CROOKSTON, Minn. — Just 85 miles north of Fargo, 68-year-old Beverly Johnson has been making wood and lace for Ojibway snowshoes for three decades in a small workshop.
Johnson and her late husband started the company, 7-J's Snowshoe, in January 1989. Johnson, of Norwegian descent, said she thought the business was unique. Since her husband passed away in 1992, she’s been keeping the business going, building the snowshoe kits in an old one-room schoolhouse.
Ojibway snowshoes — which have a pointed, upturned toe that acts much like the bow of a boat in breaking the snow surface and parting brush — were originally invented by the Ojibway people. Artist and author George Catlin once recorded the Ojibway people’s annual “snowshoe dance” in his book, “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.”
He described the dance as “exceedingly picturesque, being danced with the snowshoes under the feet, at the falling of the first snow in the beginning of winter, when they sing a song of thanksgiving to the Great Spirit for sending them a return of snow, when they can run on their snowshoes in their valued hunts, and easily take the game for their food.”
The company creates the wooden edges of the shoe out of white ash wood, purchased from a longtime Amish supplier. Johnson and her crew cut the wood into 1-inch-thick squares and places them in boiling water. Once they’ve “cooked,” so to speak, the wood is placed in aluminum snowshoe forms, and they dry for about a month in that shape.
Once dried in the correct form, 7-Js sends a snowshoe kit, which includes the wood and a package of pre-cut lacing, to buyers to lace their own snowshoes together. Johnson likes giving people the opportunity to create their own snowshoes. She said it gives people “the satisfaction of being able to do it on their own.”
She sells the kits to state parks and schools and people like Jackie Jacobson, who teaches her own snowshoe-making classes. Jacobson laced her first pair of snowshoes a decade ago. She said she likes outdoor activities, and snowshoeing allows her to exercise, bird watch and enjoy nature.
Jacobson wanted to help others learn how to lace their own snowshoes, too, so they could take part in outdoor winter activities. So she mastered the knots and began instructing classes. So far, she’s taught programs for Becoming an Outdoors Woman, Wild Outdoor Women and National Wildlife Refuges and state parks. She’s hosting her next workshop on Feb. 1, at Fort Stevenson State Park, northwest of Bismarck. Participants must register by Jan. 1, though.
To make the snowshoes, participants have to lace the shoes using nylon lacing. The two wooden pieces on the sides of the shoes are stabilized by two crossbars, which separate each snowshoe into three sections that need to be laced. After lacing the three sections, participants must also add the bindings that holds their boots to their snowshoes.
The initial reaction from first timers is frustration at learning the knots and fixing mistakes, Jacobson said. But once mastered, frustration is “replaced with enjoyment and a huge amount of pride,” she said. “People are so very proud of their snowshoes and they forgot all about any frustrations that were encountered along the way.”