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Home Story Snowshoe Through the NWT

Snowshoe Through the NWT

Snowshoeing, one of the most popular winter activities in the Northwest Territories, remains a timeless, iconic, and climate-friendly way of travelling through the northern world. As a historical means of transportation, its roots are deep in the territory’s history. Now mostly a form of recreation, it’s one of the easiest ways to experience the beauty of wintery landscapes. All you need is snow and a pair of snowshoes.

On dark winter days, you can step outside and strap on your snowshoes to get a better view of the green and purple swirls of the world’s best Northern Lights overhead. Or, follow the telltale tracks of ptarmigan and hares in the bush. The only noise around you is the crunch of your snowshoes on the snow and the sounds of your breath

Not surprisingly, you’ll find snowshoes continue to be a common household item in the NWT;  in fact, you’ll be likely to see them simply stuck into the snow outside homes, or by trail ends for use in the next outing.  

Snowshoeing not only allows you to experience  the natural beauty and pristine landscapes of the North, but it also provides you with a fantastic physical workout that burns about 500 calories an hour (two times as much walking and about the same as using an elliptical machine or swimming laps.)

Snowshoe Trails Abound in the NWT

As soon as there’s a snow cover of about 20 cm (one foot) or more, finding places to snowshoe around the NWT is easy. The Ski Club in Inuvik, the Hay River Golf Club and territorial parks like Plant Lake near Yellowknife, all groom trails that are ideal for snowshoers.

Tour operators offer small-group snowshoeing trips that include pickup and drop-off, equipment and hot drinks. Watch for wildlife as you snowshoe and learn about the area’s history, culture, and nature along the way.

During outdoor winter festivals around the NWT, you’ll also see locals leading snowshoe tours around the walking paths of their communities, or testing their own coordination and speed in snowshoe races.

Snowshoes are tops

Making your way out into the snow-covered landscapes of winter, it won’t take long for you to understand why snowshoes are so popular. These marvelous inventions are the preferred footwear for venturing out on rolling drifts of snow or enjoying the winding trails of the boreal forest. That’s because snowshoes allow you to go over the deepest snow without sinking up to your waist in the snow. Instead, you can smoothly float along over a groomed trail.  With your snowshoes on, you can truly enjoy the peace of a cold day. There’s no noise from vehicles. There’s simply the silence of nature.

Snowshoes Claim a Long History

Where snow covers the ground for eight months of the year, snowshoes have also long served as a means of transport.  In the past, snowshoes allowed families to move camp and sometimes snowshoes even doubled as snow shovels when families set up camp at a new site.

Reflecting the needs of their users, snowshoes developed varied styles and shapes — such as the beavertail, with its tightly bent, square or rounded tail, and the bear paw, a tail-less, rounded snowshoe, with a large, wide shape similar to bear paw prints. Differences in design might be unique to different regions, communities, or even individual artists. What remains consistent  is the attention and care put into this timeless craft by traditional Indigenous artists.

You’ll find Gwich’in snowshoes, common in the NWT, are tailor-made for hunting or use on trails. While hunting snowshoes are more or less the same length as the wearer’s height, trail snowshoes are much smaller, only large enough to support someone on a trail that’s already packed down.

There’s also the Ojibwe snowshoe with its classic pointed tip and upturned toe. This snowshoe can measure up to one and a half metres (5 ft). Due to its large surface area, this is the snowshoe you need when carrying heavy loads over flat land. Its narrow and lifted nose, with a long narrow tail, also offers great gliding downhill on hard snow. 

For this reason, some have suggested snowshoes could even be the ancestor of alpine skis. The design of these snowshoes is undeniably ancient, dating back thousands of years, with snowshoes of similar design found from Siberia to Greenland and over to Scandinavia.

Snowshoes reflect true Northern ingenuity

Snowshoes may look simple, but their manufacturing takes care and knowledge. Traditionally, the frame of snowshoes was made with strips of green wood, birch, spruce or willow, which were steamed or heated over a fire until pliable. The wood was then carefully bent.

Usually, the snowshoe-makers inserted two cross pieces of wood to strengthen the frame, with moose sinews joining and supporting the frames, leaving an opening just behind the crossbar for the toe of the foot. These are fastened to hide moccasins or sealskin kamik boots by leather thongs or sometimes by buckles. 

Snowshoes are more than just a fun way to get around during the winter — they are also a form of traditional art, and a demonstration of craftsmanship. Around the homes of many Northerners, you’re likely to spot handmade snowshoes displayed on the wall, many used by grandparents or great-grandparents.

The Best Snowshoes for You

Today, non-traditionally made snowshoes are divided into three types— aerobic/running (not intended for backcountry use,) recreational (a bit larger, meant for use in gentle-to-moderate walks), and mountaineering (the largest for climbing, long-distance trips and off-trail use).

But here’s the key: whether snowshoes are crafted with plastic, metal and or traditional wood and sinew, they all reflect the same, enduring purpose of distributing weight over the snow.

You won’t have to worry about where to find snowshoes in the NWT — outdoor equipment stores supply them during the winter season, many cabins and lodges can provide them at your request and you can always rely on northern hospitality to point you in the direction of the best place to rent outdoor winter equipment in the NWT. Depending on the community, you may also be able to learn more from  an Indigenous craft artist who can demonstrate how traditional snowshoes are made. 

Find the best way to fill your day while you wait for the Northern Lights to return at nightfall with more winter activities to do during your visit to the NWT.

Excited to see a true winter wonderland? Read more about what Northerners look forward to every winter and the ways you can keep busy (and warm!) on your authentic Northern experience.

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