Written by: Karlee May, Digital Media Coordinator, with thanks to Brenna Bartley and Adam McDowell for their help.
No, this will not be a winter creature feature about the “dangerous snow snake” slithering on the escarpment lying in wait to bite the ankles of passing cross country skiers. It’s a little early for an April Fool’s joke.
So, what is a ‘snow snake’ and why are they at Crawford Lake? ‘Snow Snakes’ is a First Nations winter game! It was originally a form of communication between villages that eventually developed into a competitive sport. The game was invented before the arrival of Europeans in North America. The game ‘field’ is a long trench of snow. A ‘snake’ is a long wooden pole thrown down the icy channel. The name ‘snow snake’ is said to have come from the serpentine wriggling motion of the poles as they slide down the ice track.
The make the snow track, the snow is piled up and spread down a slope that follows the contour of the landscape. Track makers press a log into the snow pile to make the groove where the snow snakes will shoot through.
Unlike other team sports, like hockey, there are only two positions on a snow snake team: the Thrower, and the Shiner. The Shiner make the snow snakes and selects the snake for the Thrower. As the name suggests, the Thrower throws the snake down the track.
A game of snow snake is usually played by four teams, called corners. The four corners compete by trying to throw their wooden snow snakes the furthest. The snake that travels the furthest wins the points. The game is divided into rounds, and in a round each team gets four throws. At the end of each round, two points are awarded to the team of the person who made the farthest throw in the round, and one point is awarded for the second farthest throw. Play continues until one of the teams wins, by achieving a certain predetermined number of points (usually 7 or 10).
The poles used in the game, collectively known as snow snakes, have different names depending on their length. The smallest poles used are the six-inch-long snow darts. The next size up is the three-foot-long short snake, also known as a mud cat. Longer poles are known as long snakes, and can be anywhere from six to ten feet in length. Snow snakes can be made from a variety of woods, usually hardwoods. Many players customize their snow snakes by decorating them, or adding minor modifications, such as waxing the wooden surface or weighting the ends.
For more information on the cultural history of snow snakes, please visit the Woodland Cultural Centre website. They have an upcoming tournament later this month. Also, if you’re unable to visit the tournament, you’ll see the snow snakes in action at Crawford Lake on February 14th—February 16th. Bring your sweetie on Valentine’s Day for a unique cultural experience at Crawford Lake!