Monday, October 26, 2009

2009 Mushing History Conference

The 2009 Mushing History Conference is developing well as the organizers work toward bringing together authors, historians, researchers, writers, veteran mushers, and supporters of the colorful history of sled dog travel for this unprecedented gathering in Alaska.

The Conference is scheduled for the first weekend in November, with a meeting for the presenters planned for Friday, November 6th, and the Conference to be held on Saturday and Sunday, November 7th and 8th.

Presentations will cover the evolution of man's relationship with working sled dogs, including delivering the U.S. mail by dogteam, polar expeditions, the Centennial of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, Joe Redington's work with dogteams for the U.S. Army, trapline use of sled dogs, historic and present-day sled dog races, Esther Birdsall Darling, the evolution of sled dog nutrition and diets, and much more. Also presented will be photographs, books, maps, pamphlets, posters, slide shows, mushing films, videos, short subjects, documentaries and other media.

A sampling of the confirmed speakers to date is available at the conference website. For information about the Conference contact:
Conference Director: Tim White, 881 County Road 14, Grand Marais, MN; email:

Coordinator: Helen Hegener, Northern Light Media, P.O. Box 759, Palmer, Alaska 99645; (907) 354-3510; email:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lance's Third Iditarod Win

Lance Mackey with his leaders, Larry and Maple, after winning his third Iditarod race, March, 2009. Photo by Theresa Daily, Daily's Web Design,

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Joe May's Commentary

This weekend the Don Bowers Memorial 200/300 Mile Sled Dog Race has been running between Willow and Trapper Creek, Alaska. I found an interesting commentary by veteran musher and commentator Joe May at the Don Bowers Memorial Race site today, and as usual, Joe's writing is stellar:
Each year by custom we designate someone, generally deceased, as honorary musher. Considering possibilities this year my mind veered onto a different tack:
The Trapper Creek rest stop and checkpoint, “May’s cabin”, is the old Kurt Wagner homestead across the river from downtown Talkeetna. My wife Sandra and I, in recent years, have refurbished the cabin and call it home…the cabin, a piece of history in itself. We’ve been involved locally with sled dogs and the people who drive and drove them hereabouts for many years. So the thought comes to me; what better way to keep good memories alive than to dedicate this year’s race to the “wood and water” haulers...

Joe then gives a quick history lesson and a respectful nod to
...the shaggy dogs, their sometimes shaggy owners, their long suffering wives, ex wives, girlfriends, and live in cooks who once inhabited that world “up the tracks” and “across the river” that made this place and the time so dynamic...

There's a new generation of mushers writing their own "tales of the trail," but as Joe acknowledges,
The mushers of this years Bowers race will use trails, knowledge, and skills that developed and evolved here in the upper valley by those unique characters. I thought it a fine gesture to recognize them and the time they defined….good history is so easy lost.

Just so.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eskimo Family, Pt. Hope, Alaska, 1949

This black and white film clip from 1949, titled "Eskimo Hunters (Northwestern Alaska)," shows an Eskimo family in Point Hope, Alaska, going about their daily lives as they hunt seals and seabirds, go shopping at the local trading post, and take a dogteam on a caribou hunt. The film raises many questions, such as did the family members actually wear those beautiful parkas and other gear on typical hunts? Probably not, just as the father probably didn't hit a seal or a bird or a caribou with every shot, and the dog sounds and other effects are obviously dubbed in. Still, this is a fascinating bit of footage showing many old ways which still make sense.

There's an interesting explanation of the origin of the term 'eskimo' at Wikipedia, but further discussion of the word quotes Lawrence Kaplan's "Inuit or Eskimo: Which names to use?" ((2002, Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks): "...while Inuit describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat (which technically is Inuit). No universal replacement term for Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, is accepted across the geographical area inhabited by the Inuit and Yupik peoples."

