Photos by Daniel Murphy
The week before meeting with us, Country Ways’ CEO Greg Wilcox was in northern Minnesota at the Winter Camping Symposium, an annual event dedicated to celebrating outdoor winter activities. During our conversation, he spoke enthusiastically about how much he enjoyed the event and not just because beer was provided by Bent Paddle Brewing Company. “We just enjoy winter,” said Wilcox. And it’s no wonder—Wilcox and his business partner Dyke Williams make their living from winter.
Founded in 1972 by Williams, Country Ways began as a mail order business for outdoor equipment kits. Wilcox joined the company in 1980, and the two have worked together ever since. While the company has offered a few other products over the years, the focus of the business is made clear by its web address, snoeshoe.com. The company doesn’t focus on the modern snowshoes you can find in outdoor stores, but rather traditional wooden styles. Country Ways sells several styles of hand-made wooden shoeshoes, including a New England-style shoe with a rounded toe, the large Alaskan style, and the Ojibwa style with both a narrow toe and tail. You can purchase any one of the styles through the site, but Wilcox and Williams would much rather sell you a kit so you can build your snowshoes yourself.
“We definitely sell more of the kits and that’s intentional,” said Wilcox. “We really want people to go out and make their own. It’s very satisfying for people. We get lots of letters saying ‘Gee, I didn’t really believe I could make something and then go out and use it.’”
Country Ways believes in experiential education, that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself. Its earliest kits were sold to schools, colleges, scout camps, and environmental education programs, and the company still works with educational groups, nature centers, schools, and the like. But the educational value isn’t the only reason to build your own snowshoes. Doing so, Wilcox said, is fun, relaxing, and the finished result offers a sense of pride that you can’t get from simply buying a product. And, he says, making snowshoes is easy.
“The first pair takes around 12 hours, the second pair six,” said Wilcox. “Experienced people can do it in two hours while watching TV and never make a mistake. It’s like riding a bike. You struggle and then at some point your brain goes ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’ Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but you just unlace to the mistake and keep on going. The directions are color coded. We always say if you’re not having fun, take a break. I’ll still do some on some evenings just because it’s very peaceful to do.”
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