SKIS AND SNOWSHOES
By A. C. Rowell.
SOMETIMES it happens that a trapper, or other camper, has occasion to use a sled, so I will tell what sort of sleds I have found to be the best for use in cross-country work, away from beaten roads. For cross-country work in the mountains the most successful sled I ever used was nothing more than a well-stretched deer skin. To make this sled I trimmed the edges of the skin and sewed them together, so that the skin was in the shape of a long sack. The bottom of the sack came to a point and was formed by the neck of the skin. So that when the sack was dragged by the bottom, or point, the hair on one side of it, which was the back of the skin, pointed right to make it drag easily. In using this rig I simply put as much plunder inside of it as I could carry at one load, fastened a long line to the point of it and dragged it through the snow. The mouth of the sack was laced, or sewed, shut, so that no snow could get inside of it and so that when I struck bad going I could put "pack straps" on it and carry it with the wide end down. The pack strap that I used on this rig was the line that I dragged it with, and this line was a length of three-eighths inch rope. Whenever the skin began to drag hard I hung it up to a limb and beat the frost out of the hair, and to make it run right side up I put the load in it as flat as I could. It dragged as easily as any sled could and was so light that it added very little to a back pack; but its capacity was limited to about a good back load. One like it could be made of several skins and made large enough to carry any amount of plunder, but it would catch and move too much snow and could not be carried around sidling places.
I have made and used toboggans; but they are no good for use in any but level country, and not so good anywhere as the right kind of a sleigh, so I will leave the making of toboggans to the man that thinks he likes them.
The sleigh that is shown in the photo is one that I made for use when the ranch where I had my horses was snowed in. I used this sleigh for hauling provisions and outfit to the foot of the mountains, and for hauling cages of marten down the valley to where the road was broke. I don't remember the exact dimensions of this sleigh; but it was about seven feet long by 20 inches wide and 15 inches high. The runners were between four and five inches wide and a half inch, or a little less, in thickness. The side pieces were about an inch and a half by two inches and the holes in them for the cross pieces were bored with a three-quarter inch bit. The uprights, between the side pieces and the runners, were fastened with nails, and the uprights that reached above the side pieces were fitted, at the top, into holes in pieces that went across for braces. The material for this sleigh was rived out of a 10-inch white spruce and the complete sleigh weighed about 20 pounds. Every part of the sleigh that would come in contact with the snow was painted with hot candle grease and on the bottom of the runners the grease was burnt in. I don't know how much of a load this sleigh would carry, but I know that 200 pounds wasn't enough to test its strength.
For use on ice I make the kind of a sled that kids make out of boards, and unless the material is green I soak the runners full of water and let them freeze. The frozen runners are a little hard to start; but they soon polish, and will slip along through five or six inches of snow about as easy as they will on bare ice.
Under ordinary circumstances a man can move his outfit through the mountains by carrying it much easier than he can by hauling it on a sleigh, and even in a level country, when the snow is loose, I prefer back-packing to pulling a sleigh.
One time I had been trapping above timber line and wanted to move 15 miles down country; the snow was loose, but I had 200 pounds 0: stuff to move, and decided that it would pay to make a sleigh and go over the route on skis and pack the trail. I made my sleigh and got everything ready to move and then took a light pack and went down about 10 miles, left the pack and returned to camp. In making that trip I broke trail both ways, so as to have a ski track for each runner of the sleigh; but that night the wind blew and filled the track full of snow, so that I wasted a hard day's work. The next morning I loaded my outfit on to the sleigh and struck out down the trail. The snow in the ski tracks was drifted so that it was harder thin the snow outside of the tracks, and instead of keeping on the track the sleigh would have first one runner and then the other down in the loose snow at the side of the track.
This tipped the sleigh up so that it was running on one runner and made it drag so hard that I couldn't pull it, and the only way that I could get along at all was to go ahead and break trail in the loose snow and then go back and get the sleigh. When I finally got my outfit to where I wanted to camp I figured up and found that besides the work of making the sleigh I had been as long in moving as I would have been if I had packed the stuff, and it had been harder work than packing. For fear that I would forget and use the sleigh again I cut it up and used the pieces for furniture.
