Overland sleigh rides were a winter necessity

Just after Christmas, I treated my family to a sleigh ride in a winter wonderland. Though the wonderland was merely Meadow Lakes Golf Course, it was a perfect winter day: clear and crisp, but not too cold.

Just after Christmas, I treated my family to a sleigh ride in a winter wonderland. Though the wonderland was merely Meadow Lakes Golf Course, it was a perfect winter day: clear and crisp, but not too cold. We were bolstered with hot chocolate and Grand Marnier and everyone was dressed warmly.

Michael Wanner and his gentle Belgian work horse Rocky were waiting for us when we arrived. The bright red sleigh was hitched up and ready for us to climb aboard. When we were seated, Wanner tucked fur robes around our legs, to add to our warmth and comfort, and then we were off.

With a slight lurch, the sleigh broke free of the packed snow and we headed for our brief, but pleasant journey through the snowy landscape.

When I lived on the farm as a youth, my experiences with horses were not so pleasant, so I was braced for any contingency. At first, I had some qualms about the safety of the trip.

But the bond between Wanner and Rocky was a firm and confidant one. Within a few minutes, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience, and my mind began to wander back to early days, after the excitement of the gold rush had subsided, and life in the Yukon had settled into a stable routine.

In 1902, the White Pass and Yukon Route bought out the Canadian Development Company, and their lucrative government mail contract.

At the same time, the territorial government contracted White Pass to construct a winter road from Whitehorse to Dawson. It was 110 kilometres shorter than the existing river route, and heralded the replacement of dogs by horses as the main means of transportation.

It also meant that the Klondike was no longer cut off from the outside world for seven months of the year.

The new overland trail headed west from Whitehorse up the Takhini River Valley, then crossed the Takhini and headed north along the Little River. From Braeburn to Carmacks, it connected with the well-known Dalton Trail, which followed a route known and used for centuries by the First Nations. The Klondike Highway of today follows this same section of the old trail.

The route then followed the west bank of the Yukon River to Yukon Crossing, and paralleled the east shore until it crossed the Pelly River. The Stewart River was the last major crossing, after which the track wove its way through the various creeks and tributaries of the Klondike gold fields.

Roadhouses were approximately 32 kilometres apart, and typical travel would cover three to four posts a day. At each post, the teams of horses were replaced with fresh animals while the passengers went inside to warm up and have something to eat.

The posts were log firetraps typically having one large open room with a huge heater around which wet apparel could be hung to dry. There was a long table laden with nutritious locally procured meat and delicacies.

At night, the men slept in bunks while women, alone or with their families, might be allocated a tiny room. Many of the men slept in their clothes for the duration of the trip and didn’t bother to bathe. For this reason, riding in an open sleigh might have been considered a godsend.

The locally built sleighs could carry up to 14 passengers, as well as freight and mail. They were specially adapted for travel at low temperatures; the steel springs supporting the basket in which the passengers rode, were replaced by leather straps, which didn’t break as often, and were easier to repair. The ride, however, was consequently much rougher.

Travel by horse-drawn sleigh demanded considerable skill on the part of the drivers. The crossing of the major rivers was a big concern. There was always the possibility of breaking through the ice; in the fall and the spring, when an ice crossing was not possible, canoes were used to transfer passengers and goods to another sled waiting on the opposite shore.

The trail could be drifted over in windy weather, and hidden during heavy snowfall. On the other hand, it was easier to maintain a smooth track, compared to summer travel. In some places, water oozed across the trail freezing into glaciers that could be difficult to cross.

The sleighs did not have brakes. To keep them from sliding out of control down icy slopes, chain rough-locks were employed. These swung under the runners and tightened up, bringing the sled to a halt. The horses seldom caused any problems for the drivers.

The passengers didn’t have it easy. First of all, they had to sit on hard bench seats with little back support over a bumpy trail in the open air during the five to 10-day journey. They were often squeezed together three abreast, facing each other on two rows of seats.

To ward off the pervasive cold, they bundled up in long underwear, raccoon coats, and felt overshoes. Clumps of icicles grew in their beards as they huddled together for warmth during the travel between roadhouses.

White Pass provided charcoal foot-warmers, or heated bricks and buffalo robes to add to the protection from the cold, and the frost-ringed passengers provided their own liquid refreshment for warmth during the monotonous, chilly trip.

With the liberal consumption of warming spirits, the men had to make frequent pit stops, which they accomplished by slipping off the stage which slowed down for them. Eyes to the front, ladies – there were no washrooms along the trail!

Laura Berton, in her book I Married the Klondike, described a journey she once took to Dawson over the winter trail. The passengers were up at four o’clock to be ready for the early departure from Whitehorse in the minus forty-degree, fog-filled darkness. She was thankful to be sandwiched between a giant Swede and a rotund French-Canadian because of the added warmth, though she did not appreciate the unnecessary familiarity that their proximity provided. “For five days,” she said, “I parried their advances.”

The first automobile completed the overland trip to Whitehorse in December, 1912. Commissioner George Black, long a champion of improved transportation in the territory, was one of the passengers. While the use of automobiles became common enough within a few years to require regulation of their speed, it was still many years before they replaced the horse-drawn sleighs.

Reflecting upon my enjoyable holiday sleigh ride, I realize that the sleigh rides from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the old days were a necessity, but not necessarily a pleasant experience. On a five-day journey, the novelty, if not the alcoholic glow, soon wore off.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.

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