This YouTube video is part of the many films available from The Travel Film Archive, a collection of travelogues and educational and industrial films -- many of them in color - that show the world the way it was between 1900 and 1970. Their holdings include archives of the renowned travel filmmakers Burton Holmes, Andre de la Varre, and James A. FitzPatrick, as well as footage shot by many other intinerant cameramen. There's a disclaimer on their YouTube page which reminds viewers:
Please keep in mind that the narration for some of these films was written over 75 years ago and reflects the colonial attitudes of the time, some of which may seem offensive today.
At any rate, this is an interesting video - and the huskies are beautiful! Appreciation for this film clip to Donna Quante and Bonnie Foster.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Evolution of Dog Sledding

Long before carbon fiber components and quick-change runners …

…there lived a culture of people - the ancestors of today’s circumpolar Inuit – who built their “sleds” (qamutiit) out of material they had at hand: pairs of runners fashioned of frozen char (fish) laid end to end and rolled in water –soaked animal hides, bound with strips of more animal hide, then lashed with more hide to uprights of bone and then again to cross pieces of more bone. The bottoms of the runners were painstakingly built up of layers of moss and mud, then made glistening smooth with water warmed in their mouth, or sometimes even urine freshly squirted over the moss mixture and spread smooth with a small “rag” of polar bear hide. A brief shearing pass the runners’ surface over a rock, or cracked off on jagged ice, and forward progress came to a halt until the time-intensive rebuilding procedure was repeated all over again.

We who enjoy our version of dog powered “sports” would do well to remember the ancient roots of our activities, and pay homage to the people who perfected a technique of travel which allowed them to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Sue Hamilton, October 2007

The Evolution of Dog Sledding

by Sue Hamilton

The evolution of dogs pulling sleds has been nothing short of extraordinary. In North America archaeologists found sled parts attributed to the Thule culture (ancestors of today’s Inuit) dating back to 800 BP (Before Present: dating scale now used by archaeologists was established 1950 as the origin year for the BP scale. The year 1950 was chosen because it is the year in which calibration curves for radiocarbon dating were established. Wikipedia) Back then there was but one type/breed of dog and the qamutiit (sleds) they hauled were likely made of whale and caribou bones, frozen fish wrapped in animal hide, all lashed together with sinew, with runners built up of moss, and mud made smooth with a glazing of frozen water and even urine. Harnesses were fashioned of seal skin as were the “tug” lines - far easier said than done taking into consideration the hunting, harvesting, processing and assembly. Connectors between harnesses, lines and the sled were bone toggles – no moving parts. Dogs ate the same terrestrial and marine animals they helped their owners harvest.

Fast-forward several hundred years to the dawn of the twentieth century. Sleds were wooden and of various designs, runners were made of steel, harnesses of a few designs and lines were of processed leather or some plant fibers and, instead of just the traditional Inuit Dog who had dominated the polar regions of North America for four thousand years, a few other pure breeds (Samoyeds, Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes plus other aboriginal breeds found below the tree line) and an increasing blend of the polar spitz breeds bred to dogs brought north from more southerly latitudes by gold seekers, missionaries, explorers and fur traders, were being put to use for work and for sport. Dogs were eating food that was designated specifically for them, although a far cry from what we see today.

If an early 1900s musher could time travel to the 21st century, he might think he was on a different planet! He would marvel that the heavy and ponderous sleds of his era have been replaced by carefully crafted ash sleds of many designs, some weighing no more than forty pounds, lashed together with nylon line, and shod with a variety of plastic runners, some of which could be slipped off and replaced in the blink of an eye. He would hardly believe his eyes to see that some sleds were built entirely without wood and not only had instant swap runners, but also quick change other parts, as well! Leather harnesses have become museum pieces, replaced by harnesses of man-made fibers in a rainbow of colors, designs and styles: H-back, X-back, Siwash, recreational, short backed, split chest, lead dog, wheel dog, freighting. The popularity of dog sledding, recreational and especially racing, has boomed in the last century. Today very few pure breeds of dogs are bred strictly to haul heavy freight or to compete and the mixed breed Alaskan Husky has become the dominant dog on the racing circuit, bred and “fine tuned” to win at speeds unheard of by our time traveling musher.

