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Snowshoeing -- a long tradition that makes winter more enjoyable.

With the record-breaking snowstorms inundating us, Gucci's, Jimmy Choos. Manolo Blahniks, and even Muck Boots can't take us very far. To walk through this season's snowdrifts, snowshoes can make entry into an otherwise impossible world a rewarding adventure.

Of the numerous cultural gifts left to us by Native Americans, snowshoes may be the most useful. About 5,000 years ago, the Central Asian that first intuited the simple physics of distributing weight over a wider surface area to float over deep snow was a true genius. He -- maybe she? -- came up with the prototype that his/her migrating descendants refined much later in North America, giving it a tail to keep it straight and a turned-up toe to facilitate forward movement.

While snowshoes are discretionary luxuries for us today, for thousands of years they were vital survival tools for many North American northern tribes.

Horses had, of course, existed in North America long before any humans crossed the Bering Strait. They might have been useful for transportation, but horses were all extinct about 8,000 years ago. Indigenous tribes hunted them excessively -- just as they did the wooly mammoth -- even as climate change and disease further reduced their numbers. Snowshoes thus became the only means of transportation.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Inuit did not perfect them. Traveling primarily on sea ice and wind-blown shallow routes in what is essentially a polar desert, they survived with a primitive version and the perfection of snowshoes was wrought by indigenous tribes much farther south.

Before horses were introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Great Plains Indians needed snowshoes to pursue bison. Necessity was the mother of invention again as they would have starved without the shoes. And in northern forests, snowshoes enabled natives to get out and hunt and trap to avoid dying.

Many tribes came up with distinctive patterns, displaying how function dictated form. Most often, they used white ash for frames and caribou, deer, or bison for webbing. Open-country snowshoes could be short and wide. Forest snowshoes had to be relatively narrow and long to go between trees and possess a tail to keep them on line in back.

While the Indians mastered the form, the first French Canadian fur traders, who penetrated the country largely by canoes, became the first white masters of the snowshoe. Their proficiency with their 5-foot long raquette de neige almost won them the French and Indian War, prevailing in major engagements known as the Battle on Snowshoes.

Back then, snowshoes all had wooden frames with rawhide bindings and a basal latticework that kept snow from building up. They were both less prone to freezing and less noisy than today's metal and synthetic models. But the new ones offered to us today generally function better, just as graphite flyrods under many conditions can function better than bamboo flyrods.

What snowshoe should one consider buying? That depends on your finances and intentions. For affordability and speed, the 2.1-pound $140 Faber Aerobic is a fine choice. If you're into snowshoeing for getting around fast and even running, this is your shoe.

If you're into extreme terrain with serious ice -- the most dangerous condition for snowshoers -- the $200 MSR Revo Explore offers a greater margin for safety. It's durable and has serious crampons and extra teeth for gripping.

For those who want a shoe that's easy to use and comfortable, the $250 4.4-pound Tubbs Flex VRT is an excellent choice. While offering very good traction, it has a much appreciated back end that flexes.

For the backcountry, the $220 4.1-pound Atlas Endeavors are a fine choice. With a V-shaped tail, they provide less drag and minimize tripping. They have serious teeth and are more comfortable than most. But there is a complaint that the design kicks snow up your backside.

While getting out in the snow can enable a tough outdoorsman entry into an exclusive, magical world, there is one critical consideration: the possible harassment of wildlife. Deer are bedded now, moving as little as possible to conserve energy and fat supplies in an environment that offers little nourishment. Any extra, unnecessary exertions could tip the balance between survival and death by late March when mortality is highest.

So if you're going to snowshoe and don't mind learning a whole new way to walk, stay far away from deer tracks and deer beds. Head out into the open, not into their dense refuges. Enjoy the sun, the vista, and the wide-open space. You'll likely have it all to yourself.

Contact Mark Blazis

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 3, 2015
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