On another occasion, when the snow was crusted and had a little loose snow on the crust. I made a sleigh and moved 250 pounds 30 milts in two days.
Two or more men trapping together can, in a level country, make a practice of moving camp with a sleigh, because they can break trail for the sleigh as they go.
In back-packing my outfit from one camp to another I pack from 50 to 75 pounds at a trip. and generally have my camps not more than 12 miles apart. Twice I have carried over a 100 pounds 12 miles at one load in one day; but with these loads I had to rest so often that I put in half the time resting and was 10 hours in going the 12 miles. Once I climbed a mountain four miles to buy grub at a mining camp. The mountain was steep and it was a hard day's trip to zig-zag up there and come back with a load, and I decided to carry enough at one trip so that I wouldn't have to go again. My load that day contained 50 pounds of flour, four five pound pails of lard, a can of baking powder, several plugs of tobacco, five pounds of coffee and a few other small articles. There was snow enough to cover all down timber and to leave but little danger of the skis striking a rock; but with that load on my back I was so slow in making some of the short turns, when going at high speed, that I barely missed uprooting several large spruce trees. The mountain was so steep and the load so heavy that a brake stick cutting through the snow had but little effect on the speed of the skis and I was only a few minutes in going the four miles to the foot of the mountain—one can of lard gouged me in the back so hard that the can was battered out of shape, and in making one of the short turns the corner of the pack came so near to striking a tree that it burst the sack of flour.
When I am knocking around the country on skis with a back-pack I aim to keep my pack below 40 pounds in weight, and rather than carry more than that I will take a chance on sleeping cold and will depend on finding small game for a good share of my food supply.
A pack strap, or harness, is all right, and a good pack sack is all right; but I generally get along first rate with a piece of rope and a seamless sack. I prefer a seamless sack for a pack sack, because I can have my pack in it compact, no matter how small it is. A rope is quickly and easily adjusted to any pack and if it "cuts" ihe shoulders the matter may be mended by placing something between the rope and the shoulder. Since I have been taking wild animals alive I have used a cage for a pack sack and I find it O. K. The shoulder straps on the cage are strips of gunny sack and the cage is made of wire netting stretched over a light frame of wood. The top is half inch board, with a door
large enough to admit a fox—or a frying pan.
It appears that in the North and East the ordinary way of carrying a pack is to tie it to the head. This system is doubtless all right in a country where people have heads of the right shape and of the right per cent, of bone; but in the West whenever a man is found with a head of solid bone his head comes so near to running up to a peak that a "tump-line" would slip off. When using pack harness on skis in a rough country a breaching would be more appropriate than a head strap.
No doubt the rump-line and head-trap pack harness have a place, but I have not yet found their place and know that their place is not in a country where a man has to keep his eye peeled in order to get along.
Since I must mention web snowshoes I will just say that the only time I use them is when the snow is so hard, or there is so little of it, that I carry them most of the time, and that the only good ones I ever owned I made out of the ends of a soap box. When I want a pair of web snowshoes I buy them, and while I could tell exactly how to make them I advise anyone else that wants web shoes to buy them. When a man is in a fix for snowshoes, and can get them only by making them, the thing to do is to make skis. I once put in several days making a pair of snowshoes and when I got them done they were not so good as those that sell for $5.00 a pair. When using web snowshoes a man should carry a few damp rawhide strings for mending, and every night he should go over his snowshoes and splice any strand that is broken. The web shoes that I am using now, for getting over drifts and along north hillsides, are a pair that I have used two years, and about half the material in them is short strings that I have spliced in.
It is not very often that I have money to bet, and I, of course, know that it is wicked to bet; but I am always ready to back skis against web shoes in any race except a short one on level ground, or one when the snow is crusted hard— the more hills there are and the steeper they are and the looser the snow is the further the web shoes will fall behind.
Because the experts use some mighty long skis and go—on paper—like a streak of greased lightning, T will not attempt to say what sort of a ski is best for the use of experts, nor how fast an expert can go.
