This article was written by Danielle Decock, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park
With cold fronts and chills knocking on our doors, brainstorming creative ways to enjoy the outdoors has begun. During this season of snow, try making an ordinary walk into a fun winter adventure by adding snowshoes! Did you know that each weekend you can check out snowshoes for free at the nature center in North Mississippi Regional Park? (At least six inches of snow is needed). This month, with winter upon us, we will explore the topic of snowshoes and discover animals that use snowshoe-like adaptations to navigate snowy habitats.
Most of us have experienced walking through snow, feet sinking step after step into depths where icy flakes enter our boots and melt against warm skin. That’s when we think, like many before us, there must be a better way. While the origin and age of snowshoes is not precisely known, historians estimate they were first developed in Central Asia about 6,000 years ago, around the same time the wheel was invented. During this time, vast regions were often snowbound for much of the year, but people still needed to explore the land for food and new territories, even with snow depth waist high. The development of snowshoes wasn’t a matter of convenience; it was a matter of survival.
The earliest snowshoes were very simplistic, made of wooden slabs with rawhide straps. However, as snowshoes became more widespread, the design evolved to meet the needs of the user. The people who migrated northwest, to what is now Scandinavia, modified the snowshoe idea and design to create the predecessor of the Nordic ski. Whereas a group of people thought to be the ancestors of the Inuit and Native Americans traveled northeast, eventually crossing the Bering Strait into North America, and brought their snowshoes along with them.
For Native Americans living in the northern part of the continent, snowshoes were an essential tool for survival, particularly for hunting, gathering and nomadic lifestyles. These groups became true masters of the craft, working with durable materials and developing the most advanced and diverse snowshoe designs. Nearly every tribe developed its own particular shape of shoe depending on their activities and environment. In deep snow, long, narrower styles were created to go fast over long distances of open area and shorter, more rounded snowshoes were designed to maneuver through wooded areas. Teardrop shapes, like the Huron, are the most versatile and appropriate for many situations. Traditionally, White Ash was used for the wooden frames and then laced with the hide of deer, caribou, moose, sealskin or even moose intestines and tendons for the webbing and straps.
The benefit of snowshoes is that they create a larger surface area to walk on, which is then able to distribute a person’s weight over a much larger area than just the several inches of their foot, shoe or boot. That extra surface area means there is more snow supporting the weight from below while also redistributing the weight coming down on the snow from above. Basically, snowshoes reduce the pounds of pressure per square inch that your body weight puts on the snow. By evenly spreading weight out with each step, snowshoes allow us to remain on the surface of the snow, which is a quality called “flotation.”
Before people built snowshoes, nature provided examples of successful winter travelers whose oversized feet enabled them to move quickly over deep snow. These animals included caribou, snowshoe hare and lynx. There is no doubt that the Canadian Lynx (Lynx Canadensis) has adaptations reminiscent of snowshoes. Lynx are most often found in northern boreal forests or mountain regions. They grow a long, thick coat in the winter for insulation and use their massive paws and long legs to stay atop the snow. Along with their big furry paws, lynx’s toes spread out with each step to better grip and hunt.
In winter, the lynx diet is 60-90 percent Snowshoe Hares, who you may have guessed, also attribute their winter survival to large-footed adaptations, among others. As prey, Snowshoe Hares are equipped with camouflage as a defense technique. Snowshoe Hares actually have a brown coat in the summer that slowly turns white to help them blend into the snow. They have noticeably larger hind legs with furrier and longer toes compared to other rabbits.
Today, we most often use snowshoes to explore and hike around our neighborhoods and local parks for fun. Drop in to the nature center at North Mississippi Regional Park on the weekend and try snowshoeing for free. Learn more about the programs, events, and free rentals we offer below.
December Public Programs
December 1—Birding: Discover the winter bird cast of characters. All ages. 9-10:30 a.m.
December 8—Nature Art: Ginger-Bird Houses: Invite birds into your backyard by crafting an edible snack house for them. $10 all supplies included. Kids under 13 free. All ages. 1:30-3 p.m.
December 15—Nature Days at Webber Library. 10:30-12:30 p.m.
December 16—Family Funday: Sleep, Flee, Freeze: Hibernation, migration, and other ways animals survive winter. All ages. 1:30-3 p.m.
December 21— Winter Solstice Celebration: Rejoice the coming of longer days with an evening of celestial fun. $5—Kids under 13 free. All ages. 5:30-7:30 p.m.
December 29—Outdoors: Fur, Tracks and Scat: Learn how to spot signs of our local animals. Ages 6 & up. 1-2:30 p.m.
December 22 & 29—Snowshoeing: Check out a pair of free snowshoes to explore the park. All ages. 11-3 p.m.
December 26-28—Wild Winter Camp: Do you have what it takes to survive in the wild winter world? $90. Ages 6-12. 8-4 p.m.
Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and it could appear in a future article. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!