Snowshoe builders bring business, tradition back to Teslin

Teslin We're inside Teslin's old canoe factory building, and Elmer David Jackson is beaming. He has reason to be proud.

TESLIN

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

jronson@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

A Housing First building on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street will be taken over by the Council of Yukon First Nations and John Howard Society later this month. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CYFN, John Howard Society take over downtown Housing First residence

The organizations have pledged culturally appropriate service for its many Indigenous residents

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. Politicians return for the spring sitting of the assembly March 4. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Analysis: What to expect in spring sitting of the legislature

They’re back on March 4, but election speculation is looming large

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read