Aquiet revolution has been underway in British Columbia’s North Shore backcountry. On any given day, the dozens of routes and trails to such summits as Mount Hollyburn, Mount Strachan and Mount Seymour are crawling with snowshoers, many of them hiking in single file with ski poles in hand and smiles on their faces.
Indeed, the humble snowshoe has surpassed both traditional touring cross-country skis and backcountry-oriented telemark skis (which seem to be on the verge of extinction) as the activity of choice for winter enthusiasts.
The reason for snowshoeing’s massive popularity on the North Shore is due to several factors. While the marketing message of cross-country skiing has been “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski,” the steep topography of the Coast Range is a formidable barrier to beginners going both uphill and downhill on waxless, fish-scalebased skis with little or no turning ability to control speed. Snowshoeing – especially if you carry a ski pole to stabilize your balance on steeper slopes – offers infinitely more control (no messy klister!) and is simple and straightforward to learn. Secondly, snowshoes are cheap to rent, easy to find on Craigslist and generally very durable. And finally, snowshoes, at least the alpine variety with a wide (10" x 34" footprint), “stay on top” of fresh snow much better than skinny skis.
The vast majority of snowshoers have no knowledge of their historical significance. If you subscribe to the “Bering Sea Land Bridge” theory of North American settlement, you’ll accept that indigenous people used snowshoes to cross from Siberia into Alaska during the last Ice Age.
Later on, early French, English and Spanish explorers came across a wide range of snowshoes used by First Nations in the 17th century. Like the canoe and other First Nations’ modes of transport, English and French colonists adopted snowshoes for foot transport during the deep snows of winter. The North American Indians painstakingly constructed these snowshoes entirely from what nature provided – using tree branches for frames, cured animal hides for the decking, other animal parts for webbing and a rudimentary foot harness.
Wooden snowshoes are still produced by some companies – Quebec-based Faber sells a broad line-up of hickory- and ash- framed shoe that is perfect for snowshoeing around the lakes and forests of eastern Canada. Wooden snowshoes, however, even the modern ones, are finicky. The leather laces can stretch in wet snow, the “catgut” webbing needs to be re-lacquered and the wooden frames will warp if stored incorrectly.
Snowshoeing took off during the 1970s and 1980s when Sherpa (followed by Tubbs, Atlas and MSR) developed aluminum-frame snowshoes with synthetic rubber and thermoplastic deck materials. For mountain travellers, Sherpa’s patented pivoting binding with its steel claws was truly the game-changer. Now, snowshoers could ascend steep, icy slopes without fear of sliding back and falling to their death.
Due to Vancouver’s burgeoning population growth over the past two decades, snowshoeing has become ever more popular – especially among recent immigrants from (most notably) Korea and China. Each weekend, busloads of students, church groups, Boy Scouts and other recreational clubs gather in the parking lots of Mount Seymour and Cypress Bowl provincial parks and head directly to the snowshoe rental kiosks if they don’t own their own. You want to think that somewhere the ghosts of ancestral First Nations tribes are happy to see their ingenious, timeless invention still in use to this day. Which is likely something you won’t be able to say about your cellphone 500 years from now.
Snowshoeing took off during the 1970s and 1980s when aluminum frames with synthetic rubber and thermoplastic deck materials were introduced.
Snowshoeing in B.C. has seen incredible growth surpassing both cross-country and telemark skiing in popularity.
Vancouver's rapid population growth has fueled the popularity of snowshoeing.