Schandelmeier: Snowshoes a perfect fit in the North

John Schandelmeier

I really don't remember when I was first introduced to snowshoes. I am sure that by the time I was in grade school that I was reasonably proficient on them.

This was way back when snow was first invented in Alaska. There were none of the little tiny aluminum and fabric shoes of today, but the real thing. Bearpaws were for beginners and honest snowshoes were no less than five feet in length.

Snowshoes probably first appeared in Asia. The best guess is that the taiga dwellers somewhere in Russia were the first to make something to walk on snow with. The people that migrated to Scandinavia developed them as skis, while the folks who crossed over into North America refined the snowshoe of today. Definitely the North American native people worked out the kinks.

Snowshoes came in different sizes and shapes, depending on the needs of those who used them. Crusted snow required smaller, tougher equipment, while the people who lived in the deep woods required a lot of support in very soft snow and thus developed shoes as long as six feet.

Today, the requirements have again changed. Most snowshoeing is done for recreation, though there are still a few trappers who use them as a matter of need. Many snowmobilers carry them as emergency gear. Small snowshoes can help you walk back on a fresh trail from a disabled machine or double as a shovel when stuck. The military aluminum/magnesium snowshoes can be shaved and used as a fire-starter. Most sled dog races view snowshoes as required equipment.

However, the last time I used snowshoes in a dog race was the 1986 Yukon Quest. You would certainly hear some whining today if racers needed to break part of a trail. The snowshoe requirement for a dog race is for a small shoe with an area of only 200 square inches per shoe. That would not be nearly enough support to allow for breaking trail in most instances.

To put in decent trail, or to even walk in any soft snow, 400 to 500 inches of surface is necessary. The military snowshoes are a compromise. They are smaller, but have an extremely long tail. Tails help with the way snowshoes track, though a tail too long can create some grief in the brush or when crossing fallen logs.

I spent one winter trapping way back off of the Yukon using only snowshoes. I averaged 15 miles per day for most of the winter and managed to break the tails off of both of the military surplus shoes I was using. However, I am sure I would have broken wood and babiche equipment into pieces.

Almost everything you can buy today for walking on snow has an aluminum frame with some sort of composite laced into the center. In my opinion, cost is no indicator of value when it comes to buying snowshoes. I believe that if you pay more than a hundred bucks, you have wasted your money.

The best buy will be different for almost everyone, depending on need. If you weigh a couple hundred pounds and want to go for a walk in the woods, it's best to have something with a surface of 400 or more inches. Tough aluminum snowshoes work well as emergency gear with snowmobiles.

The aluminum military surplus equipment is far and away the best all-around choice. They will do anything and the cost averages about $70. Avoid snowshoes with a large pad in the center and minimal lacing. They gather snow and hold it. They can be especially miserable in soft, wet snow.

Walking technique is especially important in less than ideal snow conditions. Snowshoes are designed so the snow falls through the webbing with each step. A bit of snap at the knee will help sticky snow slide forward and through the shoe. Shuffling straight ahead will get you from point A to point B, but at the end of the day you may need an ibuprofen for pelvic pain.

The proper technique is to lift your foot out of the snow at a slight side angle and bring it forward and back into line just in front of the other foot. This will result in a track that is approximately one third narrower than if you put both shoes side by side. It takes some practice, but you will soon find a smooth rocking gait that works well with surprisingly little effort.

Turning can be accomplished by ski techniques -- step turning or kick turns. Hill climbing is best done working sideways rather than herring-boning. If you are familiar with climbing skins, that is the way to go. Downhill runs are the toughest. If the snow is hard enough, you can just sit on you butt and slide. Otherwise, hurry or side hill down the slope.

I don't snowshoe as much today as I used to, but unless I have at least a couple pairs hanging on the garage, I get a little nervous. And if there isn't a set in the dogsled, I am scrambling around to see where the heck I left them.

It's one of those comfort things I guess, maybe like that favorite pair of slippers -- but not quite.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

Daily News correspondent