The first people to travel across the land in winter conditions undoubtedly learned a few things by watching wildlife. Travelling across snow presents its own unique set of challenges. The snow itself creates drag, deep snow creates a barrier that must be overcome, and drifting snow conceals holes and other hidden dangers. By watching animals that have evolved to survive winter we see - along with warm coats, and effective camouflage - adaptations for moving across a snowy landscape.
The task is to disperse weight over as much area as possible. For some animals this is potentially a difficult task given their weight. Moose for example, are active year round; you can see them up and down our river valley all through the winter, often crossing the frozen river. All 600+ kilograms of the moose's weight is carried on four hooves that measure a mere 5 cm across and 13 cm front to back, when relaxed. However, when the moose places its foot on the ground its two toes spread apart and the foot takes rounder, flatter shape. The surface area the animal is standing on increases from 260 cm² (4 hooves at 65 cm²) up to roughly 532 cm² (4 hooves at 133 cm²). This is an increase in surface area of roughly 200%. While the animal's enormous weight is still being carried on a mere four points, the increase in surface area is enough to give the moose the flotation required to walk and run briskly across a snowy landscape without sinking up to its knees.
The snowshoe hares that we see in the area have evolved a different strategy. Rather than having their feet change shape in response to the surface they are standing on, they carry their tools year-round. The snowshoe hare's elongated rear feet are shaped in such a way that the downward force of hopping is distributed over enough area to allow the animal to move quickly with little drag. Given the snowshoe hare's factor in the diets of red foxes and coyotes, the ability to react and move quickly, even in deep snow, is imperative.
We are observers of our surroundings. It makes sense that people would have looked at the rounded feet of moose and the elongated feet of snowshoe hares and noticed their ability to move across the winter landscape more efficiently than humans. So, as the clever tool-makers we are, we copied hares and moose and made ourselves new feet; snowshoes. While they've changed shape and materials-science has given us lighter and more durable construction, snowshoes today fulfill the same role as they did for the first people to fashion a set from (likely) bone and sinew. They let us disperse our weight across the snow like moose so we don't sink to our armpits, and smooth out the drag forces like snowshoe hares, that would otherwise build up under a more box-like boot. The modern snowshoe also comes complete with crampons, spikes, and rails; mimicking animal claws. Travelling across a snowy field, through a winter forest, or up and down icy hillsides under your own power is easier than at any point in human history. Simply dress warm, strap some snowshoes to your boots, and head out.
Here at the Nature Centre we are big believers in snowshoeing. We not only rent snowshoes to the public but many of the staff are active snowshoers themselves; using these versatile tools to explore mountain peaks, frozen rivers, and otherwise inaccessible, snowed-in spaces. Snowshoeing is excellent cardio vascular and strengthening exercise.
You too, can take part in this fantastic activity. At the Nature Centre we rent snowshoes to the public. You can use them in the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary right out back door, throughout Waskasoo Park; or if you're looking for adventure and you have some hiking and winter-sport experience, rent a set for 24 hours and head down Highway 11 to try the trails up Coliseum or Shunda mountains. You'll be amazed at your new-found mobility.
We'd love to see you and your snowshoes on your adventures. If you'd like to share, tag our Instagram account (@kerry_wood_nature_centre).
Enjoy the rest of the winter!!
Click here for snowshoe rental rates and details.