A Natural View: All About Beaver Tails and Bear Paws

Terry Sprague

Terry's snowshoes (from left to right): Entry-level snowshoes for light snow cover, the traditional Huron style for deep snow, and the bear paw design. (Photo by Terry Sprague) 
[This article appears in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of The SCOOP.]

Winter came early to Prince Edward County this year. As I write this in mid-November, there is a good ground covering of snow and nighttime temperatures are dropping to minus 15 degrees Celsius. It’s shaping up to be a winter for snowshoes and crampons. I am not one who laments the arrival of winter, and I don’t drone on endlessly on Facebook as others do about the cold weather, the snow, the wind, the snow shovelling, ad infinitum. I don’t migrate to Florida. I stay put and while I may think now and then about May warblers, spring peepers echoing from the wetlands, and flowers in the garden, I make the best of winter by snowshoeing.

Snowshoes have been around for at least 6,000 years. They have proven themselves admirably as an efficient mode of travel in deep snow when conventional winter boots just don’t cut it. For me, they provide access to wooded areas that I like to visit in the winter where the mayhem of the workaday world can be left behind. I can immerse myself in the tranquillity of a natural world where the only sound is the muffled crunch of snow under my feet and the ever-present acrobatic chickadees as they search for food along the fencerows.

I was out on my snowshoes with the first snowfall, as I am most winter mornings, on a trail around two open hay fields. It’s about a kilometre, and with an additional two kilometres of exercise on the treadmill, that distance will have to do until the spring hiking season begins again. I got into snowshoeing when I found that I could no longer comfortably cross-country ski due to arthritis in the feet and ankles. I still do a bit of skiing if I fortify myself well with Ibuprofen and don’t have to turn, or stop suddenly!

There are many snowshoe styles – Huron, Ojibway, beaver tail, swallowtail, bearpaw, the list goes on. I have three different styles of snowshoes. For deep, fresh snow, I like to use the traditional Huron style as their larger size supports my weight far better in soft snow conditions. Wooden shoes with traditional rawhide webbing leave me feeling like I am one with nature as I seek balance in my life. The traditional Huron snowshoes have a long and storied history, from the days of their aboriginal inventors to the recreational use of today.

The Huron style, as well as the similar Ojibway style – narrower and more elongated and built for speed and open areas – float easily over soft snow. The pointed tails on both styles are designed to act much like the rudder of a boat. Trailing lightly with each step, they keep the feet pointed in the right direction, leading to less fatigue over long distances.

However, the Huron and Ojibway styles come at a cost of less maneuverability in forested areas. For these areas, I like my bear paw design. This style has been designed for hunting, trapping, birding and long-distance adventures in dense forest. The frame is usually constructed of Appalachian white ash and lacing made of raw cowhide, so they still have that traditional feel about them. More rounded, but still with enough length to prevent sinking deeply in soft snow, its shape allows me to manoeuvre easily in tight areas, around trees and bushes. The upturned toes get me over fallen branches with ease and if there is an occasion to be walking somewhere with them strapped to my back, they are not so long as to catch on my heels with every step.

Cost-wise for any pair of snowshoes, shoppers are looking at quite a few dollars for a good set – at least, a couple of hundred dollars. I got my Huron snowshoes a few years ago at a local auction sale and although the bidding was fierce, I still walked away paying only $60. Some friends found their snowshoes at a second-hand shop and got two pairs for only half that amount. So, it pays to look around first before buying new. I don’t think my Huron snowshoes had ever been worn. However, if buying new, be prepared to pay for quality.

Last, but certainly not least, are my aluminium frame snowshoes. Gone is the traditional rawhide webbing and wooden frame. Plastic and aluminium, but still a big seller for anyone wanting something basic. The advantages of aluminium shoes are that they’re lightweight and smaller than their wooden counterparts, although I find them quite useless in deep snow. The smaller size makes them a better choice for tight spaces like heavily wooded areas. Many aluminium shoes will also have a crampon on the sole of the shoe designed for traction in difficult areas. However, in extremely cold temperatures the vinyl can become brittle, and crack or break. Additionally, many users have found wooden shoes can take more bending or flexing over uneven ground or rocks. And, those crampons can collect slush and freeze into a ball on the sole of the shoe.

I do like my aluminium snowshoes though, and use them only when there is just a little snow and something is needed to take the edge off those conditions. As I write this, that’s all I really need for now.

Terry Sprague lives in Prince Edward County and is a retired interpretive naturalist and hike leader. See his website at www.naturestuff.net. He can be reached at tsprague@xplornet.com.

Terry's winter snowshoe trail around two of the neighbour’s fields. (Photo by Terry Sprague)