Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following is a verbatim transcription of a chapter from Spalding's Winter Sports by James A. Cruikshank, published in 1917 and part of the Ray Ruge Collection at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Many thanks to volunteer Adam Kaplan for transcribing this booklet.
Please also note, this historic book chapter contains damaging stereotypes of Indigenous people.
Like most inventions having to do with physical comfort, probably the snowshoe was a lazy man’s gift to the race. We can imagine how he found that by bandaging boughs on his moccasins feet he could get about with less trouble than his fellows; the idea spread, the boughs took form, then webbing was run across bows of wood and the snowshoe came into being.
Every locality has its own special snowshoe, ranging from the eleven foot models of the Alaskans to the flat boards with cross pieces of the Italian dwellers of the Apennines. And each special model, far from being just subject for ridicule by the folks of any other locality, proves itself to be peculiarly adapted to the needs of the place in which it is found. Therein lies the lesson of all the new implements of the now popular winter sports; they must be adapted to the special localities in which they are to be used or the fullest measure of sport cannot be had.
The Indian of the north prefers black or yellow birch for the bows of his snowshoes. Failing that wood of the right quality he selects ash, out of which the best of the snowshoes sold in large cities are generally fashioned. The webbing is preferably of caribou hide, but as there is very little caribou hide available the webbing is generally made bow cow hide for the important center and lamb skin for the filling of toe and tail piece. Properly treated and regularly painted with a good varnish these materials are entirely satisfactory for the most critical of snowshoe users. As a matter of fact the best snowshoes today are made by white men, not by Indians, just as the white man has come to make better canoes than the Indian ever made. The snowshoes sold at fair price by the leading dealers are thoroughly equal to any service they could be asked to give and will outwear several pairs of the Indian make.
The webbing of the center is carried around the bow of the snowshoe, while that of the toe and tail is passed through small holes bored in the bow. Where the webbing is passed through the bows, little knots of worsted are used to break the knife-like cut of the crusted snow- not because they look pretty, as many folks think. The making of a pair of snowshoes takes the best part of several days, even with the aids of civilization, while among the Indian tribes of the far north several months elapse between the time when the first tree was felled for the bows to the day of the finished product, including stretching of the skins, warping of the bows, lacing of the webbing and drying out.
The size of the snowshoe as well as its pattern depends largely upon the size and weight of the wearer, and the uses to which the snowshoe is to be put. For racing purposes the Alaskans use a snowshoe of 11 feet in length. The Montagnais beaux use a snowshoe of 36 inches in width. The trappers of the Rocky Mountains use a small “bear paw” snowshoe almost round in shape, and the best general snowshoe for the eastern part of the North American continent is the Algonquin or “club” pattern ranging from 40 to 50 inches in length and from 12 to 14 inches in width. The “bear paw” pattern is excellent for brush and hill country. The size of the mesh is governed by the average quality of the snow; when the snow is fine and dry and feathery a small mesh is desirable, while in damp and moist snow the mesh should be larger.
Fastening the snowshoe to the foot is an important matter. Even the Indians and the trappers of the far north wanted to borrow or buy the ingenious American snowshoe sandal which I had attached to my snowshoes during a recent winter wolf hunting trip. These firm practical bindings are far and away superior to the lamp-wicking thongs or leather strings formerly used, especially when the walking is over hilly country, and the sag of the binding causes slipping of the foot on the snowshoe. Moccasins should be worn with snowshoes; dry tanned when the weather is very cold, say about zero, and oil tanned when it is warmer and the snow melts during the day. The binding should not be so tight as to stop the circulation nor should it come above the toe joints.
An excellent device popular with the Appalachian Mountain Club of New England, on its winter outings on snowshoe, consists of a leather piece about the size of the foot attached to the under side of the snowshoe and studded with long pointed hob nails for ice creeping. There will often be times when some such device will be of the greatest value, especially in climbing crusted hillsides. The leather can be permanently attached to the snowshoe or merely tied on with rawhide thongs so as to be detachable if one wants to coast down hill on the snowshoes or does not require the additional grip on the snow.
