Snowshoes "float" on top of deep snow by distributing the weight of the walker across the surface. Many anthropologists believe a basic snowshoe with this function allowed early humans to migrate across the top of the globe from central Asia to Canada, where Aboriginal groups eventually created and perfect hundreds of snowshoe designs.
Most of Canada's first snowshoes were carved from birch or hard ash that was soaked or steamed to become pliable and then constructed using stretched animal skin and rawhide. The shape, size and materials varied with the trees, animals, snow conditions and terrain within a particular region. Lacing and woven patterns on snowshoes were intricate and could include decorations such as fur pompoms, which were added to honour animal spirits and/or mask a human scent from upwind.
The process of making a snowshoe was an arduous one. It began with days spent choosing a tree without knots, felling it, cutting and splitting the timber, hewing and shaving the staves and steaming and bending the wood. After that, many hours were spent installing crossbars, selvage cords and finishing the frames. Finally it was time to harvest an animal, clean the skins, cut and prepare skin string, weave the toe, midsection and tail, and, finally, begin construction of the harness and footgear. The attention to detail in this intricate process reflects the importance of the item in Aboriginal life.
The first Europeans in Canada – trappers, hunters, explorers and surveyors – also grew to understand the importance of the snowshoe. They were unprepared to survive in areas where snow lay deep throughout the winter and the French, in particular, were quick to intermingle with the Aboriginal groups and learn to make the best use of the snowshoe.
The snowshoe also benefitted the French during their struggle with Britain for dominion in North America. The French victory at the famous 1758 Battle on Snowshoes near Lake George led British military leaders to realize how significant snowshoes were in waging winter warfare. From that time on, the English made snowshoes part of the military's basic equipment.
In the century that followed, snowshoeing became a popular recreational activity in Quebec. Groups met for hikes or for competitive races. All of French Canada held snowshoeing as a serious sport, with its popularity eventually leading to the creation of one of Canada's first sporting clubs, the Montreal Snowshoe Club. In the 1920s relaxing snowshoe hikes became a fixed part of the social scene.
Today, the snowshoes used by most outdoor enthusiasts are mostly lightweight aluminum frames with steel cleats rather than the traditional wood and leather designs that had became so iconic in the past. The joy of discovering new Canadian winter landscapes on a pair of snowshoes, however, remains a timeless experience unchanged by the passage of time.