Alaska Star logo
Alaska Job Net
share on facebook
Alaska Star on Facebook

Story Last modified at 8:39 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Snowshoes: The long and short of it
Mountain Echos

By Frank E. Baker


As I slogged along in my 31-inch-long, high-tech Tubbs snowshoes, sinking into the snow about two feet on every agonizing step, I thought about those big-footed lynx and snowshoe hares and how they manage to stay on top of soft snow. I needed to spread myself onto more surface area.

Then I remembered that I had a pair of wooden, old-school, long snowshoes gathering dust in my storage shed. Vanquished for the day, I retreated back along the South Fork trail to my truck. The next day I would return, but this time wearing my old-fashioned, wooden snowshoes that are 56 inches long and at their widest point, 10 inches across.

In the interim, I telephoned REI in Anchorage. I was curious to see if they carried snowshoes as long as my wooden ones, only constructed with lightweight, modern materials. The clerk said the longest ones they carried were 38 inches.

This has bothered me for years. On several occasions I've sunken deeply into the snow wearing modern snowshoes constructed of aluminum and stainless steel, and I only weigh about 175 lbs. Given the developments in technology, especially with advances in lightweight materials, why couldn't they produce snowshoes with the flotation properties of the long, old-school, wooden ones?

The clerk didn't have an answer – and I knew she wouldn't. She said something about how long, wooden snowshoes were once used by trappers in extreme conditions, but that for most conditions today, the current MSRs, Tubbs, Atlas and other lightweight brands were quite appropriate.

I wanted to tell her that I found sinking into the snow two feet with every step highly inappropriate, but I didn't. Instead, I politely ended the conversation and then dug into the deep recesses of my storage shed and retrieved my old wooden snowshoes, made by Iverson, Inc. I wasn't thrilled by the rubber, stretch bindings, but they would have to do.

And they did.

I returned to the South Fork trail where I'd bogged down the day before, about one mile in. The churned-up snow was evidence of a severe struggle. It looked like an area where some expletive deletes were uttered, but I can't confirm that. Tromping above the snow, just like the snowshoe hares and lynx, I worked my way easily downhill to the wooden bridge and shuffled briskly up the valley toward Eagle Lake.

Granted, it wasn't as much fun as skiing, but it was a great walk as I basked in the warm spring sun and listened to the squawks of ptarmigan in nesting rituals. I had the valley to myself and set down a good trail for those who might eventually follow with snowshoes or skis.

Eagle Lake's surface was undisturbed—still frozen solid and covered with snow. I hiked about halfway across, took a few photos, and then cut over to the lake's north shore to enjoy lunch in front of a large rock where the snow had melted.

By this time the sun was intense and I applied some sun block. The temperature felt like 55 degrees. No sooner than I'd stripped down to short sleeves, then a squall came up from the canyon in front of Eagle Peak. Before I could get packed up for the six-mile trip home, the temperature dropped about 10 degrees and it was snowing.

Walking back over my own trail was even easier, and as I moved back down the valley I welcomed the return of the sun, which dodged between white, puffy cumulus clouds. I was back to my truck in about 3-1/2 hours—tired, but feeling as if I'd accomplished something.

For many years I'd let those old wooden snowshoes gather dust in my storage shed, when I should have been enjoying their great flotation. They wouldn't be good for densely wooded or brushy areas, but out in an open area like South Fork they were ideal. I was surprised that even without cleats, they worked well climbing steep terrain. So here's the long and short of it: When it comes to snowshoes, old school is better—but that's just me.

It's late in the year to be purchasing snowshoes, but for those who are inclined to agree with me, the long, wooden snowshoes can be found at 6th Avenue Outfitters in Anchorage.

Frank E. Baker is an Eagle River Rotary member and lifelong Alaskan.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.