Commentary: Choppers perfect fit

Mitts in Minnesota mandatory
By Sam Cook - Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune
Sunday, February 20, 2005

I hated to do it.

But I knew, going into this winter, that I had to replace my choppers.

My old ones were at least 15 years old, maybe 20. They were weather-beaten and rough.

The outsides were the color of smoked herring. The moosehide in the palms was wearing thin. In a couple of places, the leather had torn, leaving small holes.

They had been given to me by a friend at Christmas long ago, a guy who knew that every Minnesotan ought to have a pair of choppers. I would like to say I know the complete history of choppers, but I don't.

I imagine they grew out of the logging era in the north woods, when men worked outside all winter, cutting trees by hand.

I thought I could Google up a history of choppers, this being the era when every bit of information known to man is online somewhere. But if you do a Google search for "choppers," you'll learn only about motorcycles. In a more specific search, I found that "chopper's mittens" were listed among items for sale in the 1902 Sears catalog. I found no other historical references to choppers.

That's OK. Everything I need to know about choppers, I've learned by wearing them in the past couple of decades. Gloves and mitts have become very high-tech during that time, and there's certainly a place for those with Thinsulate and Primaloft and other synthetic insulation.

But choppers remain the perfect mitt for much of what we do here in a northern winter. The leather is tough enough and grippy enough for most work, and supple enough to offer moderate dexterity.

Mine are lined with two layers of wool mitts, handmade by a friend. Wool remains an excellent insulator. Most of the moisture from perspiration passes through the wool and the leather, but if the mitts do get damp, you simply pull out the liners and dry the whole works over a woodstove or a radiator.

So, I asked for new choppers at Christmas, and I got them. They are the same kind as my last ones, made by Henry at Henry's Shoe Repair in Ely, from the hide of a moose.

They came as I knew they would, creamy yellow and just a bit on the stiff side. I'm happy to say they're already well broken-in, soft and pliable, though still a little on the clean side. They'll be making a winter camping trip soon, however, and I hope they come back looking more seasoned. I kept the same wool liners and just transferred them to the new leather mitts. If this set lasts as well as the last ones, I should be needing a new pair when I'm about 75 or 80. I hope Henry's still around.


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