NINE DOG WINTER
See some of the diagrams from the appendix on building your own freight toboggan...
See photos of some old-time mounted police dog teams...
And read Chapter 12 of Nine Dog Winter -- an exciting account of the first trip using a brand new toboggan -- with a brand new musher... Hang on to your toque!
In this 1930s photo, North West Mounted Police Constable Arthur Thornthwaite mushes his dogs up a ramp from the river. One dog's tail is held high -- an indication that husky is not pulling his hardest. [photo courtesy A.B. Thornthwaite Collection, Yukon Archives]
Two mounted police patrol teams on the Yukon ice below Dawson, preparing for a patrol to Fort McPherson in the North West Territories. Note the dogs in tandem freight harnessing and the lack of backboard and handlebars on the toboggans. [photo courtesy Glenbow Museum]
(photo = Bruce with dog team on the old Dawson Stage Road, near the headwaters of Black Creek. Jon Rudolph's Iskut is leader; Casey is second.)
A FIRST RIDE TO REMEMBER
For the first road test of the new toboggan, I chose the trail so familiar to my four dogs. Casey, Lucky, Mutt and Loki were conscripted to pull me to the truck parked back in the farmyard to fetch yet another load of dog food. On each previous freight trip I had tried out one of Marsha's five dogs, to get an idea of individual potential. This was neither adequate training nor sufficient exercise for her squad, and each was clearly anxious to show his or her stuff today. Leaving the dog lot, with Tyhee along with us for her trial, we were serenaded for the first half-hour by the echoing wails and indignant howling of her frustrated team-mates.
Soon we were up the long hill and into the peaceful plateau forest. Winding through the frozen swamps and meadows, the toboggan undulated over the mounds of muskeg like a snake slithering over rocks. Its flexibility on corners was somewhat unsettling to me after being accustomed to the stiffness of the shorter kid's toboggan. But most surprising was the speed of the huge vehicle: with its white synthetic base, there was virtually no friction on the packed trail. I had to be alert on the brake to save wheel dog Loki the indignity of being overtaken.
Tyhee was excited and curious at every bend. Her long nose sniffed the air and the bushes flashing by, and -- more than once -- she got wacked by a branch when not looking ahead. During the run, I was encouraging her to pay attention to pulling though I didn't want to spoil her enthusiasm. She had lots of spunk compared to the others who were accustomed to this route and the slow, heavily laden return trips in the late afternoon twilight.
By the end of the day, I had made a mental list of improvements for this toboggan and its soon-to-be-built sister craft. The screws holding the backboard hinges were working loose and should be replaced by bolts with lock-washers on the nuts. The light strap hinges fastening the handlebars were too flimsy to withstand the strains when I leaned heavily to wrestle us around tight corners. Already one hinge was bent and it would only be a matter of time before it cracked and broke. If we didn't have any heavier hinges at the cabin, I could forge metal brackets to hold these points. Exactly when I would get around to doing all these little tune-ups would, of course, depend on what else had to be done sooner. It had been a long time since I'd felt there was nothing to do. Six months ago, this life had been a romantic dream; now, in December, it was an amazing though exhausting reality.
As the familiar scenery slipped by heading back towards Horsefall, I strained my eyes for signs of moose or caribou. There were a few weeks left for Don to hunt on his trapper's extended license, and I wanted desperately to locate some meat for him to shoot. But there was not a hint of activity on this trail; we would have to go much further afield if we were to dine on game meat this winter.
When I pulled into the dog lot again, Marsha's crew kicked up a pitiful racket. Marsha herself looked rather envious as I handed over letters and passed on various bits of gossip from the farm.
"How about we go tomorrow for a run, taking all your dogs, and you can be the musher?" I suggested. "I'll help you get started. You've got to try driving the dogs sometime."
Shortly after noon the following day, we tied the toboggan's gee-line to a stout poplar and laid out five harnesses. The leader's collar was roped ahead to another tree so the crew would be held in line until all was ready. With the temperature hovering at Thirty-Eight Below, we hoped to minimize the time spent with mitts off handling metal clips. It was so cold the snow squeaked and felt like beach sand beneath our moccasins.
