Snowshoe tales

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My little moccasins crunched quietly in the snow, following the tracks my mother made ahead of me. I was pulling a tiny sled laden with a precious load of vaccines. Trudging along to the next house, we finally made it onto the porch through drifts that seemed mountainous to my five-year-old mind. The landscape was crispy clear and not many people were around as some sickness had spread quickly and made even the hardiest souls long for some soothing chicken soup to heal everyone.

My mother, a registered nurse, cheerily readied the vaccinations and injected everyone in the household. I guess the serum worked because when some Elders mention that time to me, they hug and kiss me. Even though I’m in my late 50s, I still feel like a little boy when I get a gracious kiss from an elderly lady. It’s 1964 and Fort George still had no idea that a decade later life would be so different from those days without electricity and running water.

A decade later, getting around the area still depended on dog teams, although the occasional snowmobile roared down the trails once dominated by the Husky and the long sled. Dogs were working machines that could be recycled into furred hoods of the parka. These dog furs were far superior to those of the wolf or fox as the long hairs fended off ice and other winter hazards, like frostbite and burns from the intense northern cold. The other form of transportation was the snowshoe, invented in North America and still used today by thousands of people throughout the north.

Snowshoes were just extensions for the moccasin and often were custom-made for you by your grandparents. In my case, my grandfather and mother made my little snowshoes, which I enjoyed using until they were too small for my growing feet. Soon, as I grew rapidly into a young man of 12 years, my snowshoes became an essential part of my life. Although I considered myself fairly good at getting around, I was just an amateur compared to my uncle and his buddies, who grew up using snowshoes all their lives. Sometimes I would get snickered at when I bent down to tie my laces to my boots, which had replaced my hide-and-fur moccasins. My uncle would deftly insert his foot into the loop of moose-hide rope, do a little twisting and voilà, the snowshoe was magically ready to use in under three seconds. Meanwhile, I was still fumbling with the laces while my hands slowly froze and my fingers were rendered useless until they warmed up in my mittens. I was such an amateur that I would be left behind destined to follow the trail made by my uncle.

After a few years, my snowshoes had an accident when my axe chopped through a branch, through the tip of my snowshoes and nearly into my left leg. There was a lot of tsking and some grumbling about how clumsy I was and how I probably would freeze to death if left alone for more than a few hours in the bush. When I got home, I received much more than a reprimand, as I had to hang around and watch how to repair my snowshoes. No chance of getting another pair in under two or three weeks and I still had a lot of rabbits to snare and wood to chop. It was a lesson that I still remember today, something to do with keeping your head on your shoulders and not giving up and keeping it cool when wielding an axe. The actual repair job took about an hour or so of winding a lot of tough thread around the break and splicing wood into the shattered snowshoe frame to make it usable again. Soon, I was tramping around outside again testing the strength of the repair job.

Today, snowshoe-making is an art that is becoming quite popular, as the long, pointed snowshoe is a distinct mention of your bush knowledge and the rounded one is an indication that this woman is a serious bush lady. Nothing like a snowshoe to tell everyone which culture you come from.

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