To snowshoe in the most beautiful winter surroundings gives the body and soul tremendous well-being. The simplicity of practicing this sport makes it the easiest of all winter sports, because if you can walk, you can snowshoe.
Of all inventions, because this is one, created by mankind to move in the snow, no other object can be as simple and efficient at the same time. That is probably why we had to wait 8,000 years for a significant technological revolution that is the arrival of aluminium and composite snowshoes, equipped with crampons in the 1980s.
The historical account of this phenomenal invention will be based on the North American history, mostly located in Eastern Canada, thus richly documented. It will be interesting to notice that we had to wait several thousands of years for this object to finally become a sport accessory.
"The white man always attempted to avoid the snow or skirt it, whereas the Indian always looked for the best way to walk on it and live in harmony with nature"
- This is an Indian saying that was transmitted from generation to generation!
No research on the subject specifies with exactness who invented the snowshoe, not even what people or culture created it first. "The snowshoe seems to have appeared at an earlier period than the wheel. The earliest documents date the advent of the wheel around 3,500 B.C., whereas the ski already existed in quite a sophisticated state around 6,000 B.C., as proven by this engraving of the stone age found in Norway".
From the sophisticated aspect of the ski, it is logical to think that the "snowshoe" was invented first, in order to make the natural movement of walking on snow easier without sinking in, even before thinking of sliding on it. It is also plausible to think that man inspired himself with the active fauna in winter in order to observe how the animals were able to move around efficiently on the snow without sinking into it. Then, he must have tested various materials and various forms in order to optimize his floating.
During several thousands of years, the snowshoe was an object of prime necessity, strictly necessary for all peoples confronted to winter to hunt, trap, move around on short and long distances, communicate, discover and survive.
Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (Davidson)
Inuits, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, U.S.A. (Nelson)
Chukchis, Siberia (Mason)
Yokohama, Japan (Mason)
Banska Bystica Region, Czechoslovakia (Martin)
Cadca Region, Czechoslovakia (Martin)
Roznava Region, Czechoslovakia (Martin)
Humenné Region, Czechoslovakia (Martin)
From this statement, an evolutionistic approach was born, suggesting that several peoples confronted to the snow, at various periods of their evolution, invented simultaneously this object (snowshoe) under various forms.
The second explanation on the distribution of this object to several northern continents would be through an inter-ethnic transmission of cultural components. This transmission in North America would have taken place from 30,000 to 5,000 BC. by the Bering Straight, during the Ice Age that allowed it, by peoples from Central Asia.
The most primitive snowshoes have allowed the migration of peoples towards the American Continent through the Bering Strait.
"Three elements of proof support the hypothesis of a passage from Asia to America for the snowshoe. The first is that America was populated by immigration. At the point where ethnological research is, we believe there might have been several waves of immigration between 30,000 and 5,000 B.C., which is at the very end of the last glaciation, or immediately after the latter. So, even if these people did not bring documents or objects reflecting their way of life, they carried with them their culture: their customs, their language and their thoughts. One of these migratory waves was at the origin of the North American civilization centred exclusively on hunting, fishing, gathering and which, as a whole, had not gone beyond the Stone Age.
This means that all the material culture of this civilization was developed according to its orientation: the prime importance of weapons, mobile habitat and transportation methods adapted to the geography of the surroundings. It is thus quite possible that one of these immigrant groups, knowing about the snowshoe in Asia, used it to tackle the Canadian winter.
The second element of proof is the geographic distribution of the snowshoe of the disc-shaped type. This distribution forms a continuous series from the extreme west of Scandinavia to New Mexico, passing through the south of Asia and all along the west coast of America.
Finally, the third element of proof is another continuous series. The snowshoe of the lanceolate type (in the form of a spear tip) extends without interruption from the Kouriles Islands to Ontario, crossing the Chukchi Peninsula, Alaska, Yukon and the Prairies.
All those who wrote on the subject of the snowshoe agree in saying that it is the North American Indians who have perfected the traditional snowshoe as we know it nowadays, since the models from Europe and Asia kept a primitive stage during several thousands of years. The peoples from Europe and Scandinavia having preferred to develop an object that has a similar function but that offers different characteristics: THE SKI.