The dogs wouldn't cooperate. Dawson kept turning in circles and rolling over. He even did a headfirst somersault in his harness to show his exuberance. Peter -- who used to be Peggy -- was hooked up in front because the Hagers had said he was a leader. When I checked him out in lead on a trip to the farm, he had proven too cautious, possibly because of his fear of the bigger dogs behind him. We hoped he'd do better today with this smaller crew supporting him.
Tyhee rose up and clubbed with both paws any person or dog that passed. Her wiener-tail was swishing back and forth like an errant windshield wiper. The long nose was hard at work sniffing high and low and where it was none of her business.
Jeff tried to fight with Dawson, but we yanked them apart before they'd passed the bared fangs stage. In frustration, Jeff sank his teeth into his traces as soon as he was harnessed. Just as quickly, he felt on his ears the wrath of the fellow who'd stitched that harness. Wide-eyed and quivering, he crouched in anticipation of more fun.
Big shaggy Hinglish, at wheel, was vibrating with excitement and jerking mightily forward, backward and sideways, eager to go, and not too choosy about direction.
I was merrily explaining my theories to Marsha as we struggled with each frantic canine, but she was far too nervous to reply. The gravity of the situation was showing on her usually gay countenance -- she was biting her lower lip and her brow was furrowed in concentration. Her moment of truth was nigh.
Keeping all five mutts facing front, with all limbs in proper locations inside the traces, was like juggling boomerangs. Their energy might have been fun for us too, if it hadn't been so cold that we wanted to be mushing rather than harnessing. We had to box ears all around before they settled down enough so we could consider leaving.
It was quickly agreed I should drive them out of the yard. Marsha held Peter and ran with him for the first ten steps, then let go and stepped aside. He abruptly turned and followed her off the trail while the others piled up behind. What a mess.
After a session of untangling, we tried again and this time it worked! I had both feet on the brake to slow us down while Marsha leapt aboard. Then it was full speed ahead, snow flying, dogs sprinting for the hill, the toboggan careening off the willows lining the trail. A flow of power -- very raw energy -- jerked on the toboggan as the dogs scrambled around corners and surged into the straightaways. The force of acceleration left me gasping, my lungs full of frozen air.
Whenever we halted for a dog to relieve himself, Marsha would run forward and straighten out any tangles, pat their heads and point Peter in the right direction. They pulled us easily up the steepest hill -- something my four dogs had never done -- and we turned onto the Black Creek trail.
On this level pathway the crew really picked up speed. Marsha was crouched on the toboggan in the basket observing all this from close to ground-level.
"Do they always go this fast?" she called over the rasping noise of the toboggan grinding over dry snow. "This is so scary. It seems like ninety miles per hour from here!"
"It would be great if they always would," I hollered at her hood-covered ear. "I could be at the farm in under an hour."
I was too busy steering, braking and leaning out to the side to think about being fearful. Only a few strategically-placed snow banks and tilted snowmobile ruts kept us on the trail. Huge trees slid by only inches from us. I crouched behind the backboard to miss low branches that would slap the handlebars and be swung up to stomach level.
Then Peter saw a rabbit dart across the trail -- and abruptly dove into a willow thicket in hot pursuit. Dawson followed, but chose a slightly different route. The rest collided with a tree and were, in turn, run over by the toboggan.
We seized this opportunity to reorganize them a bit, switching Hinglish up behind Peter. We also switched mushers.
With a casual your turn, I climbed into the basket and braced myself. Marsha said nothing, but I knew she was struggling to find courage to go through with the job. Here was her big chance.
"Are you ready?" she finally whispered to me.
"Yep. Let's go before they get tangled again," I whispered in reply.
"Okay!" she yelled. "Let's GO!"
The dogs took off, running like there was no tomorrow. The toboggan was literally flying at times. As we caromed down the tunnel of giant poplars, the sun flashed between the trees at us like a strobe light. I felt as if I was part of an early vintage movie, every movement choppy and surreal.
