THE OLD TIME USE OF SNOW SHOES DURING THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
By Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
For many readers with an interest in our local history or for those who know our changeable winter weather, the thought of the traditional use of snowshoes during the Christmas Season is not one which readily comes to mind. Yet there has been a pioneer use, particularly during the annual festivities, for these means of winter transportation, particularly in our mountain areas to the west and south.
TRADITIONAL DESIGN CONCEPTS REFLECTED LOCAL CONDITIONS
The use of snowshoes has had a lengthy history within Canada. Native Peoples and pioneers quickly understood their importance of these devices in providing easy walking transportation over deep depths of snow. Flexible design plans took advantage of local materials in terms of their construction and repairs. Wooden (often willow which is pliable) hoops sewn together ensured a sturdy frame while interwoven leather or sinew laces provided the support. Well-built bindings, also constructed of leather, attached one’s boot to the snowshoes. A flexible width allowed for foot travel over various types of terrain; the narrower the width, the more opportunity there was to travel through heavily wooded areas.
There were up to six various design concepts for snowshoes but the most common in Canadian history was the bears-paw model. It also was the simplest to construct. A single, long length of willow was used for each shoe, being bent into an oval shape and tied at the rear. The length of the willow factored the shoe’s size, the person’s weight and the type of snow over which they usually traveled. Webbing and binding were placed in the centre.
LIMITED USE AS DETERMINED BY LOCAL WEATHER
Oral traditions and local folklore within the Pincher Creek area tell us that snowshoeing was not as extensively utilized within our history as it has been in other parts of Canada. The changeable local winter weather conditions made it either difficult or unnecessary to use snow shoes much of the time. Crusty or icy snow conditions caused by Chinook winds made travel by snowshoes treacherous at best. Often a pair of skis handled this snow and made better time under these conditions. Also the lack of snow during parts of the winter, again caused by those westerly Chinook winds, meant that snowshoes had no value at all.
WINTER USE BY LOCAL PIONEERS
Yet there were memorable times of snow shoeing in Pincher Creek’s history. Local rancher Art Kyllo bought a pair of bears paw snowshoes during the 1930s, a pair which he used extensively in the mountains south and west of Beaver Mines. Folklore goes that just before one Christmas during the early 1930s, he used the snowshoes to travel several miles upstream along the South Branch of the South Fork (now known as the South Castle River). The snow was deep, particularly on the valley floor, as the winter had seen lots of snowstorms yet Kyllo, an expert outdoorsmen traveled adeptly on top of the snow’s surface. He was raised just outside of Beaver Mines. Decades later, as a valued volunteer with the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, Kyllo served as a very knowledgeable local history buff.
Many decades earlier, the French Canadian and Metis community in the Beauvais Lake area used snowshoes widely to travel back and forth amoungst their local ranches. The tradition of using snowshoes has a lengthy history for both cultural groups, and as early as the 1880s, these pioneer settlers found that it was an easy way to travel in the sheltered areas near the Lake and in the wooded foothills. The trees offered much shelter from the constant howling winds which led to good snow shoeing conditions. The Beauvais Lake community included such pioneers as the Gareaus, Jughandle Smiths (Madeline Gareau and Marie Rose Smith were sisters), Clavels, Daigles, Routhiers and Primeaus amoungst others. This close knit community hosted many a pioneer Christmas gathering over the decades, and local traditions indicate that snowshoes were utilized on many a winter occasion.