Wooden skis soled with sealskin, Gilliaks, Amur, Asia (Mason)
The snowshoe, in its developed form, was introduced in Europe by the return of the first settlers around 1600, who physically or by accounts (written or oral), brought back the snowshoe from travelling in New France (North America).
Indians on Snowshoes by La Hontan
In volume III of his travels' accounts, page 164, year 1608, the founder of Québec, Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) who formed an alliance with the Huron and Algonquin Nations, wrote "Winter, when there is much snow, they (the Indians) make a kind of snowshoe that are two to three times larger than those in France, that they tie to their feet, and thus go on the snow, without sinking into it, otherwise they would not be able to hunt or go from one location to the other".
Painting by Carlin showing an Indian war dance on snowshoes.
Public Archives of Canada. William Osgood & Leslie Hurley
Where does the Word "SNOWSHOE" Come from?
It seems that the first French settlers, upon arriving in New France around 1604, immediately gave them the name of "Raquette" because they looked like an instrument used in Europe to play the game of real tennis, the "Rachète", which is the ancestor of the tennis we know now. In English they simply call it "Snowshoe" as the word describes well the object.
The Importance of the Snowshoe for the Colonization of New France
How useful has the latter been? Without it, missionaries and discoverers of the colony's first periods could not have followed the Indians in their peregrinations across the plains and forests.
Without it, trappers and traders would not have been able to hunt the fur animals into their faraway dens.
Without it, our ancestors would not have easily been able to communicate between themselves or take care of their work. In ancient times, the snowshoe was, in winter, what the canoe was in summer: an instrument of primary necessity.
The American Indians had thus developed and perfected transportation means adapted to the seasons. When the cold froze the natural routes, they had to travel by foot. As soon as an important layer of snow had fallen, they put on their snowshoes.
Upon the arrival of the white men in Eastern America, there was, as a road network, only rivers and a few foot paths where the small boats had to be carried. So, the white men settled down close to these natural ways and they adopted the transportation means already in existence: the canoe and the snowshoe, according to the seasons. The white settlers put on the snowshoe only because that was the only means to move around on the snow until they were able to modify the surrounding environment. Québec was not yet one hundred years old that certain settlers could spend the winter without putting on snowshoes only once, since stretches of roads were already maintained, on which they could travel by horse.
If, on one hand, the normal development of the colony has been that, little by little, an increasing number of people were able to take advantage of methods of transportation more comfortable than the snowshoe, there existed, on the other hand, contingencies that explain why certain people had to go on "walking the country" during the cold season, at least until the nineteenth century. The first sections of roads started to radiate only in the large centres: Québec, Trois-Rivières and Montréal, limiting the use of vehicles in these locations. Other than the inhabitants of the remote regions, several others had to use snowshoes regularly to travel in winter.
The explorers, interpreters and trappers formed a group that was apart because all of them obeyed to politico-economic requirements. The research of a "passage", the forming of alliances with the new peoples met, and the lure of furs brought these people to undertake lengthy expeditions.
As they found themselves almost constantly in unknown regions, these men rapidly adopted the way of life of the Natives with whom they were often in contact, since their survival depended on that. For some people, like Pierre Esprit Radisson who had made his this trade as an explorer and trapper, the snowshoe became the most important object for the winter season, for which, in certain circumstances, they would have sacrificed everything. Even if a man possessed a fortune in furs after an expedition, he would not have survived long enough to cash the value of his hard work if he had found himself alone in the forest and without snowshoes in winter.
Here is an excerpt of an adventure account by Radisson in the course of his fourth trip to western Canada: One evening, I found the hut and covered it with branches that were already all cut. As I was dozing off, a fire started, which only half woke me up, tired as I was, to save myself from this fire. My snowshoes, my shoes and my socks had saved my life; I absolutely had to save them. I took them and threw them as far away as I could, in the snow. The fire put out, I had to look for them in the dark in the snow, naked, exhausted and almost dying from hunger.
That shows how important and of prime necessity the snowshoe was for these adventurers.
