Snowshoe racers from all over the world are competing in Saranac Lake right now, and that has me thinking of an athlete in Canada’s past who became somewhat of a celebrity for his ability to run long distances on snowshoes. Frank Hoey (pronounced “Hoy”), was born in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Canada and settled in Montreal.
In his late 20s and early 30s, Frank Hoey became celebrated on the sports pages as a marathon snowshoe racer. Canadians, traditionally and stereotypically are hockey fans, and most people would associate sports in 1920s Montreal with Les Canadiens or The Maroons—the city’s other NHL team that was more popular with English-speaking fans. But, when Frank Hoey strapped on his snowshoes, the crowds went wild.
A few years ago, I found a sketched poster of him for sale on eBay that had been published by a Montreal newspaper for fans to keep as a souvenir. In 1931, Frank Hoey won a snowshoe race between Quebec City and Montreal. In the days before sports were shown on television, scenes from the 26-hour, 200 mile race were captured on film for newsreels that were shown in theaters before movies. It was a challenging race, competitor Joey Ray completed it with his face entirely bandaged except for holes to see and breathe because he had developed frostbite. There are scenes of racers running on big, old fashioned wood and sinew snowshoes, through knee-deep snow along the narrow two-lane highway that connected Montreal and Quebec City in those days. Frank Hoey ran across the finish line with the surrounding crowd cheering. He won $2,500.
It’s no surprise that Frank Hoey’s athleticism served him well in his later career as a prospector. He traveled all over Canada exploring and discovering mineral deposits, including a major uranium one in eastern Quebec during the 1960s.
Frank never lost his Scottish accent, even though he’d spent most of his life in Canada. The snowshoes, the prospecting, and stories of wilderness exploration made him a sort of latter-day Robert Service, the poet who famously wrote of the Klondike gold rush.
I never knew Frank until after he “retired” at age 77, in 1977, when he and his wife Frances became next door neighbors to my parents in Frankford, Ontario. We had a big yard, nearly one acre, and I spent a lot of time outside playing when I was small. I visited with Frank by the gate in our fence all the time. I used to watch him and “Franny” come and go in their red Ford Fairmont. I knew that he had been a prospector–in fact, it was because of him I learned what a prospector is, but he never talked about his past as a snowshoe celebrity. I didn’t find that out until I read his obituary when he died in 2002, at age 102.