Into the Woods

Woodworker Edwin Bishop on the craft and art of making snowshoes.
By Nicola Ryan

Whether it was tramping in and out to cut firewood, or hiking through serene trails on Sunday afternoons, Edwin Bishop has always loved stopping by a snowy woods. 

“I’ve been active in the woods all my life, ever since I was a kid,” he says. Originally from Heart’s Delight, NL, on the south side of Trinity Bay, Edwin later relocated to Whitbourne to pursue a teaching career. An avid woodworker, he set up small sawmill on his property in Whitbourne, fashioning lumber from the trees he’d cut in the woods for his projects. His frequent trips to the woods got him thinking about the snowshoes he’d use to get there. 

“I never had a whole lot of experience with snowshoes up to that time,” he explains. “I collected some ol’ pair somewhere, and it seemed like every time I put them on my feet they were breaking, or the hide was busting out of them. So I started to think, ‘I’m either going to have to go get a good pair of snowshoes, or I’m going to have to start learning how to fix mine.’” Luckily, Edwin had a nephew nearby who was already crafting and selling snowshoes. With his help and plenty of practice, Edwin became a skilled snowshoe craftsman himself.

Creating a pair of snowshoes is a long process and usually takes several days from start to finish – over 20 hours in total, by Edwin’s estimate. Every snowshoe frame comes from a single strip of hard wood, with juniper usually being Edwin’s first choice. “Snowshoes, to me, they got to be made of wood,” he says emphatically. 

Those strips of wood – the bows – are steamed to soften them so they can bend without breaking. The bows are then wrapped around a steel form to shape them. There are different snowshoe shapes, including Bearpaw, Beavertail and Ojibwe. Bearpaw snowshoes are lightweight and ideal in densely wooded areas. Beavertail are good in woodlands, as they’re wide around the foot with an upturned toe and narrow tail. Ojibwe style snowshoes, one of the oldest type of traditional snowshoes, have a unique narrow shape and are great for gliding downhill or on hard snow.

After a first coat of varnish, the shoes are laced with traditional rawhide or hardy polytwine in a careful, durable series of knots inside the toe piece and middle. “In my experience, if the North American Indians had twine when they were making snowshoes, there wouldn’t have been any made out of rawhide,” Edwin laughs, pointing out that the twine is durable and less vulnerable to rot. The next step is adding a leather harness to attach the shoe to your boot, and the result is a custom pair of beautiful, reliable snowshoes ready to make tracks. 

“Years ago, people were going in the woods setting traps and catching rabbits and hunting; they were sometimes 20 and 30 miles away from home. If they had a pair of snowshoes on their feet that was no good, I mean, jeez they might never get home! They had to be reliable.” Edwin says. “And they had to be in a shape and design that they were going to keep you on top of the snow. See, there’s the difference in the functions of the snowshoes.

“Bearpaws are more or less a working snowshoe,” he summarizes. “You might take them just into your local wood droke when you’re cutting your firewood, or they’re great for emergencies on the back of Ski-doos or something like that. But if you’re going to be hiking or travelling, you really want on your feet a snowshoe that was turned up a little bit on the toe and had a nice narrow body with a long tail on it, like a beavertail or an Ojibwe.

“My most favourite ones are the Ojibwe. Some of mine, the real good ones, are just a few inches short of five feet long and they’re only 11 inches wide,” he says, beaming with pride. “They’ll keep you afloat on the snow almost like walking over the top of a cloud.”

With the proper care, wooden snowshoes can last a very long time. “You got to keep lots of varnish on the wood and rawhide,” Edwin advises. “With polytwine, it’s not so much odds, but wood needs to be varnished every spring and every fall.” Rawhide would need to be cleaned and varnished as well, and snowshoes should be hung to dry after every use. 

And Edwin’s snowshoes got plenty of use, though he’s mostly retired from woodworking now. He explains that as he learned more about snowshoes and crafting them, he grew to really savour the hours he spent on them, exploring and appreciating the beauty and freedom of the woods in winter.

“If it was fit anytime Sunday afternoon, I was usually gone off with my wife, or by myself, off in the country on my snowshoes. We kind of made it a habit that Sunday afternoon we’d go off in the woods, take the kids with their skates or their skis. So I got to use them a lot,” he says, adding, “and every time I made a new set, of course, I’d have to go try them out, right?”

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