Saturday, January 18, 2014


With every step, I sank eight inches into wallowing fluff. Lifting each leg awkwardly to take wide, encumbered strides, I was nonetheless glad the I wasn’t post holing all the way to the leaf litter, over two feet down. A trackless trail through the snowy woods will make anyone appreciate snowshoes pretty quickly!

Five inches of fresh snow, with more dancing in the air, had dissuaded me from skiing, so I strapped the shorter and wider version of winter gear on my feet for an evening walk.

Snowshoes aren’t a new idea, of course. My plastic and aluminum models, with pop-up heel props for climbing mountains, jagged metal crampons under the balls of my feet, and easy-pull straps, are simply the most recent technologies. According to one source, snowshoeing’s origins lie in the deep snows of Central Asia. Early humans brought snowshoes across the Bering Strait when they migrated to North America. Countless cultures have used them since--as a means of survival.

“This is the snowshoe which is as necessary in winter as the canoe in summer. Through the whole of North America, all the warriors, hunters, traders, travelers, church goers, men, women and children, move about at that period in snowshoes.” Wrote Johann Georg Kohl in his 1860 book, “Kitchi Gami: Life among the Lake Superior Ojibway.” The snowshoes that Mr. Kohl writes about were made of bent wooden frames laced with rawhide straps.

The main benefit of snowshoes, of course, is that by distributing your weight over a wider surface area, snowshoes provided mobility and flotation in deep snow. But not everyone needs wood, metal, or plastic appendages to get the job done. The earliest snowshoes, from at least a couple million years ago, are found already attached to the Canada lynx and the snowshoe hare.

The hare’s six-inch-long hind feet allow it to stay on top of deep snow. But the lynx has feet four inches across, so it can follow and catch a hare.

With less snow on the ground, however, lynx lose their advantage. It becomes harder to compete with other mid-sized predators like pine martins, fishers, and coyotes. The lynx’s own cousin, the bobcat, is its fiercest competitor. These days, where you find bobcats, you just do not find lynx.

Lynx and hares don’t have a monopoly on snowshoe feet, though, and other species are free to produce their own. Ruffed grouse grow projections off the sides of their toes in winter, making them look like combs. The projections act as snowshoes to help grouse walk across snow.

Many other winter-active northern animals have extra-large feet, even if we might not think of them as snowshoes. Fishers have large hind feet. Moose have huge hooves when compared to a deer, and are more suited for deep snows. Wolves have large feet, and often increase their surface area by splaying their toes in deep snow. In March--the “snow crust moon” in Ojibwa culture—the wolves’ feet really start to outperform the deer’s dainty toes.

For these animals, the advantage that snowshoes provide is a matter of survival.

I huffed and puffed uphill through the snow for about thirty minutes on my snowshoes before arriving back at home. When I left the house, I’d been debating between going outside or taking a nap! Now, my blood was flowing, my cheeks glowing, and I felt alert, calm, and in love with life. Research has proven what I felt: to keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard. Exercise improves brain function, mood, and attention, reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and protects again the effects of stress and aging.

My snowshoes might not help me catch dinner or escape predation, but they provide me with access to the winter world, and give me tool for improving my health and happiness.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.

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