Tradition is an anchor that secures my life in safe harbor in time of storm and keeps me from crashing onto the leeward rocks when winds of change blow strong. But at times tradition is a dead weight that holds me immobile, when no storms threaten, and I should be sailing away to new adventures.
Skimming across the late-winter’s waves of drifted snow, for example.
Long ago, in 1976 as I remember, an early November storm came roaring across our rural northeast Nebraska town and buried the countryside under more than 30 inches of snow. Temperatures plummeted, and the region was locked in winter for the duration.
In the course of a week the town streets and county roads were cleared for limited travel, some roadside snowbanks piled 10 or 15 feet high, and life struggled back to the chilly normalcy of that country’s most dreary season. It seemed prudent to buy a pair of snowshoes, although I no experience snowshoeing and only the vaguest idea of what that outdoor adventure was all about.
For starters – let’s be harshly honest here – even in the mildest of winters, northeast Nebraska would not be considered a winter wonderland. The blank white sweeps of the shortgrass prairie may have been breathtakingly magnificent long ago, but for more than 50 years the land had been reshaped into stubbly row crop fields and overgrazed pastures. The scenery compared poorly to the mountain vistas of Montana.
But the terrain along the Missouri River Valley, the area we called the Missouri Breaks, has a rugged and disordered beauty, with slashes of wooded and brush-filled folds in the landscape. Nebraska’s winter winds are always cruel, but if you could brave them it was worth the long hike into and through those rolling breaks and coulees.
That is why I paid the outrageous price of $25 (plus shipping and handling fees of $4.75) for my first pair of ash-framed, rawhide-webbed snowshoes. The bindings were a horror; they slipped free of my boots and I fell down frequently. But I eventually learned the skill and the art of snowshoeing, and it has been a highlight of my winter activities ever since.
Except for the three years we lived in West Texas. No use for snowshoes there. But we moved back to the North Country in the 1980s, and were able to resume our winter hikes. We bought another pair of Michigan style snowshoe, plus a shorter and more rounded bearpaw pair for hikes in the woods where maneuverability is more important.
The original pair, now more than 45 years old, is in excellent condition. We still use them for winter hikes a dozen or more times each year. I am convinced that the state of the art in snowshoe construction has made no significant advance in a hundred years.
But that’s just my tradition-locked bias.
Wanting to experiment with something more modern (i.e. – lighter, smaller, sleeker, handier, and much easier to toss into the pickup truck) my beautiful blonde wife rented two pair of what I will call those new-fangled, high-tech snowshoes for our latest hike. Aluminum frames instead of ash, solid composition decking instead of webbing, two-buckle bindings (although the old leather bindings of the original snowshoes were replaced with neoprene bindings long ago), permanently attached crampons instead of boot toe ice grippers, and a pair of ski poles instead of a knob-topped walking stick.
As every member of the Over the Hill Gang knows, I am leery of modern devices. My pickup, for example, has window cranks, not those fancy button-operated window controls. I do not own a GPS unit; I have a pocket compass. My boots are leather, not some composition material. Our house is mostly heated with a woodstove. I use an engine-powered garden cultivator instead of a hoe, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.
So, after two hikes of a couple-few miles, I’m not all-in on the high-tech snowshoes.
Some features are good, I will admit. The crampons for sure (you do not have to deal with separate boot-toe ice grips on icy hikes). And these snowshoes weigh only half as much as the traditional ash-and-rawhide pairs. They are more maneuverable on wooded and brushy hillsides.
But they do not track as well as the long-tailed Michigan-style, the new shoes flip powdery snow onto your back (and sometimes down your collar), and their solid decking (being only about 60 percent of the area of the old-style webbing) does not distribute your weight as well to keep you on top of the snow. Snow collects on the decking, which does not happen with rawhide webbing, and makes the techy snowshoes weigh as much or more than the traditional style. Also, they do not look as classy, and you cannot take them off and brace them against a stump to make a handy chair to sit on while you drink a thermos of Sherpa tea and eat a granola bar.
It may be a minor point, but when I trip over the top strand of a barbed-wire fence, I use the knob-topped walking stick to thrash the offending wire while I swear at it, which releases anger and frustration. I can’t do that with the aluminum ski poles for fear of bending them, which would add to my anger and frustration. Snowshoeing should be calming, not aggravating.
Winter is drawing to a close, so I do not yet have to make any rash decisions about modernizing my snowshoes. There may be advantages, but tradition, for me, is a heavy anchor. After I varnish the old ash-and-rawhide snowshoes and hang them on the Clubhouse wall to dry, I may reconsider.
Maybe. At $175 per pair, I may not. Did I mention my first pair of snowshoes cost $25? And they are still perfectly functional…