Saturday, October 25, 2008

Getting Ready for Snow!

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about snowshoeing and winter camping. In fact, I'm quite anxious for a good dump of snow. The perfect winter is one that transfers quickly from paddling season to winter with some cold weather to sart (to yield thick ice), then lots of snow and mild temperatures of -10 to -20C. Temperatures of higher than -10C are not good for cycling as the packed snow surface gets soft and turns to a loose but dense mess that is bad for biking through. To get a good base for skiing, a couple of decent snows is required, so the sooner that occurs after the lakes have frozen, the better (from a recreational point of view).

I haven't gone winter camping in quite a few years, but I want to get out there again this year. In the past I have traveled by ski and snowshoe. My experience snowshoeing with a load (sled or backpack) has not gone all that well. The worst experience was on rented shoes of the "modern" style, small but light with crampons underneath. The sales pitch for these snowshoes is that the solid decking gives more surface area to support you on the snow than the open weave webbing "babiche" of a traditional pair of snowshoes. That is a load of hooey. It's not the immediate surface area that counts, it's how far across the snowbank your weight is dispersed. I weigh 200 pounds, a snowshoe that is 8" x 25" is not going to support me on anything softer than a well-traveled skidoo trail. I had gone into Prince Albert National Park in order to travel the "Freight Trail". The snow was about 3 feet deep and covered in a crust. The crust would not support my full weight and I would crash through the crust with each step. I recall the icy crust beating against my shins and thighs. Then, as I stepped forward, I had to pull my foot and the snowshoe back up through that same crust. It made for a frustrating experience. Traveling on a moderately wide ski was a bit better. Then on a later trip, I borrowed a pair of "Sherpa Snow Claw" snowshoes. These were still of a design using a vinyl deck and aluminum frame, but were much larger. I don't recall the exact dimensions, but they were probably 10" x 36" or so. On that trip I headed again to Prince Albert National Park, but into the Fish Lake region. That time, my success with the snowshoes was better, but still not ideal.

Based on these experiences, and other experiences with aluminum-framed snowshoes, I decided I wanted to go to a much larger shoe, probably a traditional wood framed design. I had considered purchasing traditional or "hybrid" snowshoes from a variety of sources (GV, Faber, Country Ways, Snowshoe Sales & Repairs), and had settled on a long and narrow design like the "Ojibwa", "yukon", or "elongated bearpaw" styles (as opposed to the more familiar wide "huron" style). I was also seriously considering building my own snowshoes, a process that involves first building a jig to form the steam-bent wood, then after the frame has been built, lacing the webbing with babiche, nylon cord, or heavy fishing line. I even ordered the highly recommended book by Gil Gilpatrick, Building Snowshoes and Snowshoe Furniture, and while I was at it I got his book Building Outdoor Gear too.

I had been looking for used snowshoes, but did not think I was going to find them in good shape for a good price. Then, this week I came across someone selling 5 pair of snowshoes in the local kijiji advertisements. I called the fellow up and a couple hours later I was the proud owner of not one, but two pair of ash-frame and babiche laced snow shoes! Other than needing a coat of varnish, both pair appear to be in great shape.

The big ones are Ojibwa style which has the frame pointed on each end and quite a long toe. The overall length is just shy of 60", they are 12" wide, and they are marked as being the brand "Kabir Kouba." Of this general style of snowshoe, Dave Hadfield (canoeist, snowshoer, pilot, and brother of Chris Hadfield) says:
If you're hiking all day, going the distance, in unpacked snow, the longest, skinniest ones you can find are the best -- paticularly if you're punching through brush or crusty snow. You want something shaped more like a ski than anything. And a pointed tip helps a lot. I use a set like these for breaking trail.... But for campwork, like when you're setting up the tent in 3 ft of soft snow, or cutting poles, or getting firewood, a set of roundish bearpaws is best because it is so easy to turn around in them.... On a trip where I feel I can afford the weight of 2 sets, or if there are several people in the party and a spare pair is judged a good idea, I take along the first 2 types mentioned above. It's very nice to use the shoe that best does the job.
So here are my new 12" x 60" Ojibwa snowshoes.

