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December 2012

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Adirondack snowshoeing tips, trips and traditions

Adirondack lore and landscape are littered with snowshoes. In the French and Indian War Robert Rogers and his intrepid Rangers battled fiercely atop hardwood and hide shoes, turning the wintry woods near Ticonderoga into a guerrilla combat zone. Just 18 years later, as the American Revolution was in full swing, Tory John Johnson—whose father, Sir William, had made the Mohawk Valley his baronial empire—fled north toward Canada. It was spring, and when the party set out from the Sacandaga River the snow was deep. Days later, when they reached a huge wild lake they found the water flowing sweetly, not frozen as expected. On the shore they abandoned many pairs of snowshoes. This pile of raquettes (French for snowshoe) gave the lake its name.

Snowshoes fascinated Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce La­hontan, a French officer who traveled through New France in the 17th century, sketching maps and documenting Native American artifacts and activities. His illustration of a “racket” shows an egg-shape frame with tightly woven rawhide and long strings for bindings, which looks remarkably like a contemporary bear-paw design. Hunters could “skip along the snow like birds,” Europeans observed.

“Five thousand years ago when Nordic people were creating the ski, native people had already been traveling on snowshoes for 9,000 years,” according to Michael Galban, historian and Native American educator at Ganondagan State Historic Site, near Lake Ontario. In winter, snowshoes were critical to survival. “Moose plod. Deer bound. With snowshoes hunters could fly,” he says.

The Huron, Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi and Iroquois perfected these tools. “Snowshoes in the Northeast tend to be round or oval in response to conditions, while those made north of the St. Lawrence River or out West are longer, for more open country,” Galban explains. Regardless of the shape, frames were made of ash, birch, willow or hickory—which bend easily when green—and woven with deer or moose sinew called babiche. “The thinner the babiche and the tighter the weave the better the shoe will float over snow, distributing your weight to a larger surface area,” he says. An experienced builder could craft a pair in a day.

When Carl Heilman II moved to Brant Lake in the early 1970s he planned to be a carpenter. In the fall of 1974 he set out to make a pair of snowshoes, using E. H. Krebs’s Woodcraft as his guide. “I didn’t know what white ash was. I cut down a white birch tree,” he recalls with a laugh. “The book gave a full description of hand-splitting the wood for the frame and weaving the web. I found some rough-sawn boards and cobbled together a steam tube with a kettle at one end to prepare the wood for bending and made my first pair.”

He snowshoed around his backyard and then up Pharaoh Mountain. From there he saw the High Peaks. He says, “My next snowshoe trip was up Algonquin, and that’s what got me started in photography too.”

His early snowshoes had “no turn-up at the toes. Climbing mountains on these was cumbersome, but coming downhill I could sit on the back and just glissade down the trail. It was a blast.”

For the next 23 years Heilman handcrafted snowshoes, some 500 pairs, he estimates, in designs that work well on our hilly and heavily wooded terrain. The “aha” moment came when “I saw my first pair of Sherpas on the summit of Giant Mountain and wondered how these little shoes would actually support you. I then designed a wood-frame snowshoe with tight curves—I followed the modern design but hand-split the wood. I created the jig and bent the frame from white ash.

“When I started, the shoes recommended for a person my size were about 13 inches wide and about 48 inches long, including the tail,” he explains. His design bridged new and old ways; Heilman’s very compact oval frames had no tail and Neoprene webbing rather than the traditional varnished rawhide. His Cat Paws for a person under 150 pounds were a mere eight inches wide and 26 inches long. In Gloversville and Mayfield, Floyd Westover and Richard Havlick were also creating small, efficient snowshoes that challenged traditional ways.

Contemporary snowshoes have morphed from wood splints to tubular metal frames, and open-weave decks are now solid pieces of flexible plastic. Engineers have found ways to minimize the footprint and maximize flotation. There are models intended for women, accommodating our different strides and lower centers of gravity. There are kid-specific designs as well, plus ones for racing, climbing and off-trail exploring.

How shoes attach to boots has changed too. Bindings evolved from leather thongs into hinged, adjustable, quick-release toe cradles and heel straps. “The hinge design goes back to World War II, with a metal plate and metal hinge bar. Sherpa promoted hinges in their bindings decades ago,” Heilman says.

Rotation-hinge bindings, he says, “make the snowshoe work like a flip-flop. This puts less strain on muscles and is easier to use for long periods.” Crampons beneath the bindings are standard equipment on most modern shoes, though traditional webbing provides good traction, Heilman says.

“If the binding feels comfortable and fits your boot well, that’s more important than anything else,” he advises. “You can take practically any design and put a good binding on it and you’ll have a good time, but the reverse is not true.”

Fifteen years have passed since Heilman traded his woodworking tools for camera equipment. His photography books, prints, puzzles and workshops keep a homegrown business thriving. But he still leads deep-woods treks at Keene Valley’s annual Mountainfest, in February.

Last winter was downright disappointing for skiers and snowshoers. When snow finally arrived on favorite trails the word quickly spread, especially for destinations like Blue Mountain. In warm weather the uphill journey is an obstacle course of slippery pumpkin-size rocks and random roots, but covered with snow it’s so smooth you can look at your surroundings rather than your boots. Many mountain trails that are frustrating nine months of the year become perfect pathways under a blanket of snow.

While proponents say snowshoeing burns 40 percent more calories than ordinary hiking and also provides an exceptional large-muscle and cardio workout, there’s little mystery to picking up the sport. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

At least that’s what experienced folks say. If you’re new to the sport, a pair of cross-country-ski or trekking poles are terrific for adding stability on the first awkward outings, and they allow you to power up slopes using your arms. Poles for snowshoeing should be tall enough to provide leverage but not so long you catch them in your armpits as you stride—telescoping poles let you choose the height that feels right.

If you’re in the market for a pair of webbed feet, try before you buy. This is one way to discover if you kick snow up your back with every step, if you trip over the tails or if you find yourself waddling like Big Foot. Shop with a snowshoe-savvy friend because the variety of styles can be utterly confusing. For your first outing, wear layers and prepare to shed some if you get overheated. Choose a destination that will be rewarding, somewhere aspirational but not beyond your conventional hiking ability. At many places you can rent shoes, take a lesson and ease into a winter sport that opens up the Adi­rondack woods.

 

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