Snowshoeing is a form of physical activity that uses two wooden-frame "shoes," each strung together with interlaced webbing, to walk or run over snow. A common form of transport, and probably of sport, among Indigenous peoples prior to European settlement in North America, the "encumbrance" was first embraced by fur trappers.
Twelve English-speaking men from Montréal met regularly around 1840 to tramp or hike on snowshoes on Saturday afternoons. In 1843, these men, some of whom were Montréal's most prominent businessmen, formed the Montreal Snow Shoe Club - the first of its kind in the world. Nicholas "Evergreen" Hughes was a key figure in organizing the club and in the growth of snowshoeing itself.
Long-distance "tramps" were the most common form of the activity for almost 20 years. Men from the MSSC and a handful of other clubs would rendezvous near McGill College to tramp 19 km or more, following the club's senior officer in single file. At the rear of the line was the "whipper-in," an accomplished snowshoer whose job was to keep the pack together. Halfway through, or after these tramps, the snowshoers rested their feet at a local chophouse or tavern in the city or atop Mount Royal. Meals were eaten, songs such as "Rise, Ye Sons of Canada" and "Partant pour la Syrie" were sung, poems were recited and cotillions were danced. Race meetings were held as early as 1843 and featured dashes, 2-mi (3.2 km) events and hurdles over 4-ft (1.2 m)-high barriers. There is good evidence that the hurdle race in snowshoeing preceded its summer counterpart by almost a decade. (Similarly, the word "jogged" was used to describe the slow, chugging motion of trampers during the early 1870s.) Prior to WWII, track athletes used the snowshoe as a winter training device in the absence of good indoor training venues.
Clubs and Competitions
By the late 1860s, the number of snowshoe clubs and race meetings in Montréal had proliferated. The increased interest in competition was also reflected in prestigious trophies such as the Tecumseh Cup; in new events such as the mountain steeplechase; in the appearance of outstanding competitors, especially the fleet-footed Keraronwe and W.L. Maltby; in improved times in all events (1.6 km in 6 min became common); in the introduction of the 1.5-pound (0.68 kg) racing shoe that replaced the old regulation "four-pounder"; in the birth of competitive clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Québec City; in the snowshoe races featured by skating rinks as their premier event at annual races; and in the development of a snowshoe-racing vocabulary; for example, the "brush," connoting a successful acceleration of one racer past another. By the early 1880s, snowshoeing was clearly the most popular winter amusement.
Clubs were in evidence from Winnipeg to Terra Nova, Nfld. The MSSC was instrumental in forming the multisport Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1881 and, along with other Montréal snowshoe clubs, organized, promoted and staged the world-famous, week-long winter Mardi Gras or carnival from 1883 to 1889.
Snowshoers also gave concerts, engaged in campaigns to raise charity funds and organized pedestrian clubs in the summer. In facing the rigours of long tramps, frostbite, bleeding toes and the ever-present side stitch, snowshoers displayed a particularly Canadian example of the 19th-century sporting phenomenon called "muscular Christianity."
A skating resurgence in the 1890s and fanatical interest in a new winter sport, ice hockey, halted and reversed the growth and development of snowshoeing. Winnipeg became the centre of the sport during the early 20th century, and the Canadian Snowshoe Union, the current governing body for the sport's 70 modern clubs, was formed in 1907.