This story was originally published in December 2018.
Wooden snowshoes are iconic antiques of the Northeast, hung over fireplaces as decorative displays of traditional craftsmanship and a nod to the region’s long, snowy winters. But to many Maine residents, bent wood frames and woven rawhide decking are not just a thing of the past.
Crafted by a handful of businesses throughout the state, wooden snowshoes continue to be worn by a variety of outdoors-people who prefer their age-old designs and natural materials to more modern plastic and metal snowshoes.
“Our traditional snowshoes are made for the deep snow,” said Brian Theriault of Fort Kent, who started building and selling wooden snowshoes with his father, Edmond Theriault, about 40 years ago. “People seek us out because they know good quality, and they know the difference.”
“With our snowshoes, you can go anywhere in the woods you want. You’ll stay on top of the snow.”
Theriault Snowshoes is one of the most celebrated wooden snowshoe companies in Maine. However, there are a few other businesses working to keep the tradition alive. For example, Maine Guide Snowshoes, operating out of Pleasant Ridge Plantation, constructs snowshoes using traditional designs and materials, as well as a popular line of wooden snowshoes with durable cord decking, for those who don’t want to deal with the upkeep of rawhide.
And Maine’s most famous outdoor retailer, L.L.Bean, sells wood and rawhide snowshoes designed to be “virtually identical to those worn by Maine woodsmen 100 years ago as they tended traps and performed other chores in harsh winter conditions.”
A brief history of snowshoes
Snowshoes, in some shape or form, have been around for thousands of years. In fact, researchers have used radiocarbon dating to determine that one snowshoe artifact found in the Italian Alps dates back to about 3,800 BCE.
In North America, traditional snowshoe designs can be traced back to a region’s native tribes, which produced snowshoes out of natural materials to use for winter hunting and gathering. The designs of these snowshoes vary greatly by region.
Snowshoes made my Maine’s indigenous people, for instance, were about three times as long as they were wide, and unlike other subArctic snowshoes styles, the toes of Maine snowshoes were never turned up. Nor were there pairs made with lefts and rights, according to the University of Maine Hudson Museum, which boasts a collection of more than 900 objects crafted by Maine Indians.
When Europeans began colonizing and trading in the region in the 1600s, it wasn’t long before snowshoes made by Maine Indian tribes became a hot commodity, valued for their high quality and durability.
Maine was the center of snowshoe production in the Northeast from the 1850s to the 1940s, according to information provided by the Hudson Museum. During that time, snowshoes were made by Maine Indians, as well as non-natives who adopted traditional Native American designs and construction techniques.
“There used to be so many snowshoe makers [in Maine] that it was incredible,” Brian Theriault said. “But I think what happened was the quality of wooden and rawhide snowshoes became so poor it was easy for something else to take its place.”
Nowadays, most people purchase snowshoes made of plastic and aluminum sold by big outdoor brands, such as Tubbs, Atlas, MSR and Chinook. But in Maine — and other particularly snowy places, such as Michigan — traditional wooden snowshoes live on, thanks to a few craftspeople who believe that “new” doesn’t always mean better.
‘Wooden snowshoes are quiet’
Bob Howe purchased Maine Guide Snowshoes about 20 years ago, when the paper mill that he’d worked at for 25 years closed. Around the same time, he purchased Pine Grove Lodge and Cabins near Bingham, further devoting his time to carrying on the state’s outdoor traditions.
Howe believes his family is the fourth to own Maine Guide Snowshoes, which local residents tell him has been around since the 1950s and was started by Walter York, an avid outdoorsman who was also of the Bingham-Forks area.
Since purchasing the company, Howe has altered its snowshoe designs — experimenting with various frame shapes and sizes, bindings and webbing patterns — but he continues to build his frames out of wood because he firmly believes that when it comes to snowshoes, wood frames are superior to metal.
“Aluminum snowshoes make so much noise — they clink,” Howe said. “Wooden snowshoes are quiet. If you’re a hunter or photographer going along in the woods, we like the silence.”
Another disadvantage of many modern snowshoes, Howe said, is their solid decking, which tends to carry snow on top of it, weighing the snowshoer down rather than keeping them afloat. Solid decking also tends to flip snow up at the snowshoer’s back with every step. In contrast, traditional snowshoes have laced decking, webs of rawhide that allow snow to easily sift through.