Almost anybody can learn to use snowshoes with little trouble. An hour will generally suffice the average athletic young person in which to secure sufficient ease in the use of the new toys to warrant starting off on a trip of a day or more. There are certain muscles which the sport calls into play, such as the upper thigh and the lower calf, that some folks have allowed to become weak and almost useless, but after a few days of Snowshoeing these muscles will learn their right function and cause little trouble. Correcting a wrong impression, it should be stated that the snowshoe does not really keep the walker on the top of the snow. When the snow is fine and the weather cold the snowshoe will sink in from two to five inches below the surface of the snow and the next step requires that it be lifted above the level of the snow and dragged along. This is the work which many beginners find most tedious and exhausting. The best way to save the strength of the beginners in such case is for the experts, whose muscles for the sport are in good trim, to “break trail” most of the time, thus reducing the work of the others who follow. But of course all plucky students of the sport will want in time to do their full share of the pioneering work of the leader.
When the sport has been fairly learned, it is amazing how easy it becomes. Greater distances can be traveled on snowshoes in a day than any member of the party could walk on a macadamized road. This is due partly to the increased length of the stride, and partly to the easy cushion on which the foot comes to rest. Fifty and sixty miles is not an unusual day’s run for the expert snowshoer of the north. Thirty will be a good day’s work for the amateur, even after some years of experience. If packs of any kind are carried they should be of the Alpine ruck-sack pattern, consisting of a sort of loose knapsack swung over both shoulders and resting low in the back, so as not to interfere with the balance.
A moonlight snowshoe walk over the hills such as is customary in Canada or in the Adirondacks, to a rendezvous where open fires are provided, either indoors or out, and hot meals are served, is a journey never to be forgotten. One of the special delights of such a party is the “Grand Bounce” which consists of tossing some member of the party into the air from the center of a blanket, the edges of which are held by a score of friends. Sometimes the blanket is dispensed with and the member thus “honored” is flung up by catching hold of arms and legs and body. One of the most famous of the pictures of this sport shows the late Frederick Remington being thus flung heavenward by his admiring friends.
No sport of all the winter combines such a variety of picturesque costumes or such an international array of suitable material for the sport. For instance, the red and white and parti-colored blanket costumes are strictly Canadian in origin and history; the stockinette caps or toques are French; the socks, which are as indispensable as the snowshoes themselves, are German; the moccasins are Indian and the snowshoes, nine chances to ten, are American!
James A. Cruikshank was an expert on outdoors sports during the first half of the 20th century. Born in Scotland but spending most of his life in New York, he was the editor of The American Angler magazine, Field and Stream, and wrote numerous articles for a wide variety of other magazines and newspapers throughout his career, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He also published at least three books: Spalding’s Winter Sports (1913, 1917), Canoeing and Camping (1915), and Figure Skating for Women (1921, 1922). He also contributed a chapter on artificial lures to The Basses: Freshwater and Marine (1905). In addition to his writing, Cruikshank was involved in public speaking, doing talks on outdoor sports sometimes illustrated by motion pictures. An avid photographer, Cruikshank’s photos often featured in his illustrated lectures, his articles, and his books, as he encouraged readers to take their own cameras out-of-doors. He had a home in the Catskills as well as a home and offices in New York City, and in the 1930s he helped found the Hudson River Yachting Association. At one point, he managed the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink, and another in Rye, NY. His wife Alice was also an avid camper and hiker, and they often traveled together. In 1909, Alice went “viral” in newspapers around the country by being the first person to blaze a trail between Mount Field and Mount Wiley in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (James brought up the rear). James and Alice eventually moved to Drexel, PA and were vacationing in Lake Placid in July of 1957 when James died unexpectedly at the age of 88.
Tune in next week for the next chapter!
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