Lynn Wardwell stands at a workbench on the first floor of her LaGrange home. Her callused fingers push nylon cord through holes carefully drilled into a narrow piece of white ash. The wooden frame that is her “loom” has been steamed and shaped to resemble the paw of a bear.
Without thinking, she swiftly and tightly pulls the cord, knotting and weaving the synthetic fiber as her grandfather taught her. Wardwell is the fourth generation of her family to make handcrafted snowshoes. She learned the skill from Willard E. Brown, who founded and operated the business, SnoWebs, from the mid-1970s until his death at 83 in 1993.
Born on Bunker Hill in Maxfield, the eldest of seven children, Brown tried farming and working the woods before moving his family to Connecticut. There he worked for 22 years at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. He retired to LaGrange, the hometown of his wife, Esther, in 1972. The following year his daughter, Pat Brewer, and her four children came to live with the Browns. His granddaughter, Lynn, was 16 years old.
“Grandpa needed something to do in his retirement,” says Wardwell, now 40. “He had learned to make snowshoes as a boy, using the traditional rawhide webbing and white ash. Mom helped him out, but I wasn’t much interested in snowshoes as a teen-ager. When I went to college at USM [the University of Southern Maine], I sort of became his agent down there. I sold a lot of Gramps’ snowshoes to forestry majors.”
While SnoWebs was becoming a favorite among game wardens, wildlife biologists and people who work the woods for a living, Wardwell was living in Portland working as an insurance adjuster. In 1990, along with her husband and two children, Wardwell left “the rat race” and began building a home next door to her grandparents.
During the last three years of Brown’s life, Wardwell helped him with the weaving and the application of the polyester resin coating, then with the construction of the frames. She says that learning the craft was really an excuse to spend time with her grandfather.
“He tried to teach me how to read the wood back then,” she remembers, as a smile spreads across her face. “I resisted. But when I began working with wood after his death, what he’d told me to do and why came back to me.”
Wardwell revived the business in 1995 after a job layoff and a bout with breast cancer the previous year. Now cancer-free, she works as a secretary at the University of Maine. With the help of her husband, Scott, she makes about 50 pairs of SnoWebs a year, which she sells at craft fairs, sports shows and out of her home workshop.
“I do a lot of repairs, too,” she says. “Most of the time the rawhide has deteriorated and I replace it with nylon. They may need a binding repair or a new coat of polyester resin on the underside along the frame. I even see some shoes Gramps made 25 years ago in for their first maintenance.”
Snowshoes are believed to have originated in northern Asia several thousand years ago. They were a principal means of winter travel for North American Indians and early settlers. Snowshoes allow people to walk across the top of the snow by dispersing their weight over a larger area.
The two basic types of snowshoes are the short, broad, often tailless bear paw and the long, narrow shoe, made with or without a tail, that is named for states such as Alaska, Michigan and Maine.
The bear paw is considered to be best for rough or heavily wooded terrain, while the longer shoe most often is used in open country, such as the tundra of Alaska or the potato fields of Aroostook County.
Brown made the modified bear paw, fat in the body with a stubby tail, his trademark. Their short, rounded shape makes SnoWebs easy to turn in thick brush, while the tail gives them the same balance point as long snowshoes, Brown said in a 1990 interview.
Wardwell makes the modified bear paw, and the long Alaskan model as well, the way her grandfather did. First the ash, a very hard, straight-grained wood, is softened in a steamer, then bent around a form. The frames are dried for four or five days, when the cross pieces are put in. Within a week they usually are stable enough for weaving. Wardwell says it takes between 2 1/2 and three hours to weave a pair of SnoWebs, depending on their size.
One of the things that make SnoWebs unique, Wardwell says, is the fact that each set is custom made to fit the buyer. She takes into consideration height, weight and boot size when calculating the width and length of the shoes.
“You need a width of about 10 inches to support a 100-pound person,” Wardwell explains. “It takes 15 inches of width for persons weighing 250 pounds. The largest pair I’ve ever made are for a man who weighs 350 pounds and wears a size 16 boot. I had to get the calculator out to figure that one.”
Another feature unique to SnoWebs are their bindings, according to Wardwell. Originally, snowshoes were held onto the wearer’s feet with rawhide straps, which slipped and had to be tightened often. The SnoWeb bindings include a bowed wooden piece, sized to the wearer’s boot, that fits around the heel of the foot. Metal hardware fixes them to the snowshoes, and nylon straps with quick release buckles hold the boot in.
“This hinged binding allows a more normal rocking kind of action,” Wardwell says. “It allows you to walk in snowshoes with a more natural gait.”
While Wardwell says her business has remained relatively steady over the past few years, the snowshoe industry on the whole is booming. Over the past five years, sales of snowshoes made of lightweight aluminum and neoprene have been growing steadily. The National Sporting Goods Association predicted that 1 million people would participate in the sport this winter. That is twice as many people as those who snowshoed in 1994, the first year the organization kept statistics.
At Van Raymond Outfitters, tradition wins out nine times out of 10, according to owner Van Raymond. But sporting good stores in the Bangor-Brewer area such as Cadillac Mountain Sports, Play It Again Sports and Pat’s Bike Shop no longer carry the traditional wooden snowshoes.
“Sales this year have been really good,” says Troy Dean, owner of Pat’s Bike Shop in Brewer. “We had a really good start to the season. The early snow helped tremendously. … This is the second year we’ve rented snowshoes, and this year we’re selling more pairs than we’re renting.”
Michael Donegan, manager at Play It Again Sports in Brewer, couldn’t really pinpoint why the sport is experiencing such a growth spurt. He speculated that it might be because snowshoeing is so easy to learn. “It’s just walking,” he says, “and everybody knows how to walk.”
Wardwell attributes the increased interest in the sport to people’s desire to get off the trails and into the woods away from the noise of snowmobiles. “I like to listen to the quiet,” she says, even though she only gets out a few times a year now. “I like to see the animals, listen to the birds and appreciate what’s around me.”
The quiet attracts Judy Markowsky, director of Maine Audubon’s Fields Pond Nature Center in Holden. She has been getting out into the woods on snowshoes for nearly 30 years.
“It’s a nice thing people can do on their own,” says Markowsky, who still uses a pair of shoes made of wood and rawhide. “I like to get out and look for animal tracks and birds. We’re trying to have programs at the center to introduce families to snowshoeing. It’s a wonderful family activity. I went out as a child with my family.”
Wardwell would like to pass her skills on to a fifth generation, but so far her teen-age son and daughter have shown little interest in learning her craft.
“Of course, I had no interest in learning to make snowshoes until I was out of college and in the rat race,” she says. “The first person to make snowshoes in the family was Samuel Jeremiah Brown, then my grandfather, Willard E. Brown, then Mom, Pat Brewer, and now me. I’m hopeful there will be a fifth generation to keep the tradition going. I’m just not sure who it will be.”
Michael Donegan of Play It Again Sports in Brewer will lead a free snowshoe clinic at the Fields Pond Nature Center at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25. All will have an opportunity to try snowshoeing.