The spirit of snowshoes past: A Christmas story to read to children



Shuffling along the lane, her fancy new snowshoes leaving a distinctive pattern in the new-fallen snow, Lucy headed towards the warm yellow glow coming from the window in her grandfather’s ramshackle workshop at the edge of the harbor. Surrounded by stacks of fishing gear, and an old set of wooden oars half buried in snowdrifts, it gave little hint to the disciplined nature of the man inside.

Undoing the Velcro bindings Lucy stepped out of her snowshoes, stomped loudly on the top step in case grandfather was napping, threw open the door and paused.

“Close that cussed door. It can’t be more than two degrees out!” bellowed grandfather from his sagging overstuffed chair behind the wood stove. The lid of the battered enameled coffeepot on the stove was open, a slight hint of steam betraying the fact that the last of its contents were getting more concentrated by the hour. Dozens of brightly-colored buoys hung from the rafters, all freshly painted and ready to go come spring.

For more than 50 years, grandfather had retreated to this weather-beaten sanctuary when the winds of winter forced him to bring in his traps and haul his lobster boat out of the water. Each winter his beard got progressively whiter, as his perpetual smile more deeply defined the lines on his face.

Everything in the shop, including the old FM radio tuned to a station that gets, as grandfather liked to say “both kinds of music — country and western,” was covered in a layer of fine sawdust, evidence of the industry required to mill the oak lumber needed to build 100 new wooden traps each year.

As he talked, grandfather’s large and weathered hands moved automatically, knotting twine together to make the heads for the new traps.

“Why don’t you just buy some of those new metal traps with the plastic mesh?” asked Lucy. “You’d be able to take it easy, maybe even go to Florida for a month,” she added. “That’s just more junk to be found floating in a giant mess in the middle of the ocean,” he replied.

Every time she went to shop, Lucy spotted something new. This time was no different. After focusing on the buoys, she spied something she didn’t recognize attached to the gable end of the building. “What are those?” she asked, climbing up on the end of the cluttered work bench to get a better look.

“Those were the snowshoes worn by Maurice Camber, an old friend of my father, during the Great War. He delivered mail to the folks way back in the woods in Franklin,” grandfather responded. “They didn’t plow all the roads back then, at least not right away,” he continued. “Maurice would shoulder his sack of letters and a Sears catalog or two, and off he’d go no matter the weather, no matter how deep the snow. Some days he’d cover a dozen miles. Never heard him complain once.”

Grandfather climbed the rickety step ladder and reached up for the snowshoes. As he handed them down to Lucy, she marveled at how handsome, yet rugged they were — but much lighter than she expected. The bent ash frame, which tapered to a long tail in the back, was faded with age. The rawhide webbing, laced by hand and later coated with protective shellac, was fully intact without breaks or sags. The old rusty hobnails protruding from the bottom of the cross braces showed signs of years of wear on unyielding ice and rock.

Still, they projected a strength and permanence rarely found in modern things.

There was no comparison to her high-tech snowshoes, with their bright aluminum frame, thin laces and bindings, and plastic webbing.

“Those were probably old when Maurice had ‘em,” grandfather said. “If you asked me, I’d say that webbing is made of moose hide.”

Grandfather paused to tend the woodstove, adding another piece of split birch to the bed of red hot coals. The frayed white bark erupted in a flash of heat and light as he quickly closed the stove’s door and turned down the damper.

“You all set for your traditional trek up Thorndike Hill on Christmas Eve?” he asked.

“Yes. Yes I am,” she replied proudly, excited that for the third year in a row she was chosen to climb up the steep, icy trail to the town’s Christmas Tree atop the hill to light the star at the top, at 7 o’clock—exactly—when the church bells ring as folks gather at the village green below to sing “Silent Night.”

“It’s not an easy trail. I’ve been practicing,” Lucy said.

“It’s supposed to snow from now clean through Christmas Eve day but be over by noon,” Grandfather shared. “You should be all set for your mission.”

***

As the pale yellow afterglow of sunset faded to blue and black in the west on Christmas Eve, Lucy adjusted her headlamp, fastened her warm boots to her shiny aluminum snowshoes, and headed up the trail to the top of Thorndike Hill, the star lantern safely in her backpack.

No one had broken trail since the snow ended and Lucy was surprised at how hard it was to make progress. “This snow is more than two feet deep,” she mumbled to herself. “I hope I get there in time.”

When Lucy got to Amory Ledge she stopped for a minute to think about how to get up the steep icy path. Holding on to small trees along the way she worked her way up a big drift. Her feet, when they actually touched the ground, slid on glare ice underneath. Suddenly, without warning, one of the bindings on her snowshoes snapped. She lost her balance and tumbled down the trail, stopping at the bottom of the ledge — unhurt except for her pride.

“How am I going to get up there without snowshoes!” she screamed. Looking at her watch, she realized she didn’t have much time left. Out of the corner of her eye she spied the glow coming from the window of grandfather’s workshop. “I’ll go ask him for help,” she said to herself, as she trudged down the trail she’d packed down earlier. “He can fix anything.”

Bursting through door, Lucy caught grandfather by surprise. “Can you fix them? Can you fix them?” she asked waving the broken snowshoe in front of his startled face. “Well, let’s look,” he said, pulling his reading glasses out of his pocket and squinting at the broken binding.

“It’s torn clean through. There’s nothing solid left to reattach anything to,” he sighed. “That’s the problem these days. Stuff’s not meant to last. Use it. Break it. Throw it away and buy another one. What a waste.”

“What am I going to do?” she asked noticing that she had barely an hour to get to the top of Thorndike Hill.

“Well, there’s always these,” he said pointing to Maurice’s old snow shoes. She noticed he had wiped them down, and had reconditioned the thick leather bindings.

“Really?” Lucy said. “Why don’t I just use a horse and sleigh to go to Bangor,” she quipped.

“I’m afraid you’re wrong there Lucy,” grandfather said. “Just because something’s a little dated and dusty doesn’t mean it’s no good or can’t get the job done. Let’s get these fitted so you can skedaddle. I’ve got to get over to the green for caroling.”

Heading back up the trail, Lucy liked the way to snowshoes let her float across the snow. She soon found herself once again standing at the bottom of Amory Ledge. Slowly she began working up through the deep, drifts, growing more and more confident with the whumf of each step. At the slipper stretch, the old rusty hobnails bit deep into the ice and saved her from falling.

Cresting the ridge, she spotted the town tree, its branches aglow but no star at the top. She reached into her backpack and removed the powerful lantern just as the bells below began to ring. She raised it into position, held her breath and turned it on. Its bright golden glow seemed to fill the night sky, all the way down to the village below.

“Merry Christmas to all,” she shouted out loud. And from far down in the village, the sound of many voices singing “Silent Night” drifted up to touch the stars above.

The former editor of the Mount Desert Islander, Earl Brechlin of Bar Harbor has been writing original Christmas stories for children for more than two decades.

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

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