SkiTrax - - Contents - by Keith Ni­col

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.

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