In previous articles and videos I have shown the Ski-pulk as another option for dog travel in winter. Here in Alaska, dog sledding is one of our state's claims to fame. We have two of the longest dogsled races in the world, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Having lived in Alaska for 17 years, particularly in the vicinity around Nenana, I have neighbors who have run these two great races. Nenana boasts of being the home of more than one mushing champion over the years.
I came to Alaska 17 years ago looking for a more simple, back to nature subsistence lifestyle. Dog sledding had a certain primal appeal that captured my imagination, and I quickly took up the practice of using dogs to pull a sled. Typically, a racing musher uses up to 16 dogs for long distance. In the preceding century, when people still used dog teams to actually get some work done, a team of 7 to 10 was common. I have been told that Joe Reddington sometimes used up to 100 dogs to haul out crashed airplanes on large sledges he constructed at the crash sight, as a source of income. But for most people, feeding and housing large teams of dogs is impractical today.
Today, a full mushing team is a large budget item for a musher. They are most often fed dog food shipped up from the lower48 at great expense. In aboriginal times, when Athabaskan natives traveled the frozen forests and tundra, it was difficult if not impossible to keep such large teams; until the European fur trade brought a new economic situation for these hardy people. A stone age Athabaskan was unlikely to ever have more than 3 dogs. Yet at times he needed a draft animal, and the dog was the only thing available.
The Sami of Scandinavia and North Western Russian had similar challenges. They often used reindeer to pull sleds, but in tough times their hunting/herding dogs were put to work for the same task. Many Northern tribes of boreal Canada also pulled toboggans with dogs, leading them with snow shoes to break trail.
I have used a basket sled for years. I made a very fine 10 foot birch toboggan many years ago and it was handy. But by far the Ski pulk, or Akkja seems to be the most handy sled that I have found for hauling with just one or two dogs. Unlike a toboggan, it has sides like a boat, but still floats high on the powder snows like a toboggan sled. It does not bog down in deep off trail snows, if one leaves the beaten (sled packed) trail. When a traditional basket sled is loaded down heavy in deep snows, the musher has to often go ahead of the dog team on snow shoes to bust trail for the dogs and sled; for the cross pieces that support the basket of the sled can grab on deep snow to make a lot of resistance.
A toboggan solves such a problem, but typically do not have sides that prevent loss of cargo on fast turns. The Ski-pulk, or Akkja solves all these problems.
I have used this traditional method of the Lapps to haul many loads for winter camping, checking short trap lines (short by Alaskan standards is less than 50 miles), and hauling out winter game harvested from a ski hunt. I think the greatest advantage to an average outdoor Alaskan, is that one only needs one to three dogs to make the pulk travel, and haul a sizable payload of gear. I have had a 7 month old dog successfully haul a 90 pound load (my three younger daughters) easily on a 4 mile winter trek. At a ratio of 90 pounds per dog, two dogs offers the potential to haul 180 pounds, and three could haul 270. If one skis ahead of the dogs to make a track to follow, a fellow with three dogs could cover many miles to check a trap line, without busting his bank account feeding a large team.
Another benefit of this design is its narrowing prow, like a viking ship plowing through the seas, it parts brush and fluffy snows. This type of sled is made much like a Scandinavian wooden boat, with a sharp, narrow, upturned front. This gives it the ability to navigate in thick forest, slipping between tree trunks and brush; whereas a flat faced toboggan can be destroyed easily in a collision with trees.
Here is a museum sample of the prow of one here, thanks the Norsk Folk Museum in Oslo, Norway.
As you can see in the construction, the prow is very thick, front to back, making it resistant to damage from impacts. This will slip through brush easily, and makes it possible to go on very narrow trails.
Another feature that is possible is to make a wooden lid that can be hinged or tied down on top, thus making a sealed container out of a sled.
Towards the end of their popular use, the Akkja was fastened together with iron, bronze or copper rivets, much like wooden boats of the time. But in the remote reaches of northern forests, such a sled could be held together with rawhide bindings as in this sample bellow...
If one looks close enough you can see the back wooden rear is reinforced with a rawhide binding to hold it on, as are the side boards when they meet with the narrow center prow.
Another feature that is noteworthy are the holes that are bored along the top edge of the sides. These holes were for placing loops that a rope would lash through for tying down the load. Typically a tanned reindeer hide was the lid of the Akkja, tied down with a rawhide rope treated with pine tar. If it was used on a hunt, the meat would be placed in a pad of willows or grass in the bottom, then covered with the flesh side of the reindeer hide, and finally tied down.
There are many old black and white illustrations depicting Lapp children and women being pulled along in the Akkja, covered with reindeer skin blankets and other insulation.
I plan to make many more of these sleds for my future winter trekking with dogs. Hopefully we can make some documentary videos to show the full potential of this very old winter travel tool.
One final thought I might add is that it is sustainable. Like the people who used Akkja many years ago, I want to have a sled design that I can make with materials on hand, and repair with what is locally available. This sled can be made from birch, or conifer timber available any where in the boreal forests of the North. Although power tools may make construction easier, it is very well within the abilities of a handyman having only an axe, a hand powered swede saw, carving knife, and a plane. It could be held together with any kind of nail with a head, or even tied together with rawhide bindings, such as traditional Inuit sleds in the arctic. It is sustainable, independent, economical, practical and beautiful.
If interested check back later this winter and I may have a few extra available.