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012 Adapting to Winter, and the History of Snowshoeing

In this episode, we’ll look at some of the many ways that local animals and birds adapt to winter in the Canadian north. We’ll also look at the history of snowshoeing.

Story 1 – Adapting to Winter

There are many ways that animals and birds can adapt to deal with the cold temperatures of winter. In most cases, we can classify animals as winter avoiders, winter tolerators, and winter lovers. Right now we’re seeing migratory birds like the tundra swan gathering on our local ponds on their way to warmer climes in the south. Many of our local birds, like the American Robin, also take to the wing and head south. Other birds, like harlequin ducks and bald eagles, may choose to head west instead of south. They’ll winter on the west coast.

Another strategy to avoid winter is to die. Some insects will die and leave it up to eggs or larvae to repopulate the landscape come spring. We even have a frog that freezes solid in the winter, yet thaws out with no negative results.

Hibernation or dormancy is another strategy to avoid winter. Ground squirrels and bears will take to their dens to sleep away the winter months. Other animals, like the red squirrel, will sleep through the coldest winter weather but will remain active for the majority of the snowy months.

Some animals can’t skip winter altogether, but they also don’t have any real adaptations to help them thrive. These tolerators need to use behaviour adaptations to help them to make it through the winter to the next spring. Animals like mule deer have a very hard time walking in deep snow. With just a small accumulation these deer are forced into a bounding gait and the energy expended in movement can quickly outweigh the benefits of movement. By gathering in groups, they can take turns breaking trail and conserve energy.

Other animals will take advantage of the fact that it never gets cold under the snow. That’s why snow shelters like igloos are such a comfortable winter shelter. Mice and voles will thrive in tunnels beneath the snow oblivious of the blizzards that may be taking place above the surface. Other animals like the pine marten will spend some time above the snow but will take shelter in the natural snow caves created beneath the many downed logs in the mountains. This helps them to stay warm, but also gives them access to all the mice and voles that are also hanging out beneath the snow surface.

Finally, there are the winter lovers. The moose is a great example. It is a remnant of the ice age and was designed specifically for winter landscapes. Their large hooves and prominent dew claws help them get traction and increases the surface area of their foot. However they are equally comfortable walking through very deep snows. They can easily lower their body temperature in the winter to reduce the amount of food energy they need to consume.

Story 2 – The History of Snowshoes

Snowshoes have been around for a long time – I mean a really long time. The oldest pair ever discovered was dated at 3,700 to 3,800 BC and found in the Italian Alps. It is also possible that snowshoes may have already been an ancient innovation at that time.

As humans made their way to the new world, they may have brought their snowshoes with them. first nations across Canada developed a wide variety of wooden frame snowshoes held together by a rawhide mesh. They allowed our first nations to explore the winter wilderness without sinking through the soft snows. As European fur traders and explorers arrived on the scene, they adopted the snowshoes as soon as they saw how effective they were for exploring the winter landscape. They were as important an innovation as the canoe and the red river cart and were instrumental in much of the early exploration of the Canadian north.

By the mid-1800s, snowshoeing was being used for fun as well as for work. Snowshoe clubs began to appear and before long snowshoe racing was all the rage. By the late 1800s though, downhill and cross-country skiing were introduced and snowshoeing lost its attractiveness for some time.

In the 1980s snowshoeing began to undergo a renaissance as the designs began to evolve and people began looking to snowshoes with renewed interest. Tubular aluminum frames with nylon decking and crampons beneath brought new interest and snowshoeing began to grow again in popularity.

Today it is the fastest growing winter sport. Next week, I’ll look at how to choose your first pair of snowshoes.