Indestructible snowshoes, super moisturizers and more: meet the Yukon Innovation Prize finalists

Allan Benjamin wants to blend traditional knowledge and modern materials to create efficient and “indestructible” snowshoes.

Allan Benjamin wants to blend traditional knowledge and modern materials to create efficient and “indestructible” snowshoes.

Benjamin is one of four finalists shortlisted for the 2017 Yukon Innovation Prize. There were 23 projects competing for this year’s prize under the theme of health and wellness.

For Benjamin, his snowshoes will have the efficiency of traditional snowshoes minus their material weakness: the risk of the wood breaking or bending out of shape.

“The way (people) have designed them, they’re just perfect,” he said. “They designed them so you can run all day without getting tired.”

Benjamin, now 60, has been competing in snowshoe races for decades.

He said traditional snowshoe design as one of the factors that allowed Gwich’in people to survive the harsh winters.

“If it wasn’t for the snowshoes … our people would have had a difficult time surviving,” he said. “Because of the snowshoes they were able to hunt and track down caribou.”

While modern snowshoes are great for running on hard-packed trails, Benjamin finds the traditional ones excel in deep snow.

Ultimately, he said, his project ties in to the health theme because his snowshoes will allow anybody to exercise.

“Anybody can snowshoe, from a four-year old kid right up to elders,” he said. “You don’t need all kinds of equipment.”

Because snow is a natural shock-absorber, Benjamin said he isn’t suffering from bones or joints injuries that would come with running on pavement.

“I’m 60 and there is nothing wrong with my knees and hips because I’ve been snowshoeing all my life,” he said.

From an early age Benjamin embraced exercise.

He trained with Father Jean-Marie Mouchet, an Oblate priest who started the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program (TEST), teaching people in Old Crow how to cross-country ski, eventually sending them to the Canadian National Ski Team.

“The number one thing I believe in is exercise,” he said. “If you exercise you won’t have health issues.”

For now Benjamin only has a blueprint of what the snowshoes will look like. To make a prototype, he’ll need to get aluminum used in the construction of aircraft and to find an aluminum welder. At that stage he’ll be able to experiment with different kinds of plastics that make up part of the snowshoe to find right fit for a northern climate.

Local sap for super moisturizer

In Dawson City, Elise McCormick and Joanne Sherrard were selected for their proposal to use natural compounds in raw birch sap to create a moisturizer.

Relying on previous research done in Japan, they worked with a chemist to isolate two specific compounds.

“It would be in complement to a regular moisturizer,” said Sherrard. The product, in the form of a serum, would be applied to the skin first to “superpower the moisturizer.”

But part of the project is also to take a different approach to cosmetic branding.

“The focus of a lot of cosmetic companies might be around … (the) negative and fear-mongering approach of taking care of yourself,” said Sherrard. “The concept we’d like to focus on is the importance of maintaining healthy skin and combining that with what is already your skin care ritual.”

In addition to that different attitude towards skin care, for Sherrard and McCormick it was about having a product backed up by scientific research that is also available locally.

Skin care rituals offer people the chance to pause for a moment, in a day and age where phone notifications and stimulation fight to monopolize our attention.

“You could just stay present to what you’re doing and take in the sensory component of that routine,” Sherrard said.

Because the harvest season for raw birch sap only lasts a couple weeks, the product will be available seasonally, McCormick said.

In Whitehorse, Sharon Katz was selected for her idea to create a prognostic tool for clinicians to help in the early detection of radon-induced lung cancer. Lisa Kanary’s proposal to deliver more personalized reporting and guidance for users of digital fitness trackers got her selected for the final round of the innovation prize.

Each of the four finalists will get $10,000 to work on proving their projects’ technical and economic viability for June’s final presentation.

The winner, who will be announced at the end of June, will receive $60,000.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at