Almost Intelligent

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Almost Intelligent Goes North- All About Sled Dogs

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Sled dogs are no longer the main form of transportation in the North. Like draught animals elsewhere in the developed world, they have become a form of recreation, a hobby. For anyone with the time or inclination, they are still one of the best ways to get around the back country in the Yukon. Last weekend I had a chance to go on a four-day trip with my girlfriend Sarah, her father David, and sixteen sled dogs (see the end of the story for a list of names.) This is a primer on dogs and dog-driving, without which the rest of the story won’t make much sense.

Many people (myself included, prior to meeting them), seem to think that because sled dogs aren’t pets, they must not be particularly nice. In the case of David’s dogs that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The are friendly, adorable, and in some cases utterly filthy. As David explained, there’s no advantage to be gained by having viciously-tempered dogs, because all you do is increase the risk of injury to yourself and the dogs.

David’s dogyard has twenty-one dogs in it and is surrounded by 6-foot high wire fencing. Each dog has a chain on a swivel, and its own doghouse. There was a time when the chicken wire wasn’t there. That was before wolves took two dogs some years back. The main pen is subdivided into two sections, one for the boys, another for the girls. If you don’t know why that is necessary, go ask your parents.

There is something funny about things that exist in the public imagination. They get frozen in a perpetual golden age, where it’s always thirty years ago. This is partly due to nostalgia. It is also partly due to the fact that there are too many damn things, and not enough time to constantly update our mental images of them. Dogsleds are one of these things. If I asked you to think of a dogsled, you’d probably come up with a wood-frame sled held together with sinew and rope. As is usually the case, dogsleds are significantly modern.

A fully-loaded modern dog sled. Note the lack of sinews.

A modern dogsled might have wooden runner-frames, but the runners and bed are plastic, while sections of the structure are fashioned from hollow metal. The overall shape is similar to what you might expect, long, low front with a circular “brushbow” for deflecting things away from the sled (or the sled away from things), curving up to a the handle or “steering bow.”

The system by which the dogs are attached to the sled is somewhat complex. Thanks to Sarah Murray for providing me with the following description:

The lines are attached to a “bridle” in front of the sled which centres the lines so that they are pulling evenly on both sides of the sled (Colin’s Note: Otherwise the sled flips, and if I have to tell you why that’s bad, you’re not allowed to be reading this). Attached to the bridle is the “gangline.” While you are standing on the back of the sled, the gangline looks like a single cord running down the centre length of the dog team. In fact, it is broken up into sections and each section can hold two dogs.

Two 3-4 foot “tuglines” project from the back of each section of gangline. The tugline is attached to the back of a dog’s harness. From the front of a section of gangline, two necklines project which clip onto the dogs’ collars, thus holding the dogs at the front and the back. They actually pull on the tugline, whereas the neckline keeps the dogs in line, and is used for balance when they are running hard. The dogs are not pulling from their necks, the harness actually puts the pressure on the chest and shoulders.

These are the dog harnesses. They allow the dogs to pull more comfortably and efficiently.

You can theoretically have as many gangline sections as you want, with 2 dogs per section. At the front of the line you will find the leaders. They are not attached via a gangline section. The leaders are attached on a “double-leader” which is basically two tuglines that branch off the single stem of the gangline, so the lead pair can run unencumbered. To keep them aligned, there is a neck line that goes from collar-to-collar on the lead pair.

There are four main kinds of pairing, wheel, swing, leader and team.

The closest two dogs to the sled are called the “wheel pair,” because they are the basic motor for the sled. These dogs need to pull hard, and are generally larger, and are most responsible for getting the sled around corners. Because a gangline tends to cut the corner (the sled is several feet behind the leader, imagine a circle with a line drawn inside it between two points), the wheeldogs have to pull around the corner, so that neither they nor the sled crash into a tree. Contrary to stereotype, a good wheeldog tends to be smart, it’s how they stay alive.

