I’ve encountered rattlesnakes, garter snakes, and black rat snakes while playing in the outdoors but this was my first snowsnake. And, true to its name, the snowsnake was out in the snow when other snakes were hibernating. Other than being long and narrow, the snowsnake didn’t resemble other snakes. It slid rather than slithered and required no periodic feeding on rodents.Snowsnake, is a traditional game played by the Iroquois Indians for over 500 years. The game began as a means of communicating between the winter encampments of the Iroquois people on the North and South shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. It was the duty of the warriors to keep a snowy track clear of debris so a stick with a message written in charcoal, could be relayed along the track. When there were no messages to be sent, the warriors competed for the farthest slide in the snow track, thus beginning a gaming tradition.
I saw my first snowsnake track and handmade snowsnakes at the Ganondagan Winter Festival in Victor. Fred Kennedy, a Seneca, supervised the building of a track and brought out his snowsnake collection. He demonstrated his technique and patiently assisted an endless line of children as each tried their hand at this winter game. Fred’s throws traveled 0.2 mile over a track limited by the amount of snow available. In competition the snowsnakes travel 1.5 to 2 miles in 3 minutes. Building the Track
To build the track, Fred piled and packed snow to a height of about 30″ at the head of the track. He continued to pile snow in a straight line that gradually decreased in height to just above ground level. A log 4″ in diameter and 20′ long was placed on the pile of snow and slid back and forth to form a trough 5″ deep. Then the log was dragged with a rope, the length of the track as the sides were reinforced with more snow.
Making a Snowsnake
The snowsnakes themselves are carved from wood. The most popular choices are hard maple, June berry, ironwood and hickory. Two lengths of stick are allowed. The long stick is approximately 7 feet and the short stick, called a mudcat, is approximately 3 feet. The wood is cut into a 1″ square block and then carved into the desired shape. Then the stick is sanded and polished. The balance and weight developed are determined by the weather conditions each stick will be used in. The tip is then carved into a special design created by the carver and a liquid metal is poured through a paper funnel onto the carved area. This metal is allowed to harden and is shaped and polished to form an arrow-like point. The point adds weight and serves as protection for the stick. In the opposite end, a u-shaped indentation is carved for a finger hold. The stick is then ready for a finish of shellac. On game day the “Shiner,” the man responsible for the “Medicine” or wax that will be rubbed on the stick, carefully considers the weather conditions before making his selection.
Playing the Game
Any number of teams, called “Corners,” may play in a game. Each team is allowed four throws per round. A “Marker” stands at the end of the track and marks the distance the stick travels down the track. To win a game a team must acquire four points. A point is awarded to the Corner whose stick travels the farthest per round. A second point is awarded if the same Corner has the second farthest stick. A “GameOut” is called if the same team has all four sticks in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th places in the same round. To make the tournaments more interesting, each team might bet some money and the winning Corner takes all. For information on Snowsnake programs, contact Fred Kennedy (716) 532-5644, email@example.com.
Ganondagan has an extensive network of trails to explore and it’s a hub leading to other trails. Take along a copy of “Take A Hike – Family Walks in New York’s Finger Lakes Region” so you don’t get lost. From Ganondagan you can hike to The Apple Farm, to Fort Hill, to Dryer Road Park, and to Fishers firehall via the Seneca Trail.
by Sue Freeman