunglasses in a 2013 photo in the blog post, seem to hide some changes since 2004. :) You’re too complimentary, jbw. Best wishes for a great 2014 and maybe with a touch of non-stormy snow.

  6. I never did try snowshoeing, even though I grew up in a rural area and my Dad had a set he occasionally used (the old wooden style). I got a MEC gift certificate for xmas that I could put towards a set…

    • Somehow I sense for you on spending that MEC gift certificate, the pull to buy a cycling gear vs. snowshoeing. :) Maybe you’ll jump the fat tire bike trend.

  7. Pingback: Friday Pick 83 | talktodiana

    • Thanks for dropping by, Gina. I wish you well with your journeys of inspiration for self and others. I so agreed in your comments on Nelson Mandela.

  8. We tried snowshoeing years ago and didn’t like it. We prefer xc skiing. But I bought a pair this year and haven’t used them yet– think I want to try again and alternate w/ xc. Loving our cold weather.

    • I understand your need to travel faster along the snow. It’s no different than me getting impatient with walking in summer when I prefer strongly to bike. I’ve been known often to bike 2 blocks from home just to do some light grocery shopping. Yes, every opportunity to bike. :)

      Still, snowshoeing especially in the mountain areas is great workout for cyclists, where it’s difficult to get skis in deep wooded areas or along twisting paths along mountain switchbacks. Hope you try it again but in some mountain areas. The photos in this blog post are in the Canadian Rockies except for Revelstoke National Park which has another mountain range..there are several in British Columbia. I can’t keep them straight without an atlas.

  9. Wow, look at the snow! I haven’t seen any for four years. Too long. Love your snow photos. The air must be heavenly. I just did a piece on Shanghai’s pollution. Such stark contrast. My lungs are envious.
    Is snowshoeing hard by the way? With my age and zero experience, I’d better not even think about it. :-)

    • Mountain air here is lovely. At night time, the stars are plentiful when it’s clear, unlike the city where we live. We live in an area just north of us where northern lights do occasionally occur. But unlike my partner, I haven’t had the thrill yet of seeing this night time phenomena yet! That and seeing moose, long haired mountain goats are natural things I hope to see one day. Yes, I read your blog post on Shanghai’s pollution which must be tough to deal with daily. Most likely that has affected frequency of snow, which clearly is less.

      You would enjoy snowshoeing if you like walking/hiking. Easy to pick up. Hope you try it one day.

  10. Thanks for visiting my blog today Jean! I love this post about snowshoeing. I’ve never tried it but I just borrowed a friend’s. I’m going to Aroostook Maine with a group of women at the end of the month. We’re doing snowshoeing, cross country skiing and yoga. I’m really looking forward to it!

    • Yes, the snowshoeing heritage in Canada is interesting, great stuff and how certain areas of Canada was opened up. Yup, we need beauty during interminably long winter months such as this year 2014. Right now nearly spring like before maybe yet another snow dump after our 5th or 6th major one within the last 3 months.

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