After 7 Decades, Traditional Snowshoe Maker Still Going Strong
ELY, Minn. (MCT) - Joe Prijatel had no choice but to build a pair of snowshoes for himself. He couldn't afford the $5 to buy a pair.
The year was about 1938, and Prijatel was working in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Ely. If a guy wanted to get around in the woods, he needed a good pair of snowshoes.
Prijatel has never stopped making snowshoes. At 88, he's been at it for 70 years. But the price of snowshoes has changed some. A pair of his ash-and-rawhide Michigans or Ojibways now brings $200. Want bindings? That's another $30.
Prijatel (rhymes with "Seattle") makes about 10 to 15 pairs of snowshoes a year in his basement shop in Ely. He figures he's made more than 1,000 pairs in his life and has repaired a lot more. He has made them for the U.S. Forest Service and for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Working under a low ceiling in his cramped basement, Prijatel makes snowshoes one pair at a time, bending the black ash frames, soaking and lacing the rawhide, varnishing the finished product. He's one of just a handful of snowshoe-makers left, and he has taught a few others.
He doesn't need the money.
"It's just something I do every day. It's just in me," said Prijatel, who put in 25 years at the Pioneer iron mine in Ely and another 13 at Minntac in Mountain Iron before retiring.
On this January morning, he's lacing the center section of a Michigan-style snowshoe. He wears blue jeans, a navy blue work shirt and black suspenders. He sits on a kitchen chair near his furnace, the tail of the snowshoe wedged under him to steady it as he threads the rawhide.
Prijatel is softspoken and unassuming. He works deliberately but not fast, weaving the wet strips of cowhide across the wooden frame, forming triangles of leather that will dry taut and support a 200-pound snowshoer. The center section of a snowshoe requires 50 feet of rawhide, the toe and tail another 150 feet.
It takes a bit longer.
It is no harder making snowshoes than it used to be, Prijatel says. But it does take him a little longer now. And he has given up the bull work of the job. He used to buy cowhide by the barrel and tan it himself, but the barrels are too heavy for him to move. He used to cut down the black ash trees himself.
"The hardest part was carrying the tree out of the woods," he said.
Now Prijatel buys his rawhide tanned and cuts it into strips. He gets his ash pre-cut by his son, Joe Prijatel, who lives on Burntside Lake near Ely.
Prijatel has outlived most of his competition in traditional snowshoe making - the late Jack Moraski of Hoyt Lakes, Russ Merritt of Cohasset, Tom "Old Spyglass" Nelson of Ashland. But he has passed the skill on to his son, Joe, and also to Joe Lekatz of Ely.
"Many people have asked dad to teach them," said his son, Joe. "The first thing he says is, 'Bring a log and bring a cowhide.' "
That tends to weed out those who aren't serious.
When he was just starting, Prijatel picked up a few tips from a man named Alex Maki of Winton, who was working in the same CCC camp, Prijatel said. Maki had made two or three pairs. From there on, it was trial and error.
"I was mostly self-taught," he said.
Boiling and bending
The frame of a Michigan snowshoe is one piece of black ash about 10 feet long. It must be bent into its traditional teardrop shape. To do that, Prijatel slips the 10-foot strip of wood into a piece of aluminum downspout just longer than 10 feet. Using a gas heating element and water, he boils the ash in the downspout for 45 minutes. That allows the wood to be bent around a form without breaking.
From there, it's a matter of lacing, drying and varnishing. For many years, Prijatel's snowshoes carried no brand name. But when a customer requested that he sign a pair of finished 'shoes, he did. Since then, he has stamped his signature on every one.
The product he builds is a good one, son Joe said.
"It's the way it was done 80 years ago," the younger Prijatel said. "You can't compare it to a store-bought 'shoe. The rawhide lacing is better, thicker. The frames are a smidgen heavier. He's done a lot of repairs on store-bought shoes."
Only one of his own snowshoes has come back to him broken, Prijatel said.
"But that one was run over by a snow machine," he said. "That don't count."
Prijatel is well aware that most contemporary snowshoes are made with aluminum or titanium frames and synthetic decking.
"They're good, I suppose," he said. "I can't say because I've never had a pair."
Prijatel knows that some of the people who buy his traditional snowshoes never plan to wear them in the bush. They're destined for a wall somewhere. That doesn't bother him. But he still builds them to be used.
He isn't sure how long he'll keep making snowshoes. When the subject comes up, he mentions the late Joe Seliga of Ely, who built traditional wood-canvas canoes until his death at age 94. Seliga was working on another canoe when he died, Prijatel said. He seemed to like that idea.
"Just for the hell of it," he said, "I want to see how long I can go with this stuff."
© 2008, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.