The babiche (rawhide) lacing of both pair appears to be in good shape, with a bit of wear evident on the bottoms.

Here are the 10" x 35" elongated bearpaw snowshoes.
Again, they appear to be in decent shape with a bit of wear, but no manufacturer's mark is evident. This pair appears to have been more recently varnished. In the picture below you can see the profile of the snowshoe. It is not simply flat with an upturned toe but has a bit of curvature under the heel.

Both pair have simple leather bindings. From what I have read so far online, the bindings seem to be the main disadvantage of traditional snowshoes in that they don't prevent lateral movement as well as the bindings found on more modern snowshoes (which also often incorporate crampons). I may consider replacing a pair of the bindings. The Faber "Work" binding has been recommended, and my local retailer will have them in stock in November for around $50. However, the GV Snowshoes "3R" binding looks ideal. In the latter case, I'm not sure where to purchase them or how much they would cost (MEC was provided as my local dealer).

These two pair of snowshoes allow both my wife & I to go out at the same time, or for me to pick and choose my shoes based on the conditions. For camping, I could use the big Ojibwa shoes to break trail and haul the sled to camp, and the more maneuverable elongated bearpaws could be used around camp for setting up, collecting firewood, etc. I actually also have a third pair of snowshoes, one given to me by a friend several years ago. That pair is of a traditional racket-shaped Huron style, 12" x 45" including the tail, but they are youth's (teenager?) snowshoes and as such are too small for my overweight bulk. However, in a few more years they'll probably work well for my kids.

Friend and fellow canoeist and canoe builder, Mark Lafontaine started the Saskatoon Snowshoe Club last winter. Now that I officially own three pair of snowshoes, I guess I better join.

As I write, there is a 40% chance of flurries overnight, and a 30% chance for tomorrow. We're getting closer!
Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 24, 2008

Scrawny Wolf, Mangy Coyote or Ferrel Dog?

My wife & I spent the Thanksgiving weekend in and around Prince Albert National Park, staying at Elkridge Resort (but that's another story). On Sunday, while driving the scenic route south of Waskesiu on our way to the Spruce River Highlands hiking trail, we saw this sorry creature loping down the road.
I was certain at first that it was a wolf, albeit a young and scrawny one. Despite our approaching vehicle, it remained on the road, paying little heed to us as it casually trotted or walked down the center of the road. Occasionally it would stop to gaze around, or wander from one side of the road to the other before it continued it's meandering course.
We followed the animal in the car at a very slow pace. Even the passing of an oncoming vehicle completely failed to faze the animal. The closest we approached in the car was probably 20 feet.

Eventually, it wandered off into the bush, but still trotted along parallel with the car, just a few yards in from the ditch. After 100 yards or so through the bush it returned to the ditch where we shot a bit of video of the animal.

As I mentioned above, my immediate thought was that it was a wolf. The legs are long and it is lean, not like the typical pet dog. I thought it was too tall and large to be a coyote, but now I'm second-guessing myself and am not certain. Maybe it is a coyote after all, I don't think it's big enough to be an adult wolf. But then again, if the animal is starving or sick, and suffering mange (hence, the very thin coat) it would look much smaller than it's healthy relatives. I've never seen a coyote that light in colour and it's nose wasn't pointy like a coyote either. There was feces or mud stuck to it's rear end. Maybe it could be a ferrel dog? That would explain it's lack of concern over vehicles. Whatever it was, it doesn't appear healthy (though I'm not a vet nor a wildlife biologist; my real ability to determine animal health is limited to the lab). I still think sick young wolf seems the most likely.

I have a few buddies that will certainly know one way or the other. I'll direct them to his post and get their input.

Update 28/10/08 - I've heard back from 2 people that know better than I do, one who works for PANP, and another that is a wildlife biologist & veterinarian. Both agreed that I was correct, this is a wolf with mange. Dave in PANP says that a mangy wolf like this is not uncommon in the park. Bryan, a colleague in my lab, mentioned that when animals have mange, they can become so distracted by the itching from the mites that they are oblivious to everything around them, such as humans & traffic. Bryan also added that mange and canine distemper can be associated (hence the feces on the fur & the generally poor condition).
Posted by Picasa