For ordinary people the right length of ski is from eight to 10 feet and the right width is three and a half or four inches, and an average of two and a half or three miles an hour is a good gait. Four miles an hour, actually timed, over level measured ground for a good distance, is the best time I have ever made; but in cross-country work, where there were long hills to climb and go down, I may possibly have averaged more than four miles an hour—in going down a long hill when the snow is right a man on skis can outrun anything that can't fly. Some one that has read about how the trappers in the Far North take a 70-pound pack and prance off 30 to 40 miles a day on web shoes will think that my gait on skis is too slaw to stand a chance against the webs; but they should understand that no one but Sampson ever did the wonderful things that Sampson did. In spite of the fact that Sampson did a job with a jaw bone that 10 men couldn't do with rifles, almost every one, in going to war, would rather have a rifle than a gunny-sack full of jaw bones. When the snow js in bad condition, or when I have a heavy pack, I don't go four miles an hour, nor three, and sometimes I don't go even two miles an hour. Sometimes I go a mile an hour when a man on web shoes couldn't go at all, and sometimes I take a heavy pack and go a mile an hour on ski’s when a stronger man could take the same pack and go more than a mile an hour on webs.
There are different ways, of rigging skis, but there is only one best way, and this best way is so far ahead of any other way that there is no room for argument. Some men claim that they don't like the best way, but that is because they have never tried it, or else use skis for sport only, and that only when the snow is in the best condition for skiing.
The most important thing in rigging a ski is to fix it so that it will not slip back in climbing a steep hill, and at the same time leave it so that it will slip ahead and coast freely. The only way to do this that I know of is to put some kind of skin, with the hair on, on the bottom of the ski. The best skin, for this purpose, that I have ever tried is that taken from the legs of elk, but any skin having short glossy hair will answer. The skin must be put on with the points of the hair lying towards the back end of the ski and the best way to put it on is to first stretch and dry it and then fit it to the ski and fasten it with tacks. The skin may cover the whole bottom of the ski and be tacked to the edges, or it may be fitted into a wide groove along the bottom of the ski, leaving a portion of the bottom bare on each side of the skin. In using this last method the wood on each side oi the strip of skin must be kept well waxed. There is no use of telling just exactly how to drive each tack, nor of going to great length in telling how easily a skin-covered ski will slide through the snow and how nearly impossible it is to make it slip back.
Next in importance to skin on the bottom oi skis is housings on the top of them. A great many men object to housings on skis, and I would never use the ordinary housings myself; but since it occurred to me to use stirrups inside of the housings I wouldn't think of doing without them. To rig skis with housings I first fit them with stirrups made of inch and a half leather strap. Then I cut the lower part of the housings out of some kind of heavy hide with the hair on. The lower part of each housing 1 cut in two pieces, so that the hair on both sides will point towards the back • end of the ski. I make this part of the housing eight inches, or more, high, and nearly two feet long, and have it come to a point on top of the ski well ahead of where my toes come. The edges are tacked to the sides of the ski, from where the front end begins to taper, back to a point well behind my heel, and the back end is tacked across the top of the ski. The opening in the top of the lower part of the housing is long enough so that in making a step my ankle doesn't touch either end of the opening. The upper part of the housing is made of cloth and is big and baggy, so that when it is tied to the leg it is loose enough to allow a full step without drawing tight. With these housings I handle the skis with the stirrups exactly the same as though I had no housings, and with them my feet are out of the snow, warm and dry, and I do not have the annoyance of the snow getting between my foot and the ski. Some will say that my style of skis are heavy and clumsy, and will continue to use the plain wood with leather stirrups and heel straps. I am pleased to have them do this, because they will, by doing it, avoid a lot of comfort and get the benefit of knowing too much. While they are pounding ice out from under their heels and going up hills like a hog going to war (sideways), I can jog along with my feet away from the snow and go straight up any hill I come to, and while they are waxing, scraping and cussing to keep the snow from sticking, I can slip along as smooth as a pancake on a hot griddle and forget that I ever knew anything about snow sticking to skis.
