Going into the woods on ‘shoes’
Appeal Copy Desk Chief
“The origin of snowshoes is veiled in the antiquity of ten thousand snowstorms,” according to the poet/publicists at LL Bean. We do know they were used in Asia more than 2,000 years ago, and undoubtedly came to North America via the land bridge over the Aleutian Islands.
The natives of the far north didn’t use snowshoes for an obvious reason: they were too far above the treeline. But snowshoes became a necessity for the woodland Indians of the lower latitudes, and the basics have been only slightly altered.
The National Museum of Canada has an ancient example of a snowshoe made of branches with twisted bark for webbing. A notorious local historical improvisation – branches strapped onto rag-bound feet – was used by members of the Donner party during their futile “Forlorn Hope” escape attempt.
Why should one choose to trudge through the snow when you could glide over it with cross-country skis? My fellow skiers warned me that snowshoes would drive me crazy after the smooth progress of skiing. But snowshoes sometimes have distinct advantages over skis.
First, it is an inexpensive alternative to skiing; prices range from about $80 if you find them on sale. Secondly, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. All ages can participate, and the technique requires less than a day to learn.
You can cover a much wider variety of terrain with snowshoes than with cross-country skis: bushwhack through frozen swamps, traverse open fields of heavy powder and climb mountains – terrain that could be possible only on specialized, expensive mountaineering skis. Snowshoes are better than any skis for carrying loads of camping equipment.
The size of the shoe is determined by the wearer’s body weight, plus the load he or she expects to carry. A wide design is best for heavy loads, narrow for thick woods. If the shoes are too large, the flotation capabilities are reduced, and you expend too much energy trying to maneuver the unnecessary weight and surface area.
The frames and cross braces of shoes can be made of wood or, nowadays, aluminum or plastic. White ash is the favored wood because it is light, durable, straight-grained, resilient and not inclined to split. Detachable or built-in aluminum crampons or “claws” help you on ice and for climbing.
Today’s leather webbings are cowhide. Nylon or Neoprene webbing reduces the shoe weight, repels dampness, and is more durable than hide. Shoes have bindings on the ball of the foot or a flexible polyester toe and a strap around the heel of your boot.
In “The Snowshoe Book,” William Osgood and Leslie Hurley write, “the cardinal rule of snowshoeing technique is to remember to pick up the foot to be moved ahead over the edge of the stationary foot and to move this foot far enough ahead so it won’t encumber the stationary foot.” This is a whole bunch of words to say what you’ll figure out immediately: don’t step on your tails and edges.
Use a ski kick-turn to maneuver, placing your feet at a 180-degree angle (ballet’s fifth position) and reversing direction.
To go uphill, lean far forward on the balls of your feet and use a modified herringbone technique as in cross-country skiing: Toes pointed out, dig the shoe tail into the slope, lean back on your poles. On a long uphill climb, traverse the hill on a diagonal, digging the shoes’ uphill edge in and kick turning with the downhill foot on the switchbacks.
Downhill, dig in your tails while traversing or just glissade – slide intentionally- standing or sitting. Sometimes it is easier to trot downhill rather than plant the foot firmly.
My first outing
Jim White’s business card reads: “Mountain Training Consultants: Outdoor Education, Adventure Travel.” At 66, he has the weathered face and trim physique of a career outdoorsman – 35 years as a warden for the California Department of Fish and Game.
White teaches snow safety and survival to utility workers of Pacific and Gas Electric Co. and Nevada Irrigation District: survival in a snow-bound vehicle, basic physiology in low temperatures, coping with hypothermia.
My friend Jim and I rented stock aluminum and Neoprene snowshoes with attached claws in two lengths, depending on the wearer’s weight and snow conditions. The salesman issued us the shorter model because we were going out on packed powder, despite Jim’s 180 pounds.
We met White at the Sno-Park at the Boreal Ridge ski area. He brought three pairs of snowshoes to show us. One was an unusual, rough, handmade contraption of bent wood, cord and woven sticks found along Highway 50 by snow surveyors more than 15 years ago. Another pair was a “13-by-56,” a 13-inch wide, 56-inch long “trail shoe” for heavy powder, the size favored by timber cruisers and issued to Cal-Trans workers.
White’s shoes looked like works of art compared to our rental shoes, all pale wood and a graceful tear drop shape that was a good 18″ longer than Jim’s. My shoes looked stubby, inelegant and distressingly high tech. Somehow the romantic image of myself as a red-plaid-clad French Canadian lumberjack tromping through the woods jarred with the blue aluminum and Velcro of my shoes.
White said the best footwear for snowshoeing is a lightweight leather mountain boot with a rubber bottom, insulated top and narrow profile. He prefers a studded sole because snow can pack into the Vibram lug of most hiking boots.
We started at the Donner Pass Pacific Crest Trail trailhead. I started out lifting my feet high and placing them wide apart. Eventually, White glanced back and said, “Pat, you’d be better off if you just shuffled.” I changed my approach and within five minutes forgot I was even wearing snowshoes, the sport is that easy. He cautioned us to never use our arms to brace ourselves if we fall, landing on our rears instead.
“I’ve seen a lot of broken arms. But we don’t have too many broken butts.”
As leisurely as cross-country can be, I saw things on the shoes that I’ve seldom noticed on skis: minuscule rodent tracks in the snow, icicles hanging from rocks and a woodpecker nest cavity. And, unlike on skis, I could go anywhere with effortless maneuverability.
White has extensive knowledge of snow from his membership in the National Association of Avalanche Professionals and the National Ski Patrolmen (he served at Alpine Meadows ski resort), and from U.S. Forest Service avalanche-training classes.
The ability to “read” snow is critical for route finding in the backcountry. White says, “Every serious backcountry skier should have avalanche training.” But he laments that most short-course classes give people a false sense of confidence – a deadly example of “a little knowledge is dangerous.”
White pointed out the best place to camp in the snow is under the trees. Snow here is always softer and deeper, not settled and warmer like open-space snow subject to wind and radiant-heat loss. It can be 20 degrees warmer bivouacking under the trees. He sleeps in a trench dug in the snow with a poncho stretched over ski poles for a roof.
Jim White may be part of a dying breed of outdoor professionals: a guy who can read snow, recognize the scent of a weasel, spend the night in a snowy trench, improvise in spite of limited funds and a frustrating bureaucracy.
He is dedicated to educating the rest of us in how to be a part of the wilderness – and to respect its power. With the increased popularity of sports such as snowshoeing, we have the unique opportunity to learn about a place few of us ever venture into, the backwoods snowfields, bolstered by this knowledge.
(This article originally appeared in The Union newspaper in Grass Valley, Calif.)
• Pat Devereux is the copy desk chief of the Nevada Appeal. Contact her at (775) 881-1224.