IN THE BRIDGER MOUNTAINS, Mont. — A few years had passed since I strapped on snowshoes, but the feel of them expanding my footprints came back quickly enough. This was the other day, and we were angled uphill in a swirling mountain tempest, our eyes crusting with snow.
When I was a kid, growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, wooden snowshoes with cowhide laces cluttered the garages of many of the homes in our little burg. Snow fell back then in broad sheets, and car owners decorated the tops of their radio antennas with brightly colored Styrofoam balls to telegraph their presence at snowbank-choked intersections.
Winter then, with so much snow, was fun. Skiing was part of it, cross-country as well as downhill, as were snowmobiles. The scoutmaster of our local troop was a single guy, and he had bought a couple of Ski-Doos. Primitive by today’s standards, the sleds nonetheless provided cold-weather thrills, and on winter camping outings we’d pull their rope starting cords and spin their flywheels, hoping they’d fire up. Mostly, they did.
Over Presidents Day weekend, my wife, Jan, and I had flown to Montana to ski with our younger son, Cole, and Max Kelley, Cole’s friend since kindergarten. Max attends school in Bozeman, Montana State University, and Cole is a student farther west, at the University of Montana, in Missoula.
The skiing idea held up until a few days before our departure, when Cole called to say he was undergoing surgery for a broken arm.
Being the inquiring kind, his mother asked, “How did that happen?” To which Cole replied he had skidded his bike on ice while returning home from campus, and had taken a header.
Jan and I had already paid for our flights, rented a log cabin in the woods near Bridger Bowl, just north of Bozeman, and reserved an outsized SUV to haul our skis and other stuff. So we flew west anyway.
We just wouldn’t ski. Instead, in honor of the titanium screws, rod and wire implanted in Cole’s arm, we’d snowshoe.
Which is how the four of us found ourselves headed uphill a few days ago, our feet outfitted with snowshoes made of aluminum and various synthetic mystery materials.
I had worn this type of snowshoe before, and they had advantages, their light weight being primary. Yet whenever I see the cool-running patina of wood-framed snowshoes, I recall the days long ago when I was a kid in the Upper Peninsula.
It was then, during scouting outings and at other times, that I’d cruise either on long, wood-framed snowshoes we called Michigans, or on shorter, more oval-shaped Bearpaws.
These were the same styles of snowshoes I would buy years later, in the 1970s, while living in Ely, to travel in and near the boundary waters.
About that same time, two guys named Dyke Williams and Greg Wilcox of the Twin Cities got together under the banner of a Minneapolis company called Country Ways (www.snowshoe.com), the chief product of which was, and is, traditional style, wooden snowshoes.
“Dyke had worked at the Outward Bound camp near Ely in the early 1970s and had founded the company, which at the time he called Country Ways Kits,” Wilcox said the other day. “I also had worked up north, as a boundary waters guide, and Dyke and I got together in the early 1980s.”
Originally, Country Ways sold kits to do-it-yourselfers who wanted to make their own sleeping bags, parkas and other gear, as well as snowshoes. Targeted buyers included schools, scout camps and environmental learning centers.
Williams eventually sold the company. But the new owners bankrupted it, and in 1990, Williams and Wilcox restarted Country Ways in Wilcox’s garage.
This time, they focused exclusively on snowshoes and related products, such as snowshoe-style furniture.
“Years ago, we had our wood shop across from Bachman’s on Lyndale” in Minneapolis, Wilcox said. “Now we make everything up north.”
Country Ways sells kit and finished snowshoes in four styles: Green Mountain Bearpaw, Alaskan, Huron and Ojibwa.
Today the kits are bought primarily by schools and environmental learning centers, where classrooms full of kids and adults craft their own winter footwear.
“We also sell to a lot of folks who work outside in winter, whether as part of a search-and-rescue team, or in utility crews,” Wilcox said. “Folks out west who hunt elk in deep snow also buy them, as do people for maple sugaring. We also do quite a bit of business in Canada and Alaska.”
Native Americans are credited with fashioning the first wood-framed, webbed snowshoes that today are the backbone of Country Ways’ business.
How much longer this type of snowshoe will be manufactured is unknown. The aluminum-framed iterations that first appeared in the mid- to late 1980s now command about 90 percent of the market (Country Ways also offers these).
The continued availability of ash, which is by far the preferred wood for snowshoes because it holds its shape once steamed and placed in a form, is also an issue, thanks to a little green bug called the emerald ash borer.
“What toll the ash borer will take on Minnesota’s trees is a real concern, not just for our products but for baseball bats — a lot of things,” Wilcox said.
Jan, Cole, Max and I had covered a couple of miles angling uphill when someone suggested we climb higher still toward a rocky precipice. The wind was cooking, 30 knots or more, and we leaned into it.
One argument against aluminum snowshoes is that they provide insufficient flotation when you need it most. But we stayed pretty much atop 3 feet or more of snow.
As aids, Max braced his movements with a pair of hiking poles, as did Jan and I. Cole, meanwhile, could use only one pole, and sometimes to relieve the swelling of his bad arm, he walked with that appendage extended straight out from his shoulder.
“When you hold your arm like that, you walk like Herman Munster,” I said.
“Who’s that?” Cole asked.
We had intended to eat lunch at the top. But the wind twisted there, swirling like snowy tornadoes.
So we retraced our tracks downslope, finally collecting ourselves in a knot of pines, where, plopping into deep powder, we passed around pieces of cheese and smoked chicken.
Winter, with so much snow, was fun.