Nowadays, the many facets of dog sledding are scientifically studied and analyzed. Sophisticated and highly defined dog food and supplements continue to evolve to offer the very best nutrition and care of racing and freight hauling dogs as well as those used for recreational sledding. Back in 1925 when dog teams relayed life saving diphtheria serum to a remote Alaskan village (the historic event which is commemorated by today’s Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race), the dogs who saved the lives of those desperate villagers were themselves barely safe from their own host of dog diseases and “occupational” ailments. Today, formal research projects, published and underway, study the anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biology and conditioning of these fabulous athletes. These dogs, bred to run and loving their jobs so much that they have been seen to try to put themselves in harness without human assistance, now benefit from cutting edge veterinary medicine light years ahead of where the field was – if it even existed - at the time of the serum run. Driven by the love and passion mushers have for their dogs, the science and business of performance, technology and well-being, once the exclusive sphere of human athletes, are now very much a part of the world of mushing.

October 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Inuit Sled Dog

Teams of Inuit Sled Dogs, seen here in the traditional fan hitch, were and still are largely comprised of all males, with no more than one to three females. Photo: Corel Arctic

The traditional sled, a qamutiq, is now made of wood, lashed together with either bearded seal "rope" or the more modern nylon line. Before manmade materials, a qamutiq would be made of animal bones with runners of frozen fish rolled up in animal hides, and covered with mud, then built up and made smooth with frozen water or even urine. photo: Corel Dogsledding

Learn more of the history of mushing by reading about the oldest and most primitive of sled dog breeds, whose descendents still exist, largely unchanged, in the land of their origin. The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History by Ian Kenneth (“Ken”) MacRury is the most comprehensive and scholarly publication of its kind on this 4000 year-old breed, “created and fine tuned” to its many tasks by Nature and the aboriginal peoples of the polar north who first crossed the Bering Bridge into North America and wandered all the way to Greenland.

It is well accepted that without the Inuit Sled Dog, the Inuit and their ancestors could not have survived in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on Earth. In recognition of its vital role, the Inuit Sled Dog was honored in May 2000 as Nunavut’s official mammal, chosen above such northern icons as the polar bear, caribou, musk ox and seal.

You can find even more about the Inuit Sled Dog within the pages of The Fan Hitch, Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog International, where you will discover a wealth of information on health and science, behavior, adventure, history and much, much more!

Sue Hamilton
US Coordinator, Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI)
Editor, "The Fan Hitch", Journal of the ISDI

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Early Sled Dog History, by Swanny

We are delighted to provide this in-depth article on the earliest sled dog history, reprinted with kind permission from the author, Swanny, a mushing historical reenactor in Two Rivers, Alaska. Visit his website at Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs

“Marche”; Sledge Dogs in the

North West Fur Trade

by Swanny

Although mushing sled dogs is officially recognized as the Alaska State sport, the sport’s roots grow deeply in Canadian soil. When modern dog sled racers aim their teams toward the finish lines of the North Country’s great races they are following the long obscured tracks of historical Canadian hivernants. If the prize money offered the winners of Minnesota’s “John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon”, Alaska and Yukon Territory’s “Yukon Quest” and even the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Classic were all combined, that healthy sum would pale in comparison to the vast profits earned as a result of the work performed by the dog drivers of the historical North American fur trade.

No one knows who might have been the first human to harness a dog to a sled. The earliest archaeological evidence of dog harnesses and other specialized equipment for dog traction occurs in Canadian Thule sites, and it may have been these people who invented this mode of transportation that greatly increased the range of winter hunting and travel at some point between AD 1000 and AD 1600. Historical records of the use of sled dogs in the Siberian Sub Arctic appear in Arabian literature of the tenth century; in writings of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century; and of Francesco de Kollo in the sixteenth. (Coppinger L) An illustration taken from the 1675 edition of Martin Frobisher's "Historic Navigations." shows a dog in harness pulling what appears to be a canoe-like sled. (Noel)