For the army, the snowshoe was not a vital element as it had been for the trappers or the missionaries, but it represented undoubtedly a strategic element that is quite original. The development of the northern part of America presented, mostly in winter, excellent conditions to carry out a guerrilla. The French settlers of the North, having adopted the American Indian way of life more widely than their southern enemies, could engage in this technique of military conflict which consists of benefiting from the knowledge of the territory to take the enemy by surprise and retreat before the counter-attack.
The use of the snowshoe for strategic ends and means would reveal all its efficiency thanks to a military genius and a master of the guerrilla: Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville. Recruiting Canadians used to rowing and taking long walks on snowshoes, he took advantage of the territory and climate to make his attacks in locations and at moments unexpected by the enemy.
It is told that on January 9, 1666, the French Governor De Courcelles left from Québec with 500 men on snowshoes. Each soldier carried on his shoulders all he needs to survive: food, blankets, etc. The soldiers followed the St. Lawrence and the Richelieu, crossing the Champlain and Georges lakes for a march of 1,000 miles (1,600 km).
During the 1763-1775 period, the French royal army had even equipped itself, at the founding of New France, also during the battles with the "American freedom fighters" against the British (near the borders of Québec and northern New England). These Europeans considered that this was the only and best means of travelling on snow.
Nowadays (2004), the Canadian Forces still use snowshoes as basic military equipment for all soldiers. On the other hand, these are no longer made of ash and leather straps, but of a magnesium frame, aluminium studs, a rigid pivot, a sieve in steel wires and a nylon harness. GV Snowshoes is the proud supplier to the Canadian Forces.
Political Social Changes that Influenced the Importance of the Snowshoe
At the turn of the eighteenth century, numerous transformations deeply modified the French Canadian society. Events such as the "Treaty of Paris (1763)", the massive arrival of five thousand loyalists during the American revolution, the Act of 1791 and the Union Act of 1840 stand out as significant dates in the political history, but are also reflected directly on the country's evolution.
During one and a half century under the French Regime, the Canadian population was at 175,000 inhabitants. One century later, it saw its demography explose at 2 750,000 inhabitants and the establishment of several villages, also an elaborate road network allowing the use of the horse year-round. For the first time, the snowshoe then lost its role of first necessity object for most of the settlers. Only the Indians and a group of rural settlers have kept the snowshoe as a means of journeying that is essential in winter.
1 Cf. Gustave Lanctôt, History of Canada, t.3, p.342
2 Cf. Mason Wade, The French Canadians, t.1, p.367
We had to wait almost another 250 years, from Samuel de Champlain's discovery of the rustic Indian Snowshoe until 1840 for this object to retain the attention of a group of Canadians. This was the birth of Snowshoe Clubs. Seeing that the practice of snowshoeing was declining, groups of people gathered together, organized, made rules and formed Snowshoe Clubs.
The first one to be established is the Montreal Snowshoe Club, established in 1840 in the Canadian metropolis by Anglophones. Three years later, this club introduced annual races at the old racing field of the St. Pierre River, now part of the City of Verdun. Indians and white people struggled for speed and these tournaments became events. From this institution other clubs originated, the two most famous French Canadian clubs that existed in Montréal were the "Canadien de Montréal" created on November 20th, 1878 and the "Trappeur de Montréal".
For more than 60 years, several snowshoe clubs were established, naming only a few:
Snow Shoe Club,
created in 1881
|Club de Raquette
Frontenac de Québec,
created in 1883
|Club de Raquette
Le Huron de Québec,
created in 1884
|Club de Raquette
created in 1886
These clubs organized weekly events and were, during several decades, reserved only for men. Clubs were managed seriously and only members in good standing were accepted within the latter.
Following a constant growth of the clubs, the "Union canadienne des Raquetteurs" (the Canadian Snowshoers’ Union) was founded on March 8, 1907 and was set up on November 9th of the same year. The first convention of the Union was held in Québec City on January 25 and 26, 1908.
During its first annual assembly, the Canadian Snowshoers’ Union included 25 clubs (English Canadian, French Canadian and Irish Canadian) representing a total of 800 members, who greatly loved the practice of this beautiful sport of snowshoe and all united in a same spirit of enthusiasm and loyalty.
During the first seven years of its existence, the Canadian Snowshoers’ Union achieved great success. It contributed to the formation of many snowshoe clubs. In 1911, it included 52 snowshoe clubs affiliated to its organization, including three clubs from Winnipeg. In 1924, a branch of this Union was organized in western Canada including the 10 clubs from this part of Canada.
