SNOW-SHOES AND SNOW-SHOEING continued
By Martin Hunter, written around the turn of the century (1900), from the Nipigon Museum Archives
"Snow-shoes of commerce, such as one sees in city stores, are knitted out of almost any kind of skin, the skin of the horse, the cow, the pig, and even the dog. As the shoes are intended to be sold cheap the very poorest material and the most slovenly work is put in the construction. The frames are generally of ash, and sometimes sawn at that. At the very first wetting the knitting stretches into a pouch under the heel and the frames twist into the most grotesque shapes. A bushman would not risk his life off a macadamized road with them."
"A bushman takes the greatest care of his shoes. They are his dependence in covering great distances over deep snows and high mountains. If there are dogs with the party the snow-shoes have to be hung up out of their reach at night, as anything of leather or greasy, is not safe within their reach."
"As tramping on the long trail day after day and at times week after week would shorten the life of the shoes were they worn on the same foot, the careful bushman changes both his moccasins and snow-shoes from right to left each morning, thus insuring their even wearing."
"Being obliged to walk on wet snow often brings the netting up as tight as a drum, but when the deerskin netting is good and has been carefully put in the surface dries back into its ordinary flat state and is not left baggy as with a common pair."
"Men going far afield in the North Country, as a precaution in case of a break or a cut from an ax (which sometimes happens to the most expert axmen), carry with them a gimlet, crooked knife and a few fathoms of babiche, just as the same men traveling in summer, by bark canoe, would carry a small piece of birch bark, some prepared gum and wattap (roots). If a break occurs in their craft they have at hand the requirements to make at least temporary repairs."
Each tribe of Indians has different shaped snow-shoes, each kind being the best adapted for the country in which they are used. I have used during my winters in the wild, Montagnais, Chippewa, Ojibwa and Algonquin, and while each is best adapted to its own particular contour of country, yet for all-round handiness and comfort I prefer the Algonquin. Probably my choice in a great measure is accounted for by having used this make of shoe for fifteen years and thereby becoming more accustomed to it than the others mentioned."
"The Montagnais snow-shoe would be quite out of place in a wooded country from its broad and unwieldy shape. Walking on a clear, flat surface or climbing rocky mountains such as in the case of Labrador it is the best that could be used. It has some exasperating surprises for a beginner, by its bumping his ankles. To walk with this shoe requires practice. Each foot as it is advanced requires to be swung in a half circle to clear the foot that is stationary. This swinging of the leg in walking becomes so firmly fixed as one's mode of locomotion that even in the summer the same parenthetical way of moving the legs is continued. One can pick out an inhabitant of the Labrador by his walk, just as one can a sailor."
"For skimming over the hard, windbeaten, barren grounds of the far North the Chippewa snow-shoe is the best that could be used. Take such a make ( 7 or 8 feet long ) and try to get through a thick bush country or climb mountains, and the result would be a failure."
"The Ojibwa snow-shoe when in a modified form answers well, but the tendency of the young men is to have abnormally long toes (from the front bar to the end). As a result, to the novice, the shoe in a most unexpected moment will dive under the surface and the user takes an undignified cropper. This is practised out of all reason by the young men of the Montagnais tribe. They try to outvie each other by the breadth of their shoes. I knew one strapping fellow that broke the record by having his front bar 36 inches long, thus making his shoes 39 inches clear. He walked on them, it is true, but he was not a thing of beauty to behold."
'The Algonquins inhabit a mixed country of swamp, mountains and thick bush and a better snow-shoe than they use could not be manufactured. They are not too broad and yet have a good surface to resist the weight; neither are they too long, but can be snaked in and out through the thick trees with utmost ease."
When snow-shoes become wet through walking during a thaw or in the spring, they should never be dried near the fire, but by the night's frost or wind. The heat of the fire burns the babiche and the shoe will give out all over, thus necessitating the frames being newly webbed."
"The old trailer will always school the novice about the care of his snow-shoes. The giving out of a snow-shoe in the middle of a long journey is a calamity that affects the whole party, as a man cannot be left behind. Blistered feet and mal de raquette are two terrible afflictions to be visited with on the long trail. Ah! and yet another - snow-blindness. Each of these can , by proper precautions be avoided, but generally the new arrival in the North has to learn by experience."
"The principal reason for blistered feet is having irritant socks and keeping the feet too warm. Properly tying the snow-shoe strings and bridle is a great help in preventing toe cutting. Some make the mistake of adjusting the foot so rigidly to the snow-shoe that the toes are bound to cut and blister. The great secret is play of the foot in the sock, with a loose moccasin over the sock. Play of the feet in the snow-shoe strings and freedom of movement under the bridle, this with ventilation about the ankle, i.e. only the leather shoe upper about it, and my word you can walk day after day without any discomfort."
"Mal de raquette is a terrible affliction to be visited with. It generally overtakes one when the snow is deep and heavy on the snow-shoe, which causes an unusual strain on the muscles of the lower leg. The veins become clotted by overheating and the blood being kept in the lower extremities. In a very bad case of neglect from the knee down (sometimes in one leg but more frequently in both) the limbs swell to two or three times their normal size and turn black; when the foot is moved an audible rasping sound is plainly heard at a distance of ten or twenty feet and the sufferer endures great agony."
Once, an Indian, my companion, got a heavy dose of the mal. We were 75 miles from our destination with no help nearer. He had to walk, but how? The pain was so great he positively could not lift his snow-shoes. We faced the problem in all its phases and decided we must go on. To remain by him till he recovered was for both to starve. I tied an end of my l'assumption belt to each snowshoe and passed the middle over his neck, and by holding the belt strand in each hand and lifting one shoe after the other he managed to follow. Of course this was all he could do; his back load was added to mine, but I was thankful he could even lift his feet. It took us three days to do 60 miles and there I left him with a good supply of firewood and the remains of our provisions, except a biscuit that I kept to eat at the middle of the intervening distance to the post, 15 miles."
"Once there I sent a man and a dog team back on my trail to haul him to the post. This young Indian was neglectful and careless; otherwise he would not have had the malady, because those used to walking long distances never take any risks of it overtaking them."
"The prelude to this disease is a numbness and tired feeling. When this is noticed the person should, after the camp-fire is made, bare his legs to his thighs and jump into the snow and stay there until it becomes unbearable, then come in front of the blaze and rub each leg vigorously with a coarse towel or an empty bag until thorough upward flow of the blood sets in. Next day he will be as fresh as if he had never walked on the previous day. Some men when the symptoms are but slight content themselves by suspending their feet on a strap or a pole and lie and smoke the after supper pipe while the blood flows back tot he body, but the former way is the more reliable and quicker."
"Each ill is the worst while one has it, just as each kind of fly is the most tormenting until the next breed comes on deck. So it is with the miseries of the tramp, but for downright agony I think snow-blindness is the worst. This is caused and brought on by long traveling over open swamps, or ice-walking. The glare of the sun on the bright surface reflects on and inflames the eye. When this happens blinding hot tears run continuously from the eyes of the sufferer. Once at this stage the cure is rest in a darkened room or camp. A ray of sunlight or firelight striking the eye is like a stab from a needle. Of course, snow-blindness only happens during the long spring days when the sun's power has increased. Not only do these scalding tears flow, but the patient is actually blind; a foot from his face everything is a blur. We had one unfortunate once in our party who had to walk for two days between traces leading from the first tot he third man and the one behind had to tell him when to lift his foot to avoid a lump or to be prepared for a hollow. It was tiresome traveling for the others as well as the sufferer, but like other drawbacks and unlooked-for misfortunes, go we must, or starve."
To be concluded...