There is little doubt that dog traction was extremely important to the indigenous people of North America long before the first Europeans arrived. Dog power was quickly adopted by early colonists in New France (Canada) and the use of dog sleds was very common by the eighteenth century. Traveling in Quebec in 1749 Peter Kalm wrote, “In winter it is customary in Canada, for travellers to put dogs before little sledges, made on purpose to hold their cloathes, provisions, &c. Poor people commonly employ them on their winter-journies, and go on foot themselves. Almost all the wood, which the poorer people in this country fetch out of the woods in winter, is carried by dogs, which have therefore got the name of horses of the poor people. They commonly place a pair of dogs before each load of wood. I have, likewise seen some neat little sledges, for ladies to ride in, in winter; they are drawn by a pair of dogs, and go faster on a good road, than one would think. A middle-sized dog is sufficient to draw a single person, when the roads are good.” (Kalm 448-9)

French Canadian dog teams saw military service during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War). Louis Antoine Bougainville’s journal entry for the period of February 17 – 28 includes the note, “Each of them (the soldiers) has assembled his dog team to draw the sleds, some have even taken horses. Dogs, at the time departure, cost up to one hundred livres.” (Bougainville 87)

By 1775 many of the men who would steer the destiny of the Northwestern fur trade were already in place. James McGill, Benjamin Frobisher and Maurice Blondeau outfitted twelve canoes at Michilimackinac in a new partnership, which they named “The Northwest Company”. During their travels through the wilds that winter they met with Alexander Henry (the Elder), Peter Pond, Joseph and Thomas Frobisher, Charles Patterson and Jean Baptiste Cadot. (Armour & Widder 40) Not only were these men competing against each other for the trade, they were also in fierce competition against the long-established Hudson's Bay Company.

As competition increased among the traders it became necessary to take the trade directly into the Indian encampments. In some cases this was accomplished by sending junior clerks to live among the nomadic bands of Indians. This practice called "tenting" was already the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In other circumstances traders played the role of traveling salesmen by going en derouine, traveling to Indian camps with a selection of trade goods and then return with the furs purchased during the trip. Both tenting and going en derouine required that goods and furs be transported between the trading house and Indian encampments. Fisheries and hunting grounds that provided food for the traders and their employees were often distant from the posts, and even firewood frequently had to be transported several miles. As with modern corporations, lines of communication were necessary not only to ensure the flow of inventory and furs from one place to another but also the most important resource of all, information. During the long winters, dog drawn sledges proved the only practical solution to the transportation needs of the fur trade.

The Dogs:

The Nor’westers didn’t use nearly so many dogs in their teams as do today’s mushers, who may start a major long distance race with more than a dozen dogs in harness. The majority of primary references I’ve found documenting practices between about 1750 and about 1880 indicate that historical dog teams (called traineau or “trains”) ranged from only 2 to no more than six animals. No one single breed dominated the sled dog scene in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One contemporary writer noted this fact as he wrote “Dogs of high and low degree were brought for inspection; for dogs in the North have but one occupation – to haul. From the Esquimaux downthrough all the stages of canine life to the Indian mongrel, all are alike doomed to labor before a sledge of some kind during the winter months….”(Robinson 4)

The majority of sled dogs used by Nor’westers were apparently of random breeding and some carried more than a little bit of wolf-blood in their veins. On August 10th, 1801 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote “…(one) of my men brought in six young wolves he had found in one hole; they were very tame, and we proposed to keep them for the trains, as they are of the large species.(Henry 175) In 1819 an observer at Cumberland House noted “They (the dogs) resemble wolves, both in appearance and disposition. {Hood 46)

By far the best primary description of the sled dogs used in the Northern fur trade was provided in the colorful memoirs of H.M. Robinson, who wrote, “These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiryhair. White is one of the most usual colors, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow, and white marked with spots of black, or of the other various hues, are also common. Some of them are black with white paws, others are covered with long rough hair, like Russian setters. There are others of a light bluish-grey, with dark, almost black spots spread over the whole body…. Most of them are very wolfish in appearance, many being half or partly, or all but entirely, wolves in blood. One frequently sees dogs which are said to be almost pure wolves.” (Robinson 224-225)

