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Big snowshoes to fill

Strings of deer and elk hide were wrapped around the pillars outside the Ta'an Kwach'an Council's health centre like cobwebs this weekend. "The sun helps keep them white," said facilitator Chuck Hume.

Strings of deer and elk hide were wrapped around the pillars outside the Ta’an Kwach’an Council’s health centre like cobwebs this weekend.

“The sun helps keep them white,” said facilitator Chuck Hume.

Inside, the boardroom was covered in tarps.

Large, plastic tubs stood filled with murky, white water and atop the table lay curved pieces of birch. The pointed ones for men, the curved for women. All of them, lined with small holes, await their handmade laces.

“I’ve learned your hands aren’t as tough as you think,” said participant Mary Jane Allison.

More than 10 people, ranging in age and coming from a variety of First Nations, spent three days here making snowshoes.

And next weekend, the health centre will roll out the tarps, buckets and hide cobwebs again when the workshop is offered for another, three-day round.

“When I get old enough, it come to my mind that maybe I should start teaching young kids,” said elder Paddy Jim, the workshops’ instructor. “That’s how I learned, so I might as well pass it on to young kids. That’s how native people work. When you become to be an elder you pass it on to the younger generation. That’s what I am trying to do now.”

Jim learned how to make snowshoes from his parents.

He remembers watching his father make and lace the frame while he helped his mother cut and stretch the hide.

That’s the hardest part, said Allison.

Like many of the other participants, she stood at the tarp-covered conference table with her hands wrapped in J Cloths.

She would loop strips of the moist hide, cut about a half-an-inch thick, around each hand, then pull her arms apart, letting one side slowly unravel.

Thicker elk hide is used for the lacing that goes under the foot and thinner deer hide is used as the lacing at the front and back of the shoe.

“It may not feel like you’re doing much,” Allison said, pointing to a piece she just pulled. “But that one there is probably three-quarters of an inch longer.”

Allison is a southern tutchone native language teacher at Porter Creek Secondary School.

“As a language teacher, usually you should be teaching the culture and how to do this kind of stuff but, I don’t know how,” she said bashfully raising her shoulders and laughing. “I’ve learned a lot of other things, I know the theory, I’ve read about it, but I’ve never personally sat down with an elder telling me what to do and how to do it.”

As she says this, cutting another piece of hide, another facilitator yells out to her: “Not that thick Mary Jane.”

“See,” she said, looking up from under her brow, giggling.

“This is my chance to sit down and do what I am supposed to be doing,” she said.

The traditional story behind the snowshoe comes from an unexpected animal: the grouse.

The grouse went in front of the lady many times, weaving back and forth across the snow. That is how she thought to lace the hide back and forth. The idea is to stay on top of the snow.

“It’s a dying art, so I wanted to learn,” said Andre Paul, who is originally from the westernmost Sioux in South Dakota, known as the Lakota. He admits, snowshoes aren’t as popular in his traditional land, but he has been all over North America. He’s spent 20 years handmaking traditional drums.

Snowshoes are harder, he said, laughing.

Jim makes drums as well. And traditional toboggans. (They are the hardest to make because the birch has to be bent with hot water and steam, he said.)

“I make everything and I teach everything,” he said, adding trapping, Russell fencing, horse wrangling and hunting to the list. “Everything they want to learn.”

His own 14 children know how to do it all, he said.

“I don’t have to tell them anything I just tell them there’s a job to be done and it will be done because they learn off me. I don’t mind teaching people because I want to pass it on to the younger generation, what I know. Everything I do, they watch and they learn.”

The art of making snowshoes has changed since Jim learned it from his own parents.

The small pinholes along the frame of the shoe for the lacing used to be made with tooth or bone. Jim remembers his dad had made his own tool out of steel that worked like a hand-drill. At the health centre, Jim was able to hold an electric drill in hand and pull the trigger.

But some elements of the art will never change. Like picking good birch, said Jim.

The grain must be straight and it can’t brake when you bend it.

“If it bends like rubber, that’s a good birch,” he said.

He stands up abruptly and heads for the door.

“Give me two minutes,” he says waving two fingers up and over his shoulder.

In less than that time, Jim returned with a snowshoe frame without lacing.

He pointed to the curve at the top.

“That’s a bad birch,” he said. There was a crack. You could see the grain twisted like a cork screw at that point.

“If I don’t try, I don’t learn,” said Jim. “I don’t say, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ What gets in my mind I wanna do and I wanna do it now, I’m not going to wait til tomorrow.

“And I make a lot of mistakes, I know where I make the mistake and I do a lot of different ways til I do a good job.”

When asked how many pairs of snowshoes he has made, Jim just started laughing.

“Lots,” he said.

When asked how old he is, Jim looked up with a coy grin.

“Only 88,” he said, “I still work hard.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at