the yukon quest reminds us of the early days of dog mushing

Imagine what life was like before modern transportation. Without highways and air links, a trip from Dawson City to Vancouver would take more than a week - one way.

Imagine what life was like before modern transportation. Without highways and air links, a trip from Dawson City to Vancouver would take more than a week – one way. And that is if you made the right connections, because the passenger ships didn’t leave Skagway every day of the week.

We take our transportation for granted, yet it affects everything we do in our lives. Fast and inexpensive transportation gives us fresh fruit and vegetables on the table, and trips to points halfway around the world in mere hours.

In the early days, those who ventured forth in the Yukon carried their supplies on their backs. Backpacking was slow and tedious work, and you could only carry a small load. Pack horses doubled that efficiency. Hauling supplies by dog sled was 10 times more efficient. But dog sledding was seasonal work, and very difficult too.

While dogs could be used to carry packs in the summer, the real freighting could only be done in the winter, with snow on the ground and ice in the rivers. Tending a dog team was hard and unpleasant. Dog mushers put in long hours preparing their teams, breaking up fights, freeing tangled lines, and feeding them. All of these matters had to be taken care of before the musher could even think of his own needs.

There was often a battle between the musher and his dogs to keep them away from the food until it was ready to be served. They were notorious scavengers with a reputation for eating anything that wasn’t properly secured. If they were hungry enough, malamutes would even eat rawhide dog harness and sled fittings. At one place on the Birch Creek Trail, near Circle, Alaska, there was a stopover used by the mushers before the gold rush that had a corral, made from logs, into which the sleds were pushed, to keep them and their contents away from the hungry huskies.

I dug into old historical accounts to get a sense of what early freighting with dog teams was really like. A musher’s day would start at five or six o’clock in the morning. First, the dogs had to be caught and harnessed. Then, the provisions, bedding, mess-box and other gear were lashed onto the sled, and the team would be off for their next stop, 30 kilometres away. When the musher retired for the day, it was usually after 11 o’clock at night.

If a snowstorm swept down upon the musher and his team, they would have to stop on the trail, in less than ideal locations. The dogs could curl up in a compact ball in almost any conditions and have a pleasant sleep. The best the man could hope for was to build a camp fire, and stay up all night, guarding the sled.

A team usually consisted of six or seven large heavy dogs, harnessed single-file or in pairs to a seven-foot sled, which ran on runners only 16 inches apart, thus easily navigable through the wooded trails. For freighting, teams often pulled two or three sleds that were connected one after another.

Two long lash-ropes were attached to the front of the sled. The freight was wrapped in a large canvas on the sled, and the two lash-ropes were then woven back and forth between side-ropes to secure the load. A little water sprayed on the knots kept everything from coming undone on the trail. Under ideal conditions, a team of five native sled dogs could pull loads of 450 kilograms up to 40 kilometres a day.

Extending upward at an angle from one side of the front sled was a gee-pole, about six feet long and three inches around. The musher walked in front of the first sled with the gee-pole in one hand. This pole made it easy to steer the sled, aided him in keeping it upright, and enabled the musher to steady the sled on side hills and around corners. The gee-pole was also used to break the sled free when it became frozen in.

On steep hills, the dogs were unhooked and the musher, holding on to the pole, with his feet braced forward into the snow, would ease the load down the hill. If the load went out of control, it was quite dangerous for the musher, and several were crushed by their loads. In one instance, a gee-pole snapped off, and the musher was impaled on the lance-like fragment that remained.

Warm spring weather made for a completely different set of conditions. With the daily cycles of freezing and thawing, the ice became smoother. With the increasing melt water, the water level rose under the ice, and the ice began to arch in the middle, causing water to run off toward the shores, like the gutters on a road. The gutter ice was thin and elastic, and thus, very dangerous.

Sometimes, when crossing this ice, a musher with a team of fast-moving dogs could make it safely while leaving a trail of broken ice behind. For this reason, the mushers preferred to travel at night, when it was coldest, and the ice is reformed.

The mushers did a couple of things to improve their chances of getting across safely. Sometimes, the ice was so thin that the musher would send the dogs and sled across first, and then he would “lay down on the ice and wiggle his way across, flat on his face, spread-eagle fashion. This gave him much more bearing surface, and even if the ice did crack under him, he was still on top of the water.”

In other instances, he might attach a light pole to the harness cross-wise at the front of the sled, and carry a sheath-knife at the front of his belt. Should the sled break through the ice, the musher could save his life by cutting the bindings, throwing himself on the cross-pole while holding on to the harness, and letting the dogs pull him to safety.

The Yukon Quest, the 1,600-kilometre race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska, is a throwback to the early days, and honours the tradition of dog mushing that continues to the present day. The sleds are a little more hi-tech, and communication better, but the work is just as hard, the weather as unpredictable, and the hazards are as great.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net