Although the historical dog teams were relatively small compared to those of modern dog sled drivers, they routinely drew considerable loads. Daniel Harmon provided several journal entries describing the loads hauled by his animals. On December 21st, 1801 North West Company fur trader Daniel Harmon recorded, “Each man had a Sledge drawn by two Dogs loaded with one hundred & fifty pounds wight (weight) of Furs, and Provisions, for man & beasts to perform the trip.” On December 13th, 1812 he elaborated on capabilities of the Company’s dogs. “Our goods are drawn on sledges by dogs. Each pair of dogs drew a load of from two hundred, to two hundred and fifty pounds, besides provisions for themselves and their driver, which would make the whole load about three hundred pounds. I have seen many dogs, two of which would draw on a sledge, five hundred pounds, twenty miles, in five hours. For a short distance, two of our stoutest dogs will draw more than a thousand pounds weight.” (Harmon 40 & 147)

By the middle of the nineteenth century larger teams (as many as 4 dogs) were becoming more common. H.M. Robinson noted that, “An average train of four dogs will trot briskly along with three hundred pounds’ weight without difficulty. Trains loaded to travel short distances with a barrel of liquor and two sacks of flour, or about six hundred and eighty pounds avoirdupois, are not an uncommon sight.”(Robinson 228) In 1862 missionary John McDougall used a team of four dogs to haul “about 250 pounds of a load, consisting of ammunition and tobacco.” (McDougall)

Until the late nineteenth century sledge dogs were trained to respond to only two voice cues. These were the traditional French “marche” (often mispronounced “mush”) to set the team in motion and “whoa” to tell the team to stop. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Hudson’s Bay Company employee William Miller trained the first team of “Eskimo dogs” to respond to turn right (gee) or left (haw) (Anderson 21) John McDougall described the manner in which he trained a team of one year old pups: “My plan was to hitch the pups to a toboggan, and attached to this I had a long line, the end of which I kept in my hand, and as I ran behind I could, when I said “Whoa,”, stop the dogs.” (McDougall 231) Many others simply hitched the young dog into a team of veterans, and let the older animals take care of the training (Bush 151)

The Dog Driver’s Tools:

The most common vehicle used for hauling freight during winter was most often referred to as a “sledge” and is the same vehicle we call a `toboggan’ today. Robinson described a typical freight-sledge as follows: “It is made of two thin oak or birch-wood boards lashed together with deer-skin thongs. Turned up in front, like a Norwegian snowshoe – scarcely a quarter of a circle – it is from nine to twelve feet in length, and sixteen inches broad. Along it’s outer edges a leather lashing is passed to tie down tightly to its surface whatever may be placed upon it.”(Robinson 226) Historical dog sledges were typically narrow enough to fit within the trail broken by a man on snowshoes. John McDougall wrote that during one of his earliest freight runs he loaded “some four hundred pounds of (buffalo) tongues and cakes and bladders of grease and bags of pounded meat, on a small toboggan, some eight feet(long) by one foot (wide) in size.” (McDougall 25)

The “cariole”, or passenger-sledge, was a variation of the freight sledge adapted to carry a passenger. It was the vehicle of a bourgeois and was as much a symbol of the man’s status as it was a tool of transportation. On December 28, 1803 Daniel Harmon wrote that he sometimes rode about the country “in a cariol (sic) drawn by a Horse when there is not much Snow, but when the depth is too great by Dogs….”(Harmon 71) Alexander Henry the Younger rode in a cariole when he journeyed from Rocky Mountain House to the Continental Divided in 1811. He described this vehicle as “…made by stretching a wet parchment of mooseskins over a few timbers, to which it was well secured with a line. This forms a comfortable voiture, prevents the snow from gathering in the sled, and keeps a person snug and warm, wrapped in a buffalo robe.”(Henry 192 & 677)