Displaying great bravado, we yeehawed like a couple of rodeo cowboys. Marsha shouted, while ducking for a low branch, that it seemed so easy, exciting and wonderful. She especially liked being up here on the higher ground where the sunshine wasn't being blocked by low hills and valley walls.
Meanwhile, my adrenaline was flowing and my heart ready to burst: the view -- from dog level -- was absolutely terrifying. The trail here was only a snowmobile's width across. We were barely missing huge trees. Monstrous cottonwoods loomed up on me, and were fended off by the handlebars. I couldn't stop myself from trying to steer from inside the basket, by leaning and dragging my hands in the snow, even though I knew how easily an arm could be broken if brushed by a tree. I told myself this again and again, but it was hard to just sit in that little cage and brace myself for the seemingly-inevitable crash.
These dogs hadn't been off their chains much for weeks so it took ages before they finally slowed to a walk. As a neurotic basket case, I wasn't disappointed when they did. I was so frazzled from the wild ride I wasn't even cold. After a brief stop to sort out a rabbit-inspired tangle, we headed for home very pleased. I was hopeful we'd be able to finish in good style so as to set a positive tone for this team. We were now planning to use this squad to inspire mine into running more often. A touch of competition would do my plodders a world of good.
However the dogs only ran for a moment before they slowed again to a walk. They were no longer interested in pulling. Instead five pairs of eyes were scanning the bushes for bunnies.
At the top of the steep descent down the Horsefall Creek ravine, we switched places so I'd be steering down this tricky stretch. From a mile away and five hundred feet below us in elevation, we could plainly hear the howling of the other four dogs. The chorus leader, sounding dreadfully wronged, was unmistakably Casey. Marsha's team perked up their ears at the racket and eagerly leaned into their harnesses once again.
"Are you ready?" I whispered to Marsha.
"Are you on the brake?" she replied.
"It'll be okay," I said. "Don't worry. Just keep your arms and legs in and you can't get hurt."
I'd almost finished saying that when the dogs bolted forward and tore off down the hill. I held white-knuckled onto the handlebars and stood fully on the brake. Like a plough, it carved a neat furrow in the trail -- but we weren't slowing down.
To reassure Marsha, I yelled a few halfhearted yeehaws as if I were in full control of this rollercoaster ride. I crouched low and leaned way out to the side, steering like a motorcycle sidecar rider. It was exciting and I was happy to see the team running again.
Glancing back, Marsha called, "Are you on the brake? ARE YOU ON THE BRAKE?"
"Yes. Yes. It's okay. Keep your arms and feet in."
And we kept gaining speed...
Though the toboggan was squeaking and groaning, and the dogs' feet sounded like thunder, I was able to hear an alarming cracking noise which cut through the din like a scratch on a record. As we rounded a corner, I was leaning, using all my weight to keep up high on the inside rut, when one of the handlebars broke away from the toboggan. A split-second later, the unbraced backboard tore from its other moorings and flopped into my hands. With the strangest, dream-like sensation, I toppled backwards, tumbling and rolling, catching glimpses of sky, trees, snow -- and then of the dismembered toboggan heading for a tree.
For the whole descent, Marsha had been thoroughly terrified. As trees whizzed by, she could only brace herself. She had faith in my driving, though, and thought we would make it safely to the bottom.
As the toboggan neared a sharp bend in the trail, one giant spruce was looming closer and closer. She waited for me to steer. She waited as that spruce got bigger and bigger. She was shouting, "Bruce! TURN!" as the crash happened.
Marsha felt the toboggan breaking under her and saw all the dogs arrested in mid-stride by the tremendous jerk, then watched them fall on their faces. She herself had been pitched sharply forward, then slammed back down by the impact. Only at that point did she glance back and realize there were neither handlebars nor backboard behind her. And no driver!
The dogs picked themselves up and started yanking on their traces. Slowly the crippled toboggan started moving again, heading off downhill. Marsha dug in her heels as brakes on either side, fighting for control.