The skis that I show here are a pair of heavy hardwood skis that I paid $6.00 for without rigging of any kind. This is the third winter that I have used them and I have put their strength to severe tests hundreds of times and know that they are heavier than necessary. I prefer them to have strength to spare, so that when I am sliding along on what looks to be perfectly smooth snow, on a foggy day, and drop off from a 10-foot comb and land on the point of the skis they will buck and jump instead of breaking. Near the Sheridan Creek Ranger Station, on Wind River, there is quite a large sage brush flat, and one dark night I was crossing that flat on skis, when all at once I dropped off from the edge of the world. I got a straight drop of 10 or 12 feet and then plunged 50 feet down a steep bank and dived into the snow that lay on a bank that faced the one I came down. I said a few exclamation points and wallowed around till I got on top of the snow, and found that I was in the bottom of a pot hole that appeared to me to be out of place in a sage brush flat. I expected to find my skis in small pieces; but they were not even cracked, and since then I have had no fear of breaking them.
In real cold weather the hair on the bottom of skis will get full of frost, and make them run hard; but it takes only a few minutes to whip the frost out, and takes several hours for it to collect again. When the skin on the bottom of skis absorbs moisture and becomes slack it may be tightened by drying at a safe distance from a fire, or in the sunshine.
Hickory or ash is the best wood for skis, and where a man cannot get this kind of wood it pays to buy skis ready made—in sending away for skis stipulate in the order that they must be perfectly true edgeways, because a ski is almost impossible to straighten edgeways and will not run true unless the edges are true—a line drawn from the center of the point of a ski to the center of the back end should be the same distance from both edges all the way through, and so long as this is the case it doesn't matter greatly if' the ski be of varying width. Skis made wider in front than they are behind are, perhaps, better for making short turns, especially unintentional short turns, than skis that are the same width at both ends I once borrowed a pair of these tapered skis (a fine stick of hickory had been spoiled in making them) and found that the back ends of them would not stay in the middle of the wider track made by the front ends. By the back end following one side of the track, made by the front end, the ski was thrown out of line with the direction that I was trying to steer it, so that with every drive ahead I had to lift the ski and point it in a new direction. I had a road to follow that day and managed to keep in the road most of the time, but I took up the whole road and the track I made looked like hit-and-miss plowing in rocky ground.
I have seen skis that were narrowed towards the middle from both ends and they appeared to run true; but I could see no advantage in them.
When I hew out a ski I make the edges about straight and make sure that the two ends are of the same width and in line with the middle of the ski; but I don't waste any time trying to make the edges exactly straight.
In any country but Wyoming a trapper don't know just when he will need skis (in Wyoming, in the mountains, he needs them all the time), and it often happens that his best plan is to go ahead with his trapping till a big snow comes and then stop at whatever camp he happens to be at and make his skis. Even where a man don't do this it is sometimes easier to make a pair of pine or spruce skis than it is to dig up $6.00 or $8.00 for hardwood skis. I have already told how to select a tree that will rive into boards and be free from knots, and I have told how I made a pair of skis, so that all I will need to do here will be to say a few words about stirrups, etc.
Stirrups should be put exactly square across the ski, a little back of the middle, ad they may be either mortised through the ski, under the foot. or countersunk into the edges and fastened with screws or nails. This last method is the easiest, and for soft wood it is the best. I prefer stirrups to be made of inch and a quarter or inch and a half straps; but I have seen them that were made of five-inch belting and that would hold a gallon of snow.
Heel straps should be fastened to the stirrups close down to the skis and they should have buckles to adjust them to the length of the foot and should have a strap riveted to the heel strap, to go under and over the instep to hold the heel strap in place—this, strap, also, should adjust with a buckle.
When housings are used heel straps are not needed for ordinary skiing, and many people prefer to use blocks of wood under the instep, instead of heel straps, when using stirrups without housings. Except in jumping, the only use for heel straps, or blocks of wood, is to keep the foot from slipping back, and the only reason that the foot slips is because the snow gets between it and the ski and forms ice.