H.M. Robinson’s memoirs provides a more thorough description of a cariole. “A cariole consists of a very thin board, usually not over half an inch thick, fifteen to twenty inches wide, and about ten feet long, turned up at one end in the form of a half circle, like the bend of an Ojibway canoe. To this board a light frame-work. resembling a coffin, or a slipper-bath, is attached, about eighteen inches from the rear end. This frame-work is then covered over with buffalo-skin parchment, and painted and decorated according to taste. When traveling, it is lined with buffalo-robes and blankets, in the midst of which the passenger sits, or rather reclines. The projecting end or floor behind the passenger’s seat is utilized as a sort of boot upon which to tie baggage, or as a platform upon which the driver may stand to gain temporary respite when tired of running. (Robinson 225-226) Like freight sledges, carioles were quite narrow, “just broad enough to admit one person.” (Ballentyne 187)

Those driving dogs in the plains and woodlands hitched their teams in tandem so they might negotiate the narrow trails most efficiently. “Four dogs to each team form a complete train, though three and even two are used, and are harnessed to the cariole by means of two long traces. Between these traces the dogs stand one after the other, with a space intervening between them of perhaps a foot. A round collar, passing over the head and ears and fitting closely to the shoulder, buckles on each side to the traces, which are supported by a back-band of leather.” (Robinson 226-7) McDougall noted that harness for dogs were made of moose skin as opposed to those for horses, which were made of partly tanned buffalo hide. (McDougall 18)

The Routine of Dog Sledge Travel:

The voyageurs driving the dogs rarely rode on the sleds. On a well packed trail the drivers ran on snowshoes, following the sleds. Sometimes the drivers used tag lines to help control the vehicle and they always brandished a whip which was combined with a healthy dose of strong language to control the team. If no packed trail was available the drivers hiked ahead of their animals, using their snowshoes to pack the trail. Sometimes drivers had to break trail for days at a time. On January 13, 1802 Alexander Henry set out from his Red River post for the Assiniboine, by way of Riviere aux Gratias and upon his return he recorded, “Each of my men had a train of two dogs, with my baggage and provisions, and I a train drawn by three stout dogs. Snow very deep; my men were obliged to beat the road all the way on snowshoes. We were one day going to Riviere aux Gratias; five thence to Portage la Prairie; five thence to Riviere la Souris; two thence to Delorme’s house in the Hair hills ; four to Langlois’ house; and one back to Panbian (Pembina) river. All this distance my men walked hard upon snowshoes.” (Henry 193)

If the eighteen days that Henry’s men spent breaking trail were at all typical, they were probably very long days indeed. The dog-sledge traveling day usually began many hours before sunrise and didn’t end until well into the long winter nights. Alexander Henry was no stranger to this routine. His journal entries made while traveling from Rocky Mountain House to the continental divide in 1811 show that on February 4th the party started at 4:30 am, and on February 12th they were on the trail at 3:00. On that day they made camp early, at 3:00 p.m. because the dogs were too exhausted to continue.(Henry 698) More often than not the voyageurs stayed on the trail until daylight had long been replaced by the feeble glow of the Northern Lights.

Trying to control a pack of untrained dogs is one of life’s more frustrating tasks and it requires an especially colorful vocabulary. Even the most worthy of Christian missionaries gave vent to their anger when dealing with the mutts. “…it is said that one of the missionaries on the Saskatchewan, a most worthy and pious man, when travelling with some of his flock in the winter, astonished and horrified his companions by suddenly giving vent, in his distraction, to most dreadful anathemas against his dogs. They were lying coolly down in the most aggravating manner, with their heads turned round narrowly watching him, but without making the smallest effort to help themselves and him out of the difficulty into which they had fallen.”(Bush 82) Another anecdote concerns a bishop making an extended winter tour of several hundred miles through his diocese. When the bishop complained that his team was falling behind those of his companions, the driver replied that the dogs did not respond to his whippings unless he also swore at them, but that “out of respect to his reverence he had abstained from using strong words.” The bishop ordered to driver to swear away to his heart’s content, and promised he would give full absolution at the end of the journey.(Young 12)

