I have lived in Alaska for about 16 years. In that quarter of my life I have mushed dogs for many practical purposes. As a young man I often saw pictures of dog sleds and dog teams in the history books at the library. Living in Iowa in my youth, dog sledding was a bizzare oddity, but at the same time facinating to my young imagination. "Someday," I thought, "I will move to Alaska, live in the wilderness and have a sled dog team."
Many years later the thought became reality after I moved to Alaska. When I got my first few dogs(I started with three), I was a little unsure of what I could expect. Like many people unfamiliar with dog sledding, I thought that perhaps it was cruel or too demanding to expect a dog to pull a heavy load in a sled. I was timid about how much cargo to put in the sled, and how far I would take the dogs. This is a common notion among the neophytes of the dog world; that working a dog is some sort of animal abuse. But very early on the dogs taught me this was silly.
One of my earliest dogs was a pure white Great
Pyrenees/Malamute hybrid. At a mere 6 months old he was already about 65-80 pounds and very strong. He was also a very good gaurd dog(pure bred Malamutes are notorius for being lousy gaurd dogs). More pertinent to our point, he was an eager and powerful draft dog. At that young age he was already working in the harness, and could pull my whole family(wife and four children) in a sled around the yard. I estimate that it was about 300 pounds of human weight and another 40 pounds of winter clothing. That is about 3-4 times the weight of the dog. That was probably the upper limit of his comfortable capablities, but 100-150 pounds would have been a load that he could do for several miles.
That winter I hauled enough firewood to heat our newly built cabin, with only two, first year Malamute hybrids. In particular, my male Malamute hybrid often worked alone with me, for his sister was fat with pups that winter. That winter taught me that not only can a draft dog work and pull heavy loads, but they also really want to work. It is a deeply rooted ge-
netic disposition in Northern sled dogs. If you leave a sick or old dog behind when leaving with other dogs by sled, the left behind dogs moan and squeel with remorse that they are not included. A sled dog left behind chronically becomes a depressed dog. They love to travel
and love working as a team.
Let us consider the practical side of dog sledding, and a draft dog in general. Why use dogs, rather than donkeys or horses? To answer that question simply read the history of the Deadhorse Trail in Alaska. Deadhorse was a trail through the mountians near Skagway Alaska, famous for dead horses and donkeys during the gold rush days. Most green horn gold seekers were from the lower 48 states where the horse, donkey, or mule was the mainstay of draft animal work. They reasoned that what works in Kentucky or California will work in the Arctic North. In the mountain pass there was no pasture; and even if their was, the ground is bound up in snow and ice at least 6 months out of the year. Soon there were piles of dead horse and mules frozen beside the trail, as thousands of gold seekers trudged North to the gold fields of their dreams. As in many things Alaskan, dreams can turn into nighmares, as it did for those many fine horses and mules. So the trail was called Deadhorse Trail. Today it is called the, "White Pass."
This famous anecdote of Alaskan oddity quickly created a new demand for dogs. The demand was so high that in the ports with Alaska bound ships, no loose dog was safe. A thriving trade in catching stray and loose dogs(and the occasional dog theft)blossomed. The green horns were now needing dogs to pull sleds of mining gear and the grubsteak... by the thousands. In this time period a revival of the draft dog created new strains of sled dogs. To satisfy the sudden demand, just about every breed imaginable was cross bred with available Northern sled dogs to make more puppies. Obviously, many resulting dogs were not fit for service, much like the fellow who tried to run the Iditorad sled dog race with a team of large poodles. But in the long run those cross breeds that worked out well went on to provide breeding stock for about a hundred years of draft quality sled dogs.
From this bit of history we can learn reasons for using dogs to pull loads, rather than horses. Dogs were winter hardy, could be fed from the resources of the land and operate on trails too narrow for horses or oxen. Dogs were typically fed dried and frozen fish, which is abundant in the wilderness of Alaska. And the occasional wolf killed moose or cariboo could be used. Many trappers who used dog teams, fed them the carcasses of their skinned trapline bounty, such as beaver and martin.
Another added advantage of the sled dog is that in remote regions they are a natural alarm system. Bears and wolves commonly prowled near camp, and were a constant worry to those who lived in remote Alaska. Bear attacks were common enough to make it a reasonable fear while working in the wilderness. With a dog team always nearby, it became impossible for a bear to invade camp without an early warning from hysterically barking dogs. This often gave enough time for the master to find his weapon and dispatch the offending intruder.
One aspect of the sled dog often overlooked is the common use of just one or two dogs by the old timers in the gold fields. We often think of large dog teams when sled dogs are mentioned. But for many it was more practical to have just a few. Older native Athabascans described to me their fathers' dog teams of never more than 7, often only 6 dogs. The cost of feeding was the main consideration. According to ethnological reasearch, the average Athabascan hunter possessed about 2-3 dogs in the earliest contact with non-native visitors. And many of the old sourdough miners thought the same number was adequate for their needs. They only traveled to trading posts and general stores to replenish supplies and put their gold earnings in savings; so travel by dog was not the daily chore that it was for a professional trapper or mail carrier. At my peak I had 13 dogs, but now I have about 4 sled dogs.
