Traditional Wooden Snowshoes Made in Maine

With its vast wilderness of more than 17.5 million acres of forest land, Maine is a source not just of serene natural habitats but also a thriving lumber industry.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the “Pine Tree State” is also home to some of the finest woodworkers and craftsmen in the country.

One particular craft that has been preserved for many decades is the art of snowshoe making.

This article will explore the history of traditional snowshoes in Maine, how wooden snowshoes are made, and some of the best Maine-based modern producers of traditional-style snowshoes.

Pair of traditional wooden snowshoes leaning against a wall.

What is the history of snowshoes in Maine?

As far back as the 19th century, tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy such as the Penobscot and Maliseet were making snowshoes in Maine. The original purpose of these snowshoes were for hunting, gathering, and traversing across local winter conditions.

When early American colonists from Europe began interacting and trading with Native Americans, they also discovered the utility of these types of snowshoes.

Famed writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau even purchased a pair of Penobscot style snowshoes in 1853 in Maine.

Soon, non-Native Americans borrowed the designs and began to manufacture and distribute to local sporting goods.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, vintage snowshoes were achieving commercial success such as “The Maine Snowshoe” from L.L. Bean, or the “Penobscot Special” from Penobscot Snowshoe Co. a company formed by Milford resident JA Osgood.

While modern snowshoes constructed of aluminum and synthetic materials eventually took over most of the snowshoe market, the knowledge of making wooden snowshoes snowshoes was preserved as an art by a few experts.

Today, there are a few Maine-based artisans that make traditional style snowshoes available for commercial purposes.

How are wooden snowshoes made?

While pine is abundant in the state of Maine, the best wood for making snowshoes actually come from hardwoods such as ash (pine is considered a softwood).

Step 1. Wooden Snowshoe Frames

Hardwoods are stronger and more durable, and can be fashioned into items that can survive the winter elements, such as a functional pair of snowshoes.

The process of making traditional wooden snowshoes begins by bending the wood into the shape of the frame. The lumber is cut into strips, and then boiled and fit across a custom mold in order to obtain its shape.

Step 2. Wooden Snowshoe Lacing

Next, the webbing or lacing is added. Common materials include rawhide, nylon, or rope. The traditional material used for wooden snowshoes was rawhide that came from a deerskin or other animals such as caribou.

This lacing is sometimes referred to as the filling, or babiche.

However, synthetic materials or rope lacing can also maintain a vintage, traditional snowshoe aesthetic. These materials also tend to be cheaper and easier to obtain, making them a suitable choice for traditional snowshoe lacing.

Step 3. Wooden Snowshoe Bindings

Finally, the binding or harness which holds a boot in place to the snowshoe were the last element to add. Harnesses can be made out of leather or synthetic polyethylene material in modern times.

Snowshoe harnesses should have a buckle or adjustment mechanism to properly tighten the user’s shoes to the snowshoe.

Who makes traditional wooden snowshoes in Maine?

Three of the most popular artisans that make wooden snowshoes in Maine are Bill Mackowski Traditionals, Theriault’s Snowshoes and Maine Guide Snowshoes.

Let’s look at some of these Maine snowshoe makers in more detail, including contact information if you are looking to purchase wooden snowshoes from a Maine seller.

Note that many of these local artisans rely on custom orders, so you’ll likely have to call or email directly if you’re interested in buying a pair.

Bill Mackowski Traditionals

Bill Mackowski from Milford, ME has amassed some of the most extensive knowledge of various traditional wooden snowshoe styles and design techniques.

Driven by historical and anthropological motivations, Mackowski traveled to several areas across North America to learn how snowshoes were important to local native tribes. He took many trips to Canada and northern regions of the United States in order to learn this knowledge.

Mackowski credits his learning of the art of snowshoe making from the late Dick McCubrey. He uses either ash or birch for constructing his snowshoe frames and prefers to use rawhide lacing.

Bill Mackowski Traditionals Contact Information

Website: http://billmackowskitraditionals.com/

Phone: 207-745-4277

Email: [email protected]

Theriault’s Snowshoes

Branding themselves as the “Master Snowshoe Makers”, the father-son duo of Brian and Edmond Theriault have been making snowshoes for over four decades.

They live in Fort Kent Mills, ME in Aroostook County, and make most of their wooden snowshoes from raw materials such as black ash and rawhide.

Brian wrote an instructional book titled “Leaving Tracks: A Maine Tradition”, which is available for purchase in softcover and hardcover on Amazon or via their website. 

This book includes detailed diagrams, pictures, weaving patterns and tool making. They also sell a Snowshoe Building Instructional DVD for visual learners.

Theriault’s Snowshoes Contact Information

Website: http://ilovesnowshoes.com/index.html

Phone: 207-631-7107

Email: [email protected]

Maine Guide Snowshoes

Bob and Andrea Howe own and operate Maine Guide Snowshoes out of Bingham, ME, which produces high quality wooden snowshoes that are sought after by local wilderness experts and foresters.

Maine Guide snowshoes are constructed from white ash and use a standard rope lacing rather than rawhide.

Dedicated to preserving the art of traditional snowshoe making, the company even offers a “Make Your Snowshoes Weekend Getaway” package.

Maine Guide Snowshoes Contact Information

Website: http://www.mgsnowshoes.com/

Phone: 207-672-4011

Email: [email protected]

FAQ

What are the best traditional snowshoes?

Authentic wooden snowshoes come come in many different styles, but the best traditional snowshoes are all constructed using the finest materials and craftsmanship available.

In terms of design, Bill Mackowski considers the Penobscot snowshoe design as the “best in the world“, but choosing the right pair of traditional snowshoes also varies based on specific user needs and conditions of the environment.

For example, some styles are better suited for dense, wet snow while others perform better in deep piles of fluffy snow.

What are the Different Styles of Traditional Snowshoes?

Some specialized styles of traditional snowshoes include the Huron, Penobscot, Naskapi, Beavertail and Athapascan. Many of these styles are named after the Native American or First Nations tribes that perfected these designs to reflect the conditions of their local surroundings.

Where Can I Learn More about Traditional Wooden Snowshoes in Maine?

Some good article sources for further reading include the University of Maine and the Portland Press Herald.