Sadly, few Northern dog drivers were content to merely vent their frustration with words. Each carried a whip which was used liberally and with a level of brutality that was remarkable even in an age when harsh treatment of animals was considered normal and necessary. Only one of hundreds of such reports reads, “Then ensued that inhuman thrashing and varied cursing, that howling of dogs and systematic brutality of drivers, which make up the romance of winter-travel, and degrade the driver lower than the brutes….Dogs are often stubborn and provoking, and require flogging until brought into subjection; but lashings upon the body while laboring in the trains, systematic floggings upon the head till their ears drop blood, beatings with whip-stocks until nose and jaws are one deep wound, and poundings with clubs and stamping with boots till their howls merge into low wails of agony, are the frequent penalties of a slight deviation from duty. Of the four dogs attached to the provision sledge, three underwent repeated beatings at the hands of the Cree. By mid-afternoon the head of Whiskey was reduced to a bleeding, swollen mass from tremendous thrashings. Chocolat (sic) had but one eye wherewith to watch the dreaded driver, and Brandy had wasted so much strength in wild lurches and sudden springs, in order to dodge the descending whip, that he had none remaining for the legitimate task of hauling the sledge.”(Robinson 23) James Carnegie was astonished by the brutal treatment of the dogs and wrote, “The strange thing is, that men who are full of kindness and humanity towards one another and towards the rest of creation, should be as bad as the greatest ruffians in their treatment of the poor dogs – those most useful slaves who will work day and night, almost without rest, for weeks together.(Carnegie 339)

Having endured the punishment of long hours upon the trail, man and beast were beyond exhausted when the time finally came to make camp for the evening. When on the trail the hard working dogs were fed once each day, shortly after the men had finished their own supper. “In the plain-country, a daily ration of two pounds of pemmican is thrown him; in the region of forest and stream, where fish forms the staple food, he receives two large white-fish raw.”(Robinson 15) Robinson’s sledge dogs were quite well fed compared to may. Other dog food recorded in historical sources include “the offals of dried and stinking fish”, “as much tallow as we took ourselves”, and “a caribou hind and forequarter per day”. One thrifty historical traveler gave double-meaning to the term ‘dog food’ when he wrote “…almost before I could turn, [Old Yellow] had gobbled down one of her pups. As none of the litter will ever be of sledging use, I have taken the hint, and refreshed Old Yellow with a daily morning puppy.”(Bush 158 - 160)

Arctic explorer Elisha Kane described the scene typical of feeding-time. “All the trains were fed at the same time when we camped at night and such a scene cannot be duplicated anywhere on earth. As we emerged from the lodge with the tiny feed rolled up in the skirt of our capote, there was a rush by the dogs that pretty nearly carried us off our feet, and frequently knocked down the lodge….When after much fighting, each [man] gathered his own [team] the actual process of feeding began, and this again demanded much activity and some strategy to ensure every dog of your train getting its portion….my method was to run each dog in turn a few yards from the other three, quickly toss his meat to him before the others caught up, and then stand guard over him while he ate it.”(E. Kane 376) After the dogs were fed the men could finally crawl in to their blankets and robes with the expectation of shivering through few hours remaining in the night in order repeat the routine, well before sunrise.

When one considers the amount of weight drawn by teams that were sorely abused and often poorly fed, the distances covered during those long, hard days of running was noteworthy. Daniel Harmon noted that his teams typically traveled 20 miles in five hours, for an average of four miles per hour (Harmon 147). Robinson wrote that four miles an hour was a common “dog trot”, but he also noted that extraordinary distances were sometimes obtained. He cited an instance in which the driver of a mail-sledge between Fort Garry and Pembina made the round trip of one hundred thirty five miles in a single night, with the same team of dogs. ( Robinson 228)

Perhaps the most impressive feat of historical dog drivers was the delivery of the annual Winter Express which reliably carried the important news of the trade from Athabasca to Lake Superior each winter. According to Roderic Mackenzie, the first winter express left Fort Chipewyan on October 1, 1798 and arrived at Fort William on May 17, 1799.(Innis 245) As they gained experience the teams carrying the express were able to reduce the transit time considerably. Word of the amalgamation of the XY and Northwest companies reached Alexander Henry at Lower Red River on January 1st, 1805, only 56 days after it had been signed. Harmon, at Ft. Alexandria received the news on February 8.(Innis 245)

