While traveling north on Highway 41 in the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior, travelers pass an historic “snow thermometer” that indicates the record snowfall for one season: 390.4 inches in the winter of 1978-79. That factors out to about 33 feet, the approximate height of a three-story house. Since Michigan is strongly influenced by Great Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, its lake-effect snowfall is conducive to a number of winter sports, one of them being snowshoeing.
THE SNOWSHOE PRIEST
Back in the 1830s, the Native American villages and missions of Upper Michigan were introduced to an unusual personality, Father Frederic Baraga, a Catholic priest who was born in Slovenia. Baraga would travel to missions and villages during the winter by snowshoe, an activity he learned from American Indians. He became known as “Bishop Baraga, the snowshoe Priest.” Factories didn’t mass-produce snowshoes back then so Baraga’s shoes were handmade, Native American style, of green wood that was bent over the thigh to take the shape of a snowshoe frame. The tail ends were tied together with rawhide from moose or deer.
IVERSON WOODEN SNOWSHOE FACTORY
Clarence Iverson, another upper Peninsula personality, added his own flavor to the U.P. more than a century later. He lived within easy reach of Baraga’s wanderings, in the unincorporated village of Shingleton. Shingleton is where a flashing yellow light on the highway and Robinson’s General store signal downtown. It is where wild blueberries run rampant in late summer and fall. Then comes hunting season and the village closes down. In winter, poles are strategically placed along the highway to alert plows of the road shoulders hidden under heavy annual snowfall. Durable aprons span the highway at various points allowing snowmobiles easy passage.
Today, Shingleton is known both nationally and internationally for Iverson snowshoes, which follows the traditional technique of native American snowshoes using white ash stick frames that are laced with cowhide, neoprene and kevlar. Unlike mass-produced snowshoes with alloy metal frames and hard plastic or canvas lacing, Iverson’s snowshoes are handmade with wood from logs that have been cut in nearby forests. as Bob Graves, co-owner of Iverson’s says, “We are the last of the Mohicans.”
It all began at a nearby trustee camp for prisoners, where some of the trustees made snowshoes by hand; Clarence Iverson was a corrections officer who oversaw the lacing of the snowshoes. But he also had a vision.
In the 1950s Iverson started making snowshoes in his spare time at home as a cottage industry. When he retired from prison work, things got busier. His reputation spread and he began making snowshoes for the state of Michigan as well as for local foresters and loggers. He used prisoners from the camp to lace the frames, using full-grain cattle rawhide for lacing.
Iverson sold out to Robert and Anita Hulse in the late 1980s. The couple tried new innovations and built the business into a company with 16 employees who created 15,000 snowshoes annually. The shoes serviced loggers, foresters, DNR employees, power company workers, park service employees, and recreational back packers and hikers. Because of their natural beauty, some of the shoes became wall decorations.
Due to internal changes and the turn in the economy, the factory closed down in 2006 and remained dormant for one year.
Bob Graves, a logger by trade, says, “I was a little boy who rode my bike through Iverson’s factory yard in the early years of its production.” He used Iverson snowshoes as a kid and relied on them throughout his career as a logger when he marked section lines during the winter months. Following his inner urging, Graves and his wife, Linda, took over responsibility for Iverson’s in 2007. Their only workers are longtime employees Ken and Julie Holmes, who produce as a machine-like team and are as down to earth as the ash logs and piles of snow that sit outside the factory doors.
Making handmade snowshoes is a fascinating two-day process. It starts with boards sawn from ash logs so the wood grains allow for maximum frame strength. These boards are then cut into strips that are first soaked in a water vat and then placed in a steamer for four hours. The steam-heated sticks become pliable and can be bent over a frame-former. The frame is then placed in a dry kiln overnight. In the meantime, in a separate building, rawhide, neoprene and kevlar are cut into lacing strips, while sheets of leather are formed into bindings. neoprene lacing does not attract snow; rawhide is basically cattle skin with the hair scraped off; kevlar is expensive but has reduced the weight of an average shoe from 4½ pounds to 3.
After holes are drilled along the sides of the dried frames they are ready to be laced. It’s a labor of love for Julie Holmes who says, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and can lace with my eyes closed.”
Once the shoes are laced, they are placed in a vat of preservative lacquer and hung to dry. When dry, they are ready for bindings and the stamped logo, “Iverson: Seek Wilderness.”
The team now produces 5,000 Iverson snowshoes annually in 14 styles that are designed for looks, comfort and weight distribution, ranging in size from children to adults. They’ve found homes among three generations of Iverson customers as far away as Germany, Canada, Alaska and Switzerland. Iverson frames and laces are used in the snowshoe-building workshops at Tahquamenon Falls state Park where naturalist Theresa Neal says, “It takes seven hours for people to weave their shoes but they are so proud of themselves when they finish.”
HITTING THE TRAILS
With its ample snowfall, the state has a multitude of snowshoe trails open to the public. lower Michigan venues include Ludington State Park, Sand Lakes Trails in Traverse City, Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, McNearney Trail in Strongs Corners and Big M Trails in Manistee. Upper Peninsula trails include Porcupine Mountains in Ontonagon, ABR Trails in Ironwood, Harlow Lake Trail in Marquette, Giant Pines in Paradise, Brockway Mountain in Copper Harbor and Valley spur Trails in Munising.
Even if you don’t own snowshoes you can borrow them at select state parks that offer guided daytime and lantern-lit evening snowshoe walks.
In Michigan, it’s easy to enjoy winter and nature through this silent sport. not a bad way to float on the snow!
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Iverson snowshoes: iversonssnowshoes. com, (877) 452-6370 or (906) 452-6370.
Michigan state Parks: michigan.gov/dnr several of Michigan’s state parks offer snowshoe-making workshops; find details at michigan.gov/dnr.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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