The North Columbia Monthly
Your Getaway Guide to Northeastern Washington
Visitor, Recreation & Travel Info
Events in Northeastern Washington
How To Submit Your Event to What's Happening
Selected Poems by
Not Fit To Print
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author
of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing
Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The
Collector, is now available.
Some of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary" columns are available here, with more on the way.
and Spirit in the Snow
Men getting aspin wood for a sled and another wood for 2 pair of
small snowshoes to go as far as the portage to look after the men who
were sent to Fort de Prairie and carry them provisions
Turned 2 pair of small snowshoes and a sled
Bercier & Le Camble returned finding the snow too deep &
their snowshoes having broken
Turned 2 pair snow shoes
of David Thompson from Kootanae House, at the source lakes of the
Columbia River, winter 1808
In December of 1812, David Thompson was settling into
a new country house outside of Montreal with his wife and five children.
Yet he had just finished 27 years of field work in the fur trade between
Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and during the previous winter he
had tromped from Missoula to Flathead Lake to Kettle Falls. His mind
must have still been reliving those long marches through the north country,
because he took two days off from his mapwork to pen a pleasant article
about snowshoeing for the Montreal Herald.
winter is now set in, and the snow lies on the ground, an incumbrance
to walking,” Thompson begins. He speaks about the hopelessness
of shoveling the stuff, and marvels at the wonderful resourcefulness
of people to have invented the snow shoe--a device which, when well
made, allows anyone who wishes to move freely about the countryside,
in any direction, in any depth of snow. But when poorly made, he laments,
the snowshoe can become a demon's tool that causes excruciating pains
to insteps, ankles, and knees. To prevent these misfortunes is the object
of his brief remarks. What follows is a meditation on snowshoe design,
craftsmanship, meteorology, podiatry, and wilderness medicine that could
only have been written by a person of Thompson's experience--someone
who knew snow from -40º days on the windswept Canadian Shield to
soggy Chinooks in the Clark Fork Valley.
right over the basic skills of bending wood and weaving nets, Thompson
begins with the anatomy of a finished snowshoe. Two crossbars that run
in front of and behind the foot divide any shoe into three unequal parts,
and the wearer must be aware of the stresses and integrity inherent
in each. The part forward of the front bar needs to be as light as possible,
not too long, and the netting not too close. The tension of the netting
in the middle part, where the foot rests, must be braced as strongly
as possible. The placement of the rear bar is a key to the usefulness
of the shoe. If it is more than an inch behind the heel of the wearer,
the constant flexing from each step will slacken the net and increase
the work of the leg. But if the bar is set too close and the wearer's
heel strikes it even occasionally, within a short time the walker will
feel violent shooting pains in the Achilles tendon, and might be put
out of service for several days. Thus Thompson places the rear bar between
1/2 and 1 inch behind the heel of the wearer.
heel, or rear portion, of the snowshoe, also plays a key roll. Thompson
compares it to the tail of a bird, and emphasizes that if it is not
lined up exactly straight with the rest of the shoe, the walker's step
will drift off course, catch one shoe upon the other, and take him down.
Since the shape of snowshoes varies widely, from the round bear paws
favored by heavy white men to the sleek 7-footers of tribes Thompson
observed in the far north, it is impossible to choose the optimum design.
But in Thompson's experience, the most effective length reaches just
to the breast of the wearer, and no snow shoe should be wider than 15
inches or narrower than 12.
he focuses his considerable attention on the stay--”a strong sting
of leather, round which the netting is twined.” Thompson places
this stay 3 inches behind the fore bar, so that it does not interfere
with the toes, and insists that it be gently pounded flat with a wooden
mallet before use--too many times he has seen carelessly rounded stays
cause bloody blisters under the ball of the foot.
for the thong, everyone seems to have a different method of securing
the shoe to the foot, but it must be of the softest leather, well smoked.
Cinching the thong too tightly is asking for injury in the sinews of
the instep and ankle, know among his voyageurs as the snow show evil,”
or mal du raquete. If the foot slips too much on the stay,
such rubbing will chafe the ball of the foot or blister the upper part
of the toes. If the cause is a loose thong, tighten it, but if the slipping
is caused by worn shoes or icy conditions, rub the netting, stay, and
sole of the shoe with charcoal--as long as the charcoals remains, the
foot will hold steady.
any march, some of the snowshoe wearers are going to get blisters. Dr.
Thompson's suggestion is to wrap a bit of fine clean linen around each
damaged toe--two turns seems about right. If it's before setting off
as a preventative measure.
matter how much attention is paid to these particulars, at the end of
the day someone often pulls up lame. In these cases Thompson offers
a cure that shows just how much time he has spent out in the rough,
and how determined he must have been to make steady good time on all
his excursions--in fact, it can be seen as a metaphor for the larger
mindset that allowed him to establish his successful circle of trade
houses in the Inland Northwest, and eventually to survey and map the
whole Columbia. If the unfortunate victim can no longer raise his foot,
Thompson says, he must tie a piece of cordage securely to the middle
of the fore bar and grasp the other end in his hand. After slinging
his rifle over his shoulder so as to walk unencumbered, he is ready
to set out, lifting the bad leg and its snowshoe with the corresponding
arm at every step. While this idea of becoming your own puppet master
might seem outrageous to a modern wilderness camper, for Thompson it
was simply a way to carry on: “I have know men lame with sprains,
or wounded severely with the axe in the foot, yet urged on by necessity,
and taking their snow shoes thus in their hand, have marched for 7 days,
at the rate of 12 or 15 miles a day.”
down the most basic elements of snowshoeing, Thompson describes exactly
how to pick up the feet parallel to the axes of the line of march, and
to drop them with the toes pointed downward. “By this method none
will be too much tired,” he concludes, “and the march will
be kept up with speed and spirit.” For any of us who might be
flagging at the end of this especially soggy winter, Thompson's example
of literally pulling yourself up by your bootstraps sends a clear message:
Get over it, and move along.
Reprints of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary"
columns are available here.
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