On July 3, 1806 McGillivray issued a memo intended to regulate the route and schedule of the winter express. According to that memo the express was to leave Peace River on January 3, 1807, Isle a la Crosse on January 12th and Fort Augustus on the 24th with the expectation that the three teams would meet at Fort Vermillion on or before January 30th. From Ft. Vermillion the express was expected to be back on the trail February 1s ultimately being delivered to it’s final destination in April.(Innis 245) Although twice the distance expected of most freight teams, 40 miles per day was not unusual for the hard running men and dogs assigned to carry the winter packet.( Bush 70)

As winter wore on into spring the changing conditions associated with longer days and warmer weather required a change in the dog-sledge traveler’s routine; they worked the graveyard shift. On March 14th,. 1804 Alexander Henry the Younger recorded, “We returned home, traveling in the night;at this season we prefer always to do so, to prevent sore eyes, and to take advantage of the frost; the dogs travel much better than in the daytime, when the snow is soft and they are soon fatigued.”(Henry 239) Sixty years later John McDougall was continuing the night-shift tradition. “As the days grew warmer, we who were handling dogs had to travel most of the time in the night, as then the snow and track were frozen. While the snow lasted we slept and rested during the warm hours of the day, and in the cool of the morning and evening, and all night long, we kept at work transporting our materials to the site of the new mission. The night-work, the glare or reflection of the snow, both by sun and moonlight; the subsidence of the snow on either side of the road, causing constant upsetting of sleds; the melting of the snow, making your feet wet and sloppy almost all the time; then the pulling, and pushing, and lifting, and walking, and running – these were the inevitable experiences.”(McDougall 43-44)

The End of the Trail:

It wasn’t until the snow finally melted off and the ice broke up on the rivers that the hard running sledge dogs and their drivers could expect a long rest. For many of the dogs that rest would last through eternity. The combination of hard work in harsh conditions, brutal treatment and inadequate feed had predictable results. Artist Paul Kane described the typical “retirement” of most sledge-dogs when he wrote, “Only trains made up of exceptional dogs last more than a couple of seasons, and once their usefulness is passed the poor brutes are turned loose to seek a living where those for whom food is provided are more frequently hungry than satisfied. Their vagrancy is usually short-lived – death by starvation or freezing come speedily to their relief.”(P. Kane 100-105)

As we reach the end of any trail, it’s natural to reflect upon the experiences of the journey. In March 1820, while recovering from a two month long journey by dog sledge from Cumberland House to Fort Chipewyan, Captain John Franklin recorded his reflections of a long, arduous journey by dog sledge: “Thus has terminated a winter’s journey of eight hundred and fifty-seven miles, in the progress of which there has been a great intermixture of agreeable and disagreeable circumstances. Could the amount of each be balanced, I suspect the latter would much preponderate; and amongst these the initiation into the practice of walking in snow-shoes must be considered as prominent. The suffering it occasions can be but faintly imagined by a person who thinks upon the inconvenience of marching with a weight of between two and three pounds constantly attached to galled feet, and swelled ancles [sic]. The next evil is being constantly exposed to witness the wanton and unnecessary cruelty of the men to their dogs, especially those of the Canadians, who beat them unmercifully, and habitually vent on them the most dreadful and disgusting imprecations. There are other inconveniences which though keenly felt during the day’s journey are speedily forgotten, when stretched out in the encampment before a large fire, you enjoy the social mirth of your companions, who usually pass the evening in recounting their former feats in travelling.” (Franklin 140-141)

Perhaps some day you and I can also stretch out before a large fire and pass the evening recounting our own former feats in travelling, somewhere On The Trail……. Swanny.


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Credit: Swanny is a mushing historical reenactor in Two Rivers, Alaska. Be sure to check out his Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs website.