Stiff harness leather, or saddle leather, makes better housings than raw skins of any kind; but it knocks a big hole in a $5.00 bill to buy enough of this kind of leather to make a pair of housings of the right size. A trapper can generally afford to cut up a buck hide, or an elk skin, better than he can afford to buy leather. Some times he has a hide that is what might be called extra, that is to say, he is legally entitled to one or two hides and may safely possess that many without being called on to show how he came by them; but he may need more meat than the legal number of hides will cover, and in getting the meat it is rather difficult to avoid getting an extra skin. When leather is used for housings the surface of it should be worked full of paraffin wax to keep the snow from sticking to it.
Skiing is the most exhilarating sport that I know of, and with skis rigged as I have mine a man is independent of conditions of snow and can go almost any place that the snow will lay.
Trappers that have never used skis will naturally think that making a trap setting with 10foot skis on the feet would be out of the question; but I make any kind of a setting without getting off the skis. With a ski for a foundation, and using one knee and one hand to press the springs down, I set the largest size jump traps with ease, and I set a box trap (for marten, to save alive) and build a cubby over it without taking my feet out of the housings. Often I put my feet into the housings in the morning and go all day, tending traps, hunting rabbits, following marten tracks, and doing everything else that I have occasion to do, without taking the skis off till I get to camp at night. When I come to a windfall I go over it, if anything can get over it, and when I strike a patch of willows I ride over them, and snags that would make fringe all over the bottom of a pair of webs do no harm to my skis.
In the spring of the year, when the snow is going off, the skin on the skis gets wet and then freezes, and the snow freezes into hard crust and wears through the frozen skin on the skis, and in this way I wear out the skin on my skis and have to replace it each year. But at the time that I am wearing the skin off from my skis I am jogging right along, when with any other sort of a rig I would be out of a job till the snow melted. I can get around and tend to business with skin-covered skis at a time when webs will get wet and bag and ball up with wet, new snow till a man can't go. At a time when the wet crust will let a web down two feet. and then pile in on "top of it, the points of my skis will keep on top, so that I can keep going. even if I do leave a track that a man could hide in. Now, some of the wise ones will say that a trapper ought not to trap at the time the snow is going off. I agree with them to the extent that at that time of the year a trapper had ought to have money in the bank, a big jug, a box of cigars, plenty of grub and a pleasant companion, and be where the snow is gone and the fishing good. But often it don't happen that way, and I have caught more prime fur after the first of April than I had caught in all winter. I once caught 26 martens after the 10th of April and they were the best marten that I got that year, and brought the best price. Foxes get snowballs stuck to their hair, when the snow begins to melt, and break their hair in pulling the snowballs off, but they are the only thing that dares to get "springy" in the high mountain till well along towards summer.
Certainly, I am in favor of catching only prime fur, and of giving the fur-bearers a chance to increase; but I am also in favor of making a living, and a female marten that is prime, or a female lynx that is prime, looks just as good to me the first of May as it does the first of January, and the one taken in January damages the chances of future supply just as much by being killed at that time as it would by being killed the first of May. Anyway, if your luck has been bad, so that you can't afford the jug, etc., at the proper season, put skin on your skis and make a big rustle through April and into May till pelts begin to show black, and then swipe a few beaver and put a few bear skins on sticks and you will be able to get along without asking "Mr. Johnsing" for a job. I am dead stuck on work, all right; but I had rather wear out a pair of skis chasing a $50 grizzly than to cut $2.00 worth of wood, and I had rather wear the skin off my skis in the wet snow catching a $100 worth of fur than to put in the same length of time wallowing around in the same kind of snow to make $25 or $50 worth of railroad ties. I like to sit up on a high bank in the sunshine and watch a bunch of Swedes break a jam a whole lot better than I like to work on a drive myself in ice water at 30 cents an hour, as I have done. There is lots of fun on a drive, all right; but it is like the fun the fellow had been having with the boys the time he came home with his teeth knocked out and his eyes swelled shut. One thing that I should mention in favor of housings on skis is that in them any kind of footwear will keep the feet warm in any weather.
Fur, News. Fur News, January 1916.
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