One might say, "That sounds great... at least for winter when you can use a sled." But what about the warm months? A sled generally operates best with snow and ice, reducing friction on the sled runners. In summer the marshes, muskeg and bogs leave no place for a sled to operate. It was the custom for thousands of years among Athabascans, Eskimos, and even native tribes of the lower 48 states to use dogs as pack dogs. A back pack was made that fit perfectly on a good pack dog. A good dog could haul about 1/3rd of his weight long distance, 1/2 his weight on short trips. There was also the Travois, two poles straddling the dog and stretching a tarp or hide across it to tie down some cargo. The bottom ends of the poles would drag on the ground taking up 1/2 the weight of the load.
This crude but effective method was widely used in the lower 48 and Canada. It dramatically increased the productive power of dogs in warm months. Today one could make a two wheeled cart for a dog to pull a load, as was done for hundreds of years in Switzerland and other european nations. Even Rottweilers were used to pull carts in previous ages.
In our modern times there are an abundance of tools and options to maximize dogs useful abilities in the field. One does not require a large dog team to try sledding and draft work. I have many times used only one dog to haul smaller loads under 100 pounds. If one is only traveling a few miles into the wilderness a sled can double or tripple the amount of gear and grub one can take on a winter adventure. If you only have one or two dogs, you can still take full advantage of using a sled. If you have a husky or large dog, they will appreciate the chance to do something active and useful with their master.
In a survival situation, like the imagined catastrophes often entertained by preppers, a dog or two with a sled could make a big difference in being able to succeed in survival. This is especially true in the Northern parts of the world. A dog can carry bedding, canvass tent, camp stove, cooking gear, food, and basic camp tools like axe and saw in a sled. This frees the hiker to be ready with a gun to shoot any game they happen upon, and he has room in his own pack for other gear. This method was so common in wild America that it was almost univeral to have a dog around. It makes a nomadic lifstyle much more possible in comfort. From research about the Mammoth Dog, many archeologist suggest this practise is as old as hunting Mammoths and hauling the meat with dog power.
Once you have committed to the idea of dog sledding, you must then decide what kind of sled to use. Originally I first started with the cheap plastice play sleds children use. We hauled water jugs and groceries from the truck to the front door with one. Eventually we felt the need for a larger, stronger sled. So I built my first birch basket sled. A basket sled is a lightweight but strong frame built on a set of long, narrow runners. They are traditionally tied together rather than fastened with metal fasteners, for in deep cold metal becomes brittle. Basket sleds can haul as much cargo as you want, provided it is built as long as you need, and you have sufficient dog power. In deep snow a basket sled may get stuck, as the frame sinks deep enough to drag on the surface of the snow. Traditionally the musher would break trail ahead of the dog team by snowshowing a path. On hard packed trails a basket sled is like a rocket and travel is swift.
For deep powder snow a Toboggan sled was preferred. The Toboggan sled is simply a set of very thin planks steam bent into a curl in the front. The curl skips over the first encounter with snow and the sled rides over the snow rather than sinking in. I made two classical Toboggan sleds of birch. One was about ten feet long and only sank about an inch or two when fully loaded. Over time the birch plank bottom is polished by long use, making it very slick and friction free. In regions where snowfall is very deep this is the best sled option. On a hard pack trail they tend to slide sideways on turns, thus hard to control. For breaking fresh trail in deep snow powder a Toboggan sled is hard to beat.
The next sled option is the Ski Pulk. A Ski Pulk was traditionally used by Saammi Skiers for hunting and checking traplines by ski. It was most often harnessed to the s
kier's waist as he/she traveled by ski. It is similar to the principle of the Toboggan, having a flat bottom of thin planks. It differs from a Toboggan by a resemblance to a small boat. It is built curved in the front and has side boards angling outward to keep snow from falling into the cargo area. Sometimes a dog was employed to pull the Ski Pulk, and it is another excellent option for very deep snow. They will float very high on fresh deep snow. I often use my Pulk with one or two dogs. I really like the Pulk for hauling winter camping gear to camp for short distances of under 5 miles. Unlike a basket sled I normally do not ride as a passenger in a Pulk. I have used a pulk to give sled rides to my children, which they really enjoy.
Whatever sled you choose, adapt your choice to the conditions and needs of your particular situation. The price for a fully equiped basket sled with lines and harnesses can be very expensive. But for a beginner with just a few dogs, a Toboggan or Pulk may be more economical. Your winter world is enlarged when you begin the dog sledding life. You gain access to vast stretches of wilderness that cannot be reached quickly and easily any other way. Perhaps it is time for you to give dog sledding adventure a try.