SLED DOGS AS TRAPLINE TRANSPORTATION
The vision of the Northern trapline most often includes a team of sled dogs for transportation. But in modern Alaska, the dog team for trapline work is no longer common. Dog-mushing is more often recreation and very business-oriented competition. Yet, across Alaska, there are still trappers who drive dogs on their traplines.
Keeping a dogteam a big job anywhere. Here in the sub-Arctic it is also very expensive. The days of tossing a dried salmon to each dog daily are gone. Sled dog diets have changed dramatically. This is due primarily to advances in canine nutrition research, based on long-distance mushing (racing.) We have developed dogs and dog diets that can pull a loaded sled more than 100 miles a day. We have developed and trained sled dogs that travel at 10 to 15 miles per hour (on a packed trail) instead of slogging along at 3-6 mph as was the case 80 or 90 years ago.
Today’s trapline team may be fed a scientifically developed commercial dogfood, or perhaps an individually crafted and cooked ration of meat, fish, rice, butter and vitamins. The result is happier, healthier dogs that can accomplish a lot more than their ancestors did on dried fish!
Trappers who forsake modern mechanical transport and choose dogs, also have a different set of gear requirements. Dog houses instead of a shed. Dog feed instead of gas and oil. Sled bags, harnesses and stakeout and gang chains are the tools of the trade. And of course sleds.
There are two basic sled designs in use: basket and toboggan. Basket sleds are the traditional choice. They are normally constructed of wood and are very often tied together with cord or babiche rather than bolted.
The “basket” of a basket sled rides anywhere from 4 to 10 or 12 inches above the runners. On trails with packed surfaces, basket sleds excel. Team configuration for basket sleds is normally a series of pairs of sled dogs, with tuglines from the back of each harness being attached to a single “gangline” running from the sled up through the team. The team itself in this configuration, consists of a leader (lead dog) or leaders in the front, the “swing” dogs just behind the leaders and team dogs hooked in pairs behind them. In the “wheel” position, just ahead of the sled, are the heavy hitters of the team. The wheel dogs bear the brunt of determining where the sled and musher are pointed.
Toboggan-style dog sleds are the traditional sled of Northern Canada. The solid, wide bottom piece does have two primary attributes. First, flotation in new or deeper snow is better than with a basket sled. This design also allows the center-of-gravity of the load to ride lower.
Traditional toboggans featured a smooth bottom. Modern versions of this design, commonly made of plastic, may also feature “runners” that ride an inch or so below the bed. This runner allows the sled to track better. On a packed trail, it cuts down on friction and allows the toboggan to handle more like a basket sled.
While toboggan and basket sleds are common in wooded country, the discussion of dog sleds would not be complete without mentioning the big, heavy traditional sleds of the open, treeless country of the far north. The Inupiaq word for these behemoth freight haulers is komatik. Common in both coastal northern Canada and Alaska, the komatik is driven with a “fan” hitch of dogs, each with his own long tugline, several different lengths, running directly from the individual dog to the sled. Another interesting feature of the komatik is that it has no braking system!
The “huskies” tied in back yards across the Lower 48 bear little resemblance to the modern sled dogs of the North. They are bred for such characteristics as speed, strength, endurance, resistance to cold, compact feet (that don’t pick up snow or ice,) and even their willingness to eat and drink when tired. This is a function of the development of dogs for racing, both sprint and “distance.” Today’s sprint dogs are often only 30 to 35 lbs, but they can run at 15 mph. Distance dogs trot instead of loping, but they can keep the pace up for hours.
Leaders and swing dogs normally respond at least to verbal commands such as “Gee” and “Haw” (for turn Right, or Left.) “Whoa” is a handy command; normally one need only to release the snowhook and brake to gain forward motion, but a hearty “Hike” or “Get Up” will otherwise suffice. “Gee Over” indicate a gentle easing to the right, and “Haw Over” the opposite. “On By” indicates to your team that you want to pass something. “On By” is a particular useful command as you come to a set with a furbearer caught in one of your traps. Your objective here is to have the team travel past the set and not stop until you and your sled are actually at the set. It’s tempting for a young sled dog to investigate, for example, a lynx in a trap. Normally, after getting their nose sliced open by sharp claws, they learn to go “On By!”
While obviously “trail sets” are not an option when traveling a trapline by dog sled, there are some behavioral advantages to using dogs. This is particularly true when trapping wild canids. Any trapline trail can turn into a highway for furbearers, but one that is tracked up by a dogteam is especially interesting to wolves and coyotes. They will follow it for miles, where they might soon jump off a snowmachine track.
There are advantages and disadvantages to dogs vs snowmachines. The most obvious downside of using dogs is that they take 365 day a year care. A snowmachine can be put aside for the summer and brought out in the fall. Your dogs must be fed and watered daily and vet care administered when necessary.
Snowmachines are vulnerable to mechanical problems. When its cold, or you have some mechanical malfunction, a snowmachine can easily let you down. But as any snowmachiner will remind you, if you fall off your machine, it normally does not run home without you!
Trapping with dogs is a quiet enterprise, compared to riding a snowmachine. It is much more peaceful when the only sound is the squeak of the runners across the snow and the panting of the hard-working dogs. You do not get as cold as you do on a snow machine.
One huge advantage to using a dog team is that your dogs are in front of you on the trail. If trail condition get unsafe, such as with thin ice, if your front dogs run into trouble, you normally have time to stop before YOU get to the problem spot.
Most trappers who have engaged in this common debate usually end up agreeing that it depends on your personal preference. I don’t trap as regularly as I used to and I am sometimes away from home quite a bit. I cannot justify owning a dogteam any more.
But I must admit, I really miss it!
Pete Buist has trapped in Alaska for 40 years. He is a past President of the Alaska Trappers Association.