"Whoa! WHOA, WHOA!" she called to the dogs who -- amazingly -- did stop. They halted mostly though because they were tangled. Some were turned around, some pointed ahead, all a little dazed. Marsha was saying reassuring words to them when I arrived, carrying the missing toboggan parts.
"What happened to you?" she asked.
"I fell off when everything broke apart," I said sheepishly. "I guess those hinges weren't strong enough to hold the handlebars."
"Are you okay?"
"Me? Oh, I'm fine. How about you?"
"My bum aches but I think everything still works," she said.
Around her feet, the dogs were all wagging, so they couldn't have been too badly done by. The toboggan had one smashed board and a cracked crossbar, not to mention the missing backboard and brake. A day's carpentry work would put that right.
We still had to get us all home. Our first plan was for me to walk and hold a rope to slow us down, while Marsha braked with her feet. But the dogs were too strong for that.
Next, Marsha walked beside Peter to hold him to a calm speed. However I couldn't hold the other four back, and they eagerly dogpiled onto Peter. The toboggan ran over wheel dog Jeff, who was taking this all rather well, considering the number of times it had happened.
Tyhee, being the only female, wouldn't fight so we released her to lessen the numbers. This created instant mayhem as the others sprang to life and struggled to get free. Marsha volunteered to walk two of the remaining four down the hill, leaving me to bring on the toboggan and two very upset dogs.
I waited until Marsha was out of sight before trying my descent. Jeff and Dawson were frantic to go. I held the gee-line and hauled back to keep them to a safe pace. The resistance made them pull harder.
Up ahead, Marsha was getting tugged along at an unsettling rate, so she sat down. She was dragged in that posture over a couple of rude bumps before she managed to trip up her two escorts and have a chance to reassess her position. Before she came to any conclusions though, she heard a clattering from uphill and hauled Hinglish and Peter off the trail. Then she turned to see Dawson and Jeff barrelling down on her, toboggan flapping behind and no driver -- once again. I was twenty yards behind, running and shouting and holding a length of rope in my hand.
Marsha sidestepped Dawson and grabbed his traces. She wasn't fast enough to also dodge Jeff though -- the toboggan ploughed into the poor Siberian and then knocked them all over like so many bowling pins.
Now she had five very excited dogs wrapped around her. She was trying to keep them all apart though they were knotted together by their harnesses. Four of them were growling fiercely while Tyhee was right in the middle, wagging her tail and licking faces.
"It's okay! It's OKAY!" she shouted. "Calm down. Calm DOWN! Hey, cut that out! Be nice, PLEASE!"
When I finally caught up, we were able to untangle the crew without ruffling too many feathers, and averted the pending free-for-all. Since Peter and Hinglish hadn't fought on their stroll with Marsha, we gambled and set them free to run ahead with Tyhee. Marsha walked Dawson home, although it looked the other way around. Then Jeff and I hauled the toboggan, this time with my rope more securely tied.
At last our luck came through: there were no fights in progress when we arrived at the dog lot ten minutes later. One by one we cornered the loose dogs and marched them to their chains. Hooking them seemed to take forever. It was getting fairly dark and our cold fingers were clumsy from numbness. Finally, when nine pairs of eyes were next to their proper trees, we switched off the flashlight and retreated inside, shivering from chills and exhaustion. The toboggan and harnesses could stay where they lay until morning.
We flopped on the bed and lay there for a long while without talking. When she rolled over onto her back, Marsha let out a loud OUCH, discovering three distinct holes in her buttocks, red and welted.
"When you're fixing the toboggan," she said, rubbing and wincing, "don't forget to hacksaw off the bolt ends sticking up from the crossbars!"
I got up, stoked the airtight and then crawled back onto the bed.
There was no sign of life from the other occupant -- I wasn't sure she was still awake.
Gently I whispered, "Congratulations, Marsha! How do you like being a dog musher?"
"It's a pain in the butt," she muttered.
"It's NOT funny," she said. "This really hurts."
There was a pause, then she started chuckling too.
(end of Chapter 12 of Nine Dog Winter, copyright Bruce T. Batchelor)
(photo = Marsha with sled dog / pet Tyhee in the autumn at Teslin Lake.)
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