Making snowshoes is in George Longchap’s blood. He learned by watching his father, who learned from watching his father, and today Longchap is teaching his daughter the tradition.
“In my childhood days I always watched my dad making snowshoes and I saw his process,” he said. “I remember going out into the bush with him to find the trees. Birch or tamarack is what he used. These days we use white ash or cedar.”
Protocol dictated that he only observe the process as a child, but crafting snowshoes is something he always knew he’d do. “When I watched my dad make the snowshoes I wanted to make my own, but he told me I couldn’t make traditional snowshoes until I was older,” said Longchap. “Even as a teenager, I wanted to do it, but it wasn’t until I got married that I found the time to make my snowshoes.”
Longchap never thought he’d be taking requests or making as many pairs as he has over the past few years. Initially he set out to make himself a pair, but when people saw the quality of his work, the requests came flooding in – some from as far away as Winnipeg. “Once people found out, they started asking for pairs,’ said Longchap. “Over the last two years, I’ve made 26 pair. I don’t even have a pair for myself yet.”
A pair of Longchap’s snowshoes can take up to 10 days to finish. “We all have our own style of snowshoes and I make mine from the beginning to the end,” said Longchap. “I even do the weaving.”
Longchap is committed to carrying on the tradition and hopes his daughter does the same. “If we can’t continue with what our ancestors did, then we’re lost,” he said. “I love what I’m doing. I want to continue what my dad taught me.”
Choosing the right wood
The best wood to make traditional snowshoes is birch or tamarack, but any hard wood can be used as well. The grain needs to be straight throughout the board’s length, without any large knots, and only the sapwood rings of the tree are used. A perfectly straight log can be hard to find, especially in ash, but they’re crucial if you want to bend the wood without cracking or breaking it. The wood is cut by splitting the log and planing it down to the right size (two inches).
First soak the planks in hot water or steam them with a steamer. Then bend the planks in both directions; that’s how the snowshoe becomes flexible. Then tie the plank around something that has your desired shape – some people use traps for this. Once tied, the planks must be dried. In summer, they can be hung outside. In winter, hang them by a wood stove. The ties will loosen when they’re dry and ready for the next step.
Once they’re dry, sand them smooth, then measure and cut the crosspieces. There are two crosspieces that divide the shoe into top, middle and bottom. After they’re in, sand and smooth them and make sure they’re not chipped.
Then it’s time for painting. This is the fun part but you don’t have to paint them. After the painting, it’s time to weave them, starting at the bottom or tail. Then weave the top part. Weave the middle last and sew in the foot piece. Once that’s done, soak the whole thing or just the middle and then leave them outside in the cold. The soaked portion will turn a nice white. Now they’re ready to be worn.