Swing dogs are behind the leaders, and it is often to have former, or up-and-coming leaders in this position, because many dogs find it frightening to be this close to the front of the team. Swing requires a willing dog. They are responsible for getting the team smoothly around corners, maintaining a smooth arc.

Leaders are in front and they are the brains of the team. Ideally the team will follow the mushers verbal commands. The common commands are “Let’s go”(Mush, Hike, Okay) “Haw”(left), “Gee”(right) “Whoah”(stop). Other less-used commands are “On-by”(for going past another team on the trail) and “straight ahead” (for ignoring other distractions). Some mushers will have individualized commands, but these are the most common. Leaders can be smaller than other dogs. Dogs often don’t want to lead. It is important to find a proper leader, since this is a very stressful position. A dog unsuited to the post will often either not run or develop symptoms of stress, like lick-spots.

Team dogs are any pairs that are not leader, swing or wheel. They are numbered starting with the first two behind the leader as first team, second team, third team etc. The team immediately in front of the wheel dogs is called “last team.” Team dogs provide extra pulling power.

This is the team that I had, and it gives you a good look at the lines. The teams are, starting in the foreground, wheel, last team, swing and lead. And if you have a dog-bum fetish this is is your lucky day!(Also your computer's IP address has been sent to the police. They're at your door as we speak, you sick fuck.)

Sarah’s description points out another key thing about sled dogs, personality matters. You can’t just slot a dog in to any position and expect it to work out. The first time I went dogsledding I was worried about directing the dogs. It turns out, they do most of the work themselves. Sled dogs instinctively want to run, and to keep to the trail. For my part, I was always following David, who was driving a sled in front of me. All I had to do was follow behind. My job, and the musher’s job generally, is to keep the sled upright, help steer and to watch the dogs to make sure no-one is tangled in their lines, or is showing signs of injury.

During our trips, it was rarely necessary to encourage the dogs to speed up. More often I had to slow them down. There are two methods for doing this. One is a skid pad, which sits between the runners at the back of the sled. Usually rubber with metal grips, this pad can be stepped on to produce friction. The dogs respond to the extra pull by slowing down. This is best used for times when slowing down is desired, but not urgent, as when trying to maintain distance between yourself and the sled in front of you.

When stopping is urgent, as when about to collide with the sled in front of you, there is a brake, which is a loop of metal attached to the back of the sled by hinges and held off the trail by bungee-cord. Two spikes project from the brake, these are what dig into the trail and provide the brake’s stopping power.

Unfortunately, stopped dogs tend not to stay stopped. They want to run, dammit, and your puny foot on the brake isn’t enough to hold them. Enter the snowhook. This is attached to the front of the sled by a long line, and usually rests just below the steering bow. When the dogs need to stop and stay, you drop the hook onto the trail and stomp on the back of the hook to drive it into the snow. If there is a tree nearby, you tie an additional rope, called the gee line, around it. Those two measures are usually enough to hold the sled. This is important, because the dogs don’t much care if you’re on the sled or not. If you fall off, it just means less of your ass for them to haul around.

This is a snowhook. It hooks into the snow. I cannot explain it much better.

There is your primer on dog-driving. I know it was long and kind of involved, but trust me, it will make the next post easier for all of us. “Goddamn you Colin,” you’re saying, “I didn’t come here to be educated about things!” Good news, hypothetical reader. Next post will be less education, more stunning Northern vistas and stories about me falling down and hurting myself!

Without further ado, here is the list of the dogs we took with us on the trip:

My Team

The Boys– Tofino and Mercury

The Girls– Boreal, Butterscotch, Calypso, Turin and Sadie

David’s Team(All Boys)-Katana, Hercules, Duke, Twain, Griffin, Earl, Pickle, Pingo

Sarah’s Team(Girl)-Dizzy


Written by Colin Hodd

April 17, 2012 at 10:32 PM

One Response

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  1. Striking similarities to the makeup and chemistry of a rowing eight!


    April 18, 2012 at 1:36 PM

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