We’re inside Teslin’s old canoe factory building, and Elmer David Jackson is beaming.
He has reason to be proud. Last week he and two others graduated from Doug Smarch’s traditional snowshoe making course, which has run for a few months every winter for the past five years. It’s his second year in the program.
Jackson – with his bright red bandana, thick salt-and-pepper beard, long braids and wide smile – fills the room.
“This is the best thing I ever done; right here,” he says.
His speech is slow and expressive, like Stuart McLean if he had spent his life as a Fort Mac iron worker instead of a radio performer.
“It was the best damn thing that ever happened,” says Jackson.
“There’s probably 70, 80 hours in a pair of snowshoes by the time you do the hides and all the woodwork and everything. So you only get five dollars an hour when you sell it, but you’re working for yourself – you’re always happy.”
The art of snowshoe making is being brought back to life in Teslin thanks to this program, which is co-ordinated by the Teslin Tlingit Council.
The instructor, Doug Smarch, learned from the best. The late Tom Smith was known as the finest snowshoe craftsman in that part of the world.
Smarch, 81, is losing his hearing and his legs ache if he stands too long, but none of that gets in the way of him passing on his knowledge to a younger Tlingit generation.
He wants to explain how much work, and attention to detail, goes into a pair of well-made snowshoes.
“These guys had lots of patience for what they did,” he says. “Lots of patience. It takes time.
“It is not simple. These here, they sit for hours and hours and hours and hours. Fill and unfill. Fill and unfill.
“It looks simple but it isn’t, to fill. It’s a big job, and it’s not done any old way.
“You look at the holes here, look how even they are,” he says, pointing to where the hide laces attach to the frame. “At the front, the same thing.”
Any imperfections in the frame and you throw it out and start again, says Smarch. You wouldn’t go to a shoe store and buy a pair with one heel higher than the other. It’s the same thing with snowshoes.
“It’s got to be perfectly done. And that there, from start to finish, they have done it. All I do is watch for the mistakes, tell them to correct it.”
The work starts with finding the perfect birch tree that will make the perfect frame. This can only be done in the winter, since wood taken after the sap begins the flow will become brittle and break after it is dried. The tree must be harvested and cut, with pieces discarded unless they are just right.
Moose and caribou hides must be tanned and cut.
There’s the steaming and bending of the frame, and the tedious work of filling it with the woven lacings.
“There’s 150 feet of hide on one side, so 300 feet of lashings that you have to cut for the fillings on the snowshoe,” says Jackson. “Three hundred feet of cutting of hide. There’s more work that goes into the hides than goes into the snowshoes. Don’t make sense but it’s true.”
Smarch beams, knowing that the students in his program now have the confidence to go out on their own and continue the practice.
A pair of five-foot snowshoes sells for $450. The smaller, child-sized version goes for $250.
A lot of the snowshoes sold in Teslin today end up as souvenirs displayed on the walls of tourists’ homes, but they’re in fact a precision tool made for travelling efficiently in wintertime through the deep snow of Yukon’s bush.
The high-tech versions sold in stores still don’t even come close, Smarch says.
“You go to a store and buy those pairs of aluminums. Look at the price tag on them. And they can’t be used. They can’t be ever walked on the highway or hard-packed trail.”
For hunting especially, you need the real thing, agrees Buz Bosley, another of last week’s graduates.
“The aluminium ones, it’s like going around with an alarm on you. That aluminium makes a big noise, eh, versus these. On the ice, they make a lot of noise. These are way better. You’re getting the real McCoy here.”
Bosley is giving away the larger pair he made during the course to his brother-in-law, and the smaller to his grandson.
“They’re so sturdy, eh – for him. But he’s a sturdy little guy. So he could use these, eh?”
Bosley knows the value of his work and isn’t going to short-change himself if he later makes snowshoes to sell, he says.
“I’ve always learnt that, no no, don’t sell yourself short. That’s big time with me.
“I know that from my mum selling her stuff for cheap.”
Growing up, his family got a lot of their income from his mom’s beading and native handicrafts, he says.
“There was never no riches in my family but we were rich in other ways eh? Rich, rich,” says Bosley.
“Time to say, no, you’re paying for it. It’s not payback time, it’s just setting things right.”
For him, learning to make snowshoes means following in his family’s tradition.
“I’ve got seven sisters. They all know about beading and stuff like that. They followed my mum. So I figure this is important, that I follow my uncles, eh?
“I’m getting damn-near elder time and I don’t want some little kid coming up to me and, ‘Grandpa, can you show me how to make these?…’ And I can (teach), now. There’s no holding me back.
“If there’s ever a birch tree missing from Stanley Park, that might be me, making a pair of snowshoes somewhere – in the skids,” says Bosley with a mischievous laugh.
Thomas Morris is by all accounts a star in the class, who has already taken on the role of teacher and mentor to the others. They speak of his work with admiration, though Morris is himself modest and reserved.
Like the others, he’s proud to be part of bringing back a skill that used to common among the Tlingit.
“My dad used to make drums and he did make snowshoes. My mom sewed. She made moccasins and stuff like that – hats, vests,” he says.
“It’s a tradition I’d like to carry on.”
He plans to build more in the future, he says, to make an income through the winter months.
The men are business-minded. Smarch envisions getting a sort-of factory going with eight or nine people making snowshoes for sale. “It’ll be a big business,” he says.
“Next is canoes,” says Jackson. “We’re going to start making boats again. This place produced 300 boats in the past, eh? So that’s the next phase of the revival of Teslin.”
Jackson spent 25 years working iron in the oil patch, but here in Teslin he does all sorts of things to pay the bills.
“You can’t keep busy being an ironworker up here. You’ve got to do everything else, so I do log work, and I run the sawmill and build snowshoes and I do power saw work.”
Listening to him, you get the sense that he could sell snowshoes in the Caribbean, if he put his mind to it.
“I’ve got five pairs that are for sale,” he says, unprompted. “No. 22 Sawmill Rd., Teslin, Yukon. Custom orders. I’ll sign them for extra.”
But Jackson’s not really in it for the money.
“It just keeps me busy, eh? I got something to do – I was up at 6:30 this morning and we don’t start till nine. Ready for the day. It gives you something to look forward to, every Monday. You’ve got somewheres to go in the winter.
“When there’s no TV, no radio, you got light, you got friends, you sit around, you whittle and you weave, drink tea. It’s as good as it gets. It’s as good as it gets. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a gathering place, this one. And hopefully it’ll be the best one in the Yukon.
“If you don’t want to make any money, don’t come in.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at