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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Snowshoes - The Old Way

Air Date: Week of

Nina (Nye-nuh) Keck of Vermont Public Radio visits with two women who still make old-fashioned wood-and-leather snow shoes in Vermont. Sales of lightweight aluminum snow shoes are booming, but some folks still prefer traditional, handmade, wooden frames.


CURWOOD: The last of the winter snow is rapidly disappearing from most of the country. But as long as there's still some white stuff out there, there will still be a few diehard snowshoers tromping around in it. Snowshoeing is booming these days, with the sale of snowshoes increasing by 25 percent a year. Most buyers prefer snowshoes made from inexpensive lightweight aluminum. But there is still a small, loyal market for old-fashioned wooden snowshoes. Reporter Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio recently paid a visit to two seasoned craftspeople who make wooden snowshoes in Stowe, Vermont.

(Loud, high-pitched buzzing)

KECK: The main room of Tubbs Snowshoe Company factory is filled with hydraulic pounding, clanking, and hissing. It's the sound of modern aluminum snowshoes being born. Not far away, in a quieter corner of the plant, Tubbs' only full-time snowshoe lacer talks about the other snowshoes the company makes: hand-crafted wooden ones that make up just one half of one percent of overall sales. Joan Scribner-Lemieux says that while the newer models are lighter, less costly, and easier to maintain, wooden snowshoes have advantages.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: One of the things about wooden snowshoes is that they are more quiet in the woods. And if people really want to get out and see wildlife and not disturb it any more than necessary, the wood shoe seems to be a good choice. To me, I like the way they're made, I like the way they look, I love making them.

KECK: Joan Scribner-Lemieux has short, silver hair, big-framed glasses, and a quick smile. The native Vermonter is in her mid 60s. She grew up watching her father, a farmer, make and repair his own snowshoes. Now she laces about 15 pair a week. She explains the process as we walk into the company's wood shop.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: Okay, come on, we'll go out here and see Dave. (Opens door)

KECK: Dave is David Darreh, the other half of Tubbs' wooden snowshoe team.


SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: He's making the holes that I lace through for the toe, and the tail section, that go completely through the frame.

DARREH: I go buy the lumber, go get the lumber, mill it out, make the shoes, and I do the dipping and Joan does all the lacing.

KECK: Dave Darreh's workshop smells like sawdust and camp fires. Routers, sanders, drills, and saws stand ready for each phase of the work. The snowshoes are made from light ash. Darreh says before he can assemble a pair, the wood needs to be cut, steamed, and dried to the right moisture content.

DARREH: If it's too wet, the moisture will push the grain and split it. And if it's too dry it will just break. So it has to be just so. And then I take it and put it on holding racks, and we put it in the drying room and dry it for about three days. Then I take it out of there and start making the shoes.

(Loud knocking)

KECK: Preparing the frames for lacing can take more than a week. While Dave Darreh's workshop is big and noisy, Joan Scribner-Lemieux's area is quieter and more compact. A wall-mounted vise holds the shoe she's working on. Various tools lay nearby. Dry cowhides are rolled up on a back shelf like wrapping paper. She soaks the hides in a big metal tub to soften them, and then feeds the dripping leather through a special slicer.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: This is my refrigerator that I keep my hide in when it's wet, so that it doesn't spoil. People are welcome to use it to keep their milk for their coffee in there, but I tell them the temperature is down enough so it almost freezes.

KECK: Joan Scribbner Lemieux reaches in and grabs a wet bundle of what looks like enormous fettuccine. She pulls out one long ribbon of hide and ties it to the snowshoe frame. She stretches the lace tightly, and wraps it around the other side of the shoe. Her hands move quickly and gracefully, over and under, stretching and tying, twisting and looping.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: This is really pretty quiet work. The only thing you hear is probably the squeaking of the vice and stuff when it wiggles when I pull things through it. Lacing is watching the pattern grow. As many times as I've done all the patterns, I still enjoy watching it start to shape. It's sort of a triangle type of thing, and you keep adding rows and rows and rows. But it's always kind of interesting to watch it grow.

KECK: The work isn't difficult. Though she admits arthritis makes her hands stiff and tired at the end of the day.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: You have to keep the lacing tight, fairly tight. What I call white-knuckle tight. So that when you tie the knots around the frame, if it does for some reason pick up moisture and start to soften, it doesn't slide out of position. Because then they don't look good and they don't provide the support they need to for the person wearing them.

KECK: After lacing them, she'll give the shoes a second and third coat of polyurethane, before sending them on their way. From start to finish, it can take about three to four weeks to complete a pair of wooden snowshoes. That's a big reason why they cost more than some of the newer models. Tubbs' wooden snowshoes start at about $200, while aluminum ones begin at half that amount. Joan Scribner-Lemieux says that, for many people, nostalgia is worth it.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: When I'm doing lacing demos at stores and so forth, the older people are the ones who stand there with a kind of a dreamy look in their eye that says: Oh, I remember this.

KECK: That's part of what Joan Scribner-Lemieux likes about her job, the idea that she might be helping to preserve a north woods tradition that's been around for thousands of years. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck in Stowe, Vermont.



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