ICON: 005 - The Snowshoe

The Snowshoe

Canadian Icon: 005

The Snowshoe in Canada

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.

Snowshoes and Settlement

Europeans arrived in Canada to supply furs to Europe. However, the families coming to Canada were mainly poor and lacked hunting knowledge. Moreover, the furs they sought were thickest during winter when snow was deep. Their European horses and wagons were useless.

It didn't take long, therefore, for the fur business to rely completely on Aboriginal people who had been trapping and transporting goods by toboggan and snowshoes for thousands of years.

If not for these alliances, and for the sharing of traditional tools such as the snowshoe, Europeans would not have survived and the settlement of Canada would have unfolded much differently, if at all.

The Anishinaabe (Saulteaux)

It is believed that Canada's oldest snowshoes may originate from the Ojibwa People. One branch of the Ojibwa nation, the Saulteaux, were among the first to utilize the snowshoe in maintaining extensive trading relations with the French, British and later Americans. Saulteaux is a French term meaning "People of the rapids," referring to this group's former location in the area of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The Ontario Saulteaux descend from the Eastern Woodlands culture, a cultural area of the indigenous people of North America extending roughly from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern Great Plains, and from the Great Lakes region to the Gulf of Mexico, now the eastern United States and Canada. The Plains Indians culture area is to the west; the subarctic area to the north.

Today, some of the finest examples of traditional snowshoe design can still be found within the Saulteaux community.

A Poet's Praise

The last poem ever written by Archibald Lampman is titled Winter Uplands. It was an ode to the snowshoe. Lampman became ill when he returned from this walk, and died nine days later, at the age of 37. Lampman was known as "Canada's Keats." Originally, this poem was written in pencil, kept in one of his notebooks, which is now at the National Archives in Canada.

"The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound;
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blew
Across the open fields for miles ahead;
The far-off city towered and roofed in blue
A tender line upon the western red;
The stars that singly, then in flocks appear,
Like jets of silver from the violet dome,
So wonderful, so many and so near,
And then the golden moon to light me home--
The crunching snowshoes and the stinging air,
And silence, frost, and beauty everywhere.

— Archibald Lampman, avid snowshoer, Confederation poet, "the Canadian Keats."