1924 was memorable in the history of the Canadian Snowshoe Union, since the snowshoe sport was organized in the State of Maine, United States, and the following year, in 1925, the first international snowshoe congress was held in Lexington, Maine. It was following this congress that the American Snowshoe Union was established, which included, in 1930, 18 men's clubs and 14 women's clubs.
In November 1932, the Snowshoe Sport International Committee was organized. This Committee was formed of the Canadian Snowshoers’ Union, western and eastern branches, and of the American Snowshoe Union. The aim of this Committee was to promote the snowshoe sport, to improve the Unions and the races, and to see to a good understanding between all the clubs.
Thus, it is starting in the 19th century that the snowshoe officially started filling up a double role, that of being still an object of prime necessity for explorers, surveyors, trappers, forestry workers and a sport article.
The snowshoe is and will remain forever a symbol of courage, adventure and recklessness for Canadians, a symbol which reminds us that thousands of French and English Canadian settlers have walked through our beautiful country, on thousands of kilometres in winter to give us, today, the leisure of taking advantage of these superb sites in winter on snowshoes.
The snowshoe was, since the beginning, manufactured by the various Indian Nations in North America and each Nation developed a form adapted to the needs of the environment in which they had established themselves. The frame was either built of white birch or of ash, the last being the most popular thanks to its more adequate properties. In the course of the centuries, they perfected the weaving to optimize the floating or adherence.
Most of the time, these snowshoes were weaved with skins from the red deer, the caribou and the moose. The last was more appreciated because its skin kept better its tension than the other cervids. With the introduction of the cow by the Europeans, the latter was greatly used because of its availability in great numbers and it offered the same properties as the cervids. It is still used nowadays.
It was possible then to determine the Nation of an Indian or to know from what region the white settler came from solely by the form of his snowshoes. We are able to identify five historical forms of snowshoes inspired by exact forms, that is:
Inspiration in the Form of a Spear
The category of spears is nowadays characterized by the Ojibway model which originates from the Nation of the same name who settled along the Canadian Great Lakes, who extend to the United States, that is Michigan, Érié, Huron, Ontario and Superior. We also find these models in Saskatchewan and Manitoba since the topography of the land furthers this snowshoe model. In this category, we also find the Alaskan model (also called Yukon or Pickerel) which originates from the Nations settled in the Yukon and in Alaska.
Inspiration in the Form of a Leaf
This category is characterized by the Huron model, also called Algonquin or Maine, which originates from the Nation Huronne. This model was widespread along the St. Lawrence and towards the eastern United States. This model was also the one used by the first French settlers since Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Québec, who had an excellent relationship with the Nation Huronne who covered a hunting territory from Lake Huron to Tadoussac.
Inspiration in the Form of a Disc/Pear
This category is characterized by a very particular model commonly called Montagnaise, originating from the Nation of the same name. Its particular form does not offer much efficiency to walk on medium or long distances since the extreme width of this model limits movements and makes walking uncomfortable. On the other hand, its properties for floating are indisputable. This model was never really popular on the commercial level, but it is still quite important in the history of traditional snowshoes.
Inspiration in the Ovate Form
This category is characterized by the Bear Paw which is the second most popular traditional model after the Huron model. It originates from Nations of eastern Canada and United States. Short, light, efficient and easy to manoeuvre in the dense forest and lands less mountainous.
Inspiration in the Form of an Ellipse
This category is characterized by the modified Bear Paw. It is the ancestor of the modern aluminium snowshoe. Its ideal form offers the same ergonomics, allowing a frame less wide (8, 9 or 10 inches) and longer (between 21 and 36 inches). Offering manoeuvrability and floating, this model was developed by the Indians of eastern Canada and United States in the middle of the 20th century.
The traditional wooden snowshoe was the only category of sporting snowshoe available during several millenniums. It was its strength and it also was the cause of its decline. The arrival of European immigrants to North America during the first and second world wars permitted the expansion of a new winter sport unknown to Canadians until then: SKIING. This same sport, that Europeans had perfected so well thousands of years ago to the detriment of the snowshoe, was to become the fashionable winter sport.
Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing are part of the European culture and once in Canada, the European immigrants were able to appreciate the Canadian Mountains and the long winters covered with thick layers of snow. This then became an unexploited gold mine that the latter developed in a hurry. Alpine ski resorts and marked out, maintained circuits for long-distance skiing appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, and that changed the sporting customs of Canadians.
The snowshoe practice then lost in popularity and the snowshoe clubs drastically disappeared. Only a few survived these new winter sports. All the same, the snowshoe remained a work object essential even if the arrival of the snowmobile also encouraged the erosion of the snowshoe. One had to wait till the 1980s so that the first technological revolution can have the snowshoe sport be revived from its ashes, that is the introduction of plastic matters and aluminium in the manufacture process. The composite materials allowed us to revolutionize the forms, dimensions, weight and features of the modern snowshoes.
The greatest innovation was the addition of spikes under the snowshoe to allow an adherence that did not exist before. The beginning of these new materials was the reason why several other manufacturers who wished to start the commercial manufacture appeared, and each one of them competed in ingenuity. On the other hand, only the more prepared were successful commercially.
Here are the features that allowed us to revolutionize the snowshoe:
It is, in great part, thanks to the improvements mentioned above that the snowshoe has become once more a sport valued by lovers of winter outdoor sports. It is also thanks to the low cost of purchase that this sport is gaining in popularity with families, since it allows enjoyment with family and friends, at a low cost, and its transportation is easy, since it uses very little space. As any sport worthy of respect, accessories now come with its practice, such as transportation bags to put away the equipment, telescopic walking sticks to balance the body in slopes and climbs, thus distributing the body's pressure points, insulated, light and waterproof winter sport boots, and gaiters to stop snow infiltration in the boots.
GV Snowshoes is a pioneer in the area of new snowshoe manufacturing which thrills the winter outdoor lovers. Our efforts in the research and development have allowed us to create new products that are more technical and sophisticated in order to offer to the followers products that will revolutionize in ingenuity and efficiency, and mostly to continue to write the history of the snowshoe.
For times immemorial, snowshoes have been manufactured by craftsmen from Indian Nations, and of all these Nations, only the Nation Huronne was able to develop, perfect and innovate the snowshoe to be marketed today on an international scale.
Here are two excerpts of an historical text authenticating the Nation Huronne as the manufacturer of snowshoes:
"Facing bad weather, these snowshoers, as their trapper ancestors, feel running within them, if not blood, at least the Amerindian spirit. Moreover, the soft shoes and snowshoes used in Québec at that time (1894) come from the Village Huron de la Jeune Lorette"
- Excerpt from an historical account by Jean-Marie Lebel, Historian
"afterwards, the Indians dominated, for a long time until very recently, the industry of the snowshoe. Even still today, the best snowshoes, and the less expensive, are manufactured in Indian reserves. In the small village at Lorette, for example, near Québec, the descendants of the Huron tribe manufacture an excellent product sold throughout Canada and the United States"
- Excerpt from the book The Snowshoe, by William Osgood and Leslie Hurley
Nowadays, in 2008, GV Snowshoes company, founded in 1959, manufactures more than 16 models of snowshoes (a total of 53) in various materials, being wood, aluminium, composite and magnesium. Proud of its history and confident in the future of this sport, GV Snowshoes manufactures products of a high quality within a millenary traditional heritage.
It is still the same passion that drives us, that of discovering the most beautiful surroundings that winter can offer us and to live adventures in nature, this everywhere on earth where there is snow.
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Lamory, Jean-Marc. La raquette à neige. Édition Didier Richard, 1995, 112 p.
Clubs Alpins Jeanne D'Arc. La raquette. Imprimerie de l'avenir national, 1937, 75 p.
Osgood, William et Leslie Hurley. The Snowshoe Book. 3e édition, 1983, 135 p.
Osgood, William et Leslie Hurley. The Snowshoe Book, 1974, 133 p.
Savignano, Phil. La raquette. Outremont, Éditions du Trécarré, 2001, 53 p.
Prater, Gene. La raquette. Édition Marcel Broquet, 1983, 215 p.
Edwards, Sally et Melissa McKenzie. Snowshoeing. 1995, 123 p.