Howe creates snowshoes with rawhide webbing, but he also creates snowshoes with rope webbing, which is less expensive, more durable and requires less maintenance.
“These shoes we make are good for at least three generations,” Howe said. “So your grandkids will be wearing them. They’re heirloom quality.”
Even so, some people still prefer the traditional rawhide lacing.
“I have traditionalists,” he said. “I just tied a pair [of rawhide-webbed snowshoes] and sent them to British Columbia, and two pairs to Michigan.”
Nowadays, Howe estimates that his business sells between 800 and 1,000 pairs of snowshoes a year. And while he crafts many of the snowshoes himself, he also employs many local residents, as well as people serving time at the Charleston Correctional Facility and veterans at Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta. The company also produces a popular line of snowshoe furniture, and for people looking to hike uphill, they sell a cleat system that works with the snowshoes.
Game wardens and wildlife biologists all over the state wear Maine Guide Snowshoes, he said. His other clients include foresters, land surveyors, wildlife photographers and winter hunters. And every Sunday during the winter, he welcomes visitors to Pine Grove Lodge and Cabins to try their snowshoes for free.
‘I just don’t want to see it disappear’
The third oldest of 11 kids, Brian Theriault said his father, Edmund Theriault, started making his family snowshoes so they could play outside during the long, snowy winter in Northern Maine. Studying designs of their Native American ancestors, he built the snowshoes from start to finish. This included creating specific tools, harvesting and bending ash wood into frames, scraping cow hide to create rawhide webbing, and weaving the decking in a specific fashion.
“My great-great-grandmother came right off the reservation,” Brian Theriault said. “And it’s always been a three-way weave. That’s what they were doing 100 years ago or even further back. It holds everything together.”
Early on, the Theriaults realized that while people tend to admire more intricate weaves, a snowshoe is actually more functional if the woven rawhide is less intricate.
“We realized that if your holes [in the weaving] were a little bigger, the snow wouldn’t stay on your platform. It would go through. So when you pick up your foot, you wouldn’t be carrying snow all the time,” Brian Theriault said.
Over the years, Brian Theriault learned the craft from his father. Together, they’d experiment with the design, crafting methods and materials, improving the process and the final product until Theriault snowshoes became sought after throughout Maine and beyond.
“We’ve evolved with people’s weight and the quality of the frames and the rawhide,” Theriault said. “Now we pre-stretch our rawhide with a 2-ton jack. It makes a world of difference because you get a bounce when you walk and the snow slides off it.”
“We moved our cross pieces further apart because people use bigger boots and have bigger feet than they did before,” he added. “A lot of [traditional] snowshoes made in the past didn’t evolve, so people were stepping on the cross piece and breaking them.”
Theriault said traditional rawhide snowshoes do require occasional maintenance and proper storage. Because many animals would consume rawhide, the snowshoes need to be stored in a place where there aren’t pests, like mice, or pets, like dogs. And if that’s not possible, Theriault suggests hanging the snowshoes by a string so animals can’t get to them. In addition, traditional snowshoes should be stored in a place that isn’t too damp, dry or hot.
“You can’t just leave them out by the woodstove,” he said. “Too much heat will cause the rawhide to break.”
Then, once or twice a year, you can extend the life of your snowshoes by lightly sanding them and coating the wood and rawhide with polyurethane, he said. Or, for people who would prefer to use natural products, the snowshoes could be treated with tung oil, linseed oil or candelilla wax.
To keep the tradition alive, the father-son duo co-authored the 2014 book “Leaving Tracks: A Maine Tradition,” which is an extensive guide to making traditional snowshoes. Their work has been recognized and awarded several times by the Maine Arts Commission, and Brian Theriault is currently focused on teaching his craft to as many people as possible through workshops, his writing and instructional DVDs.
“It’s not everybody who will scrape a cowhide,” Brian Theriault admitted. “But we did all this work, and we don’t want it to just disappear.”
“When I was working with my father at the beginning, we had nothing to go by,” he added, “We had to invent and create and think out of the box and really experiment on a lot of things. So it’s precious to me and my father. It’s been a part of us and our family. … I just don’t want to see it disappear just like that. I’m making the effort to make sure if somebody wants to make snowshoes, they’re going to have a heads up and something to go by.”
It’s likely his efforts won’t be in vain. After all, traditional wooden snowshoes have been valued for thousands of years. Here’s to a few thousand more.