Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Now THIS is Old School Dog Mushing

In the 18th and early 19th century northwestern fur-trade, a toboggan were referred to by the French term Traineau, or more frequently as a traine or train. My new toboggan from John Harren's Northern Toboggan and Sled definitely qualifies as a freight train, especially when drawn by 8 strong village dogs. It is just under 12 feet long overall and only 18 inches wide.

I received my new train back in the late fall, just in time for no-snow season. Now that it is mid-January we still don't have a heck of a lot of snow, but if I'm going to learn to drive this unusual dog sled competently I can't keep waiting around, so today was the day, and it was a real hoot.

John finishes his red oak toboggans in linseed oil, and he warned me that it would take a few miles to wear down the oil and polish the bottom of the sled so it would slide easily. Well, my dogs have been running their little furry feet off all winter, and they are strong and move right smartly for a bunch of village freighting huskies, so I figured I'd be very careful, run the train with a small team, and see what might happen.

There is so little snow that I trucked the team and sled to Lynn Orbison's place for this first run. Lynn and I train our dogs together frequently. She is a GREAT training partner and a great friend, who specializing in rescuing homeless huskies. Our disciplines are at opposite ends of the mushing spectrum. Lynn is a sprint mushing racer and trains her dogs to run flat out through an entire race. I'm a recreational back country cruiser, training my teams to take me pretty much wherever I wish to go, at a much more modest pace.

The feeder trail from Lynn's yard comes out on Pleasant Valley Road. There is just enough vehicular traffic on PV Road to keep it hardpacked and, with so little snow this winter, very icy and fast. I figured with a small team of older, slower and more controllable freighting dogs I might have a hope of keeping the train in line with the team rather than skittering sideways totally out of control.

On the other hand, I'm a big guy and this is a heavy sled. So, I figured a 5 dog team ought to be the right size for the first experiment. For my team I hooked up;

Daisy & Fame (Lynn's dog)
Chinook running single at swing (he's a scrappy S.O.B. with dogs beside him, so he always runs single)
Gump & Molly Karma (Lynn's dog)

I called them up and immediately learned that the sled indeed didn't slide particularly well until the linseed oil has been worn off and the bottom polished with use. All five of them worked their little hearts out to drag the rig a miniscule 2 1/4 mile at an average speed of only 4.9 mph. That is with an empty sled and me working as hard as the dogs.

That was a cause for concern. My big freighters usually average over 8 mph, and they have no problem hauling my carcass along with anywhere from 120 to 160 lb of cargo over nearly any terrain I wish to travel.

I didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it, though. We had a lot more dogs to run and a limited amount of time in which to run them. I figured as much drag as that sled was producing that an 8 dog team could probably handle it for five or six miles, so I hooked up my next crew, consisting of:

Dutchess & Valentine (Lynn's dog)
Amazing Grace & Torus (Rogue Summit leader)
Seamus & Rose
Sheenjek & Nels

Expecting the sled to perform about the same as the earlier run, and with Torus being new to the team, I planned to give them just a moderate workout. I was a bit casual as I stood the brake and popped the quick release. As a result I was near'y pitched off the driver's platform as the crew launched like a rocket. Apparently our earlier run had done the job of polishing the bottom, because they acted like they were pulling nothing at all.

We hit Pleasant Valley Road at full stride, but just a light touch of the foot on the brake kept the long sled right in line with the team. We headed into a maze of trails that requires lots of turns. It's a great place for training lead dogs to respond to directional cues, and we zig-zagged around in there for a good long while. The dogs were still running strong as we left that area, so I decided to extend the run a little bit. We followed the edge of a large open field, then cut south to the popular Baseline Trail. We passed two team head on as we we ran this portion, and I was pleased that all our work at passing paid off. Some of my dogs hesitated as we passed the first team, but the whole crew were prefectly behaved as we passed the second. I noticed some rather surprised looks on the other musher's faces as our outfits passed by.

Feeling like things were well under control and wanting to try some more difficult terrain I turned my leaders onto a narrow, meandering trail that runs mostly over muskeg. Unlike my training toboggan, which bounces and bangs over the tussocks, the freight train just floats along, flexing nicely over the irregularities but with none of the bone jarring shock that other sleds seem to produce.

In all the chaos of the unexpected strong start I had forgotten to turn on my GPS until about half way through the run. I can tell you that during the second half of the run the team hit a maximum speed of 13.7 mph (probably on a downhill stretch), had a moving average of 8.8 mph, and an overall average of 8.1 mph because I had to hook down to fix a tangle at one point.

I think during that run I had more fun than I've ever before had while wearing clothing. Here's a "musher's eye view" of the team hard at work:

When I got back to Lynn's she must have seen my grinning face and she wanted to come play too. We put together a team of 8 of Lynn's sprint racing dogs, she climbed into the sled bag and called them up. We basically repeated the second half of my own 8-dog run followed by some gee - haw training in the maze I described earlier. The sprinters were in a mood to go, but this rig was a lot more weight than they normally pull. Nonetheless we launched at over 14 mph and recorded a moving average of 9.6 mph over a 7 mile run. Lynn shot some photos as we mushed along, including this one of her little fur-rocket dogs in action.

She even turned around, kicked back in the 8 foot long sled bag, to shoot this one me;

So, today I ran this allegedly obsolete piece of equipment 17 miles with three different teams. My first impression is very favorable. Although I was a bit worried that it would be difficult to drive, I found that it really isn't any more difficult than driving a modern sled behind a powerful team. From a driver's standpoint the freight train tracks very well, The driver's platform is more comfortable than the narrow footboards on the runners of most modern basket sleds or toboggan sleds. It is a very stable sled, especially with the additional weight of the passenger. The center of gravity is very low so one rarely feels in danger of tipping. It also has a different sensation underfoot - more like just floating along over the bumps and irregularities of the trail.

That being said, it also has some quirks that the musher must accommodate. Even though it has very deep teeth, the bar brake is only about as effective as a very aggressive drag mat on a modern sled. If you have to stop short in an emergency you are going to have to do it with a snow hook rather than the brake alone. Because of the way the backboard is lashed to the back of the driver's platform the only way for the driver to help the team is the peddle off to one side or the other of the sled, or run behind it. Again because of the lashing system, you can't push the sled very effectively from the handles on the backboard.

When passing close to trees the upright handlebars are a bit of hazard. It would be very, very easy to smash your hand into a tree trunk or overhanging branch and I suspect that it might be a little bit uncomfortable to do so. Okay, that's a gross understatement, you could smash your hand into bloody pulp.

As expected, the train has a tendency to slide sideways to ride in the lowest part of the trail. This could be a real problem on steep side-hill terrain. In most cases that can corrected by dragging a foot off the uphill side of the sled, but I can envision cases where that may not be enough to keep the sled from sliding off a cliff. I'll be working to think of a solution to that issue before I encounter it.

Lynn reported that riding in the sled bag was much more comfortable than riding as a passenger in my more modern toboggan sled. Because of the way the sled flexes it isn't so jarring to the passenger, and even on very tight corners the low center of gravity makes the sled feel very comfortable and stable.

Driving this sled requires some adjustments, but none of them are difficult adjustments to make. I think most experienced mushers would find those adjustments to be simple and intuitive.

Most of all, this freight train is a heck of a lot of fun to drive. It's certainly unique in this part of the dog mushing world, and I actually think that in some ways it is superior to modern toboggan sleds for back country touring and camping. With that low center of gravity and massive cargo area one can safely carry more than enough equipment and supplies to be safe and comfortable during very long trips. I am very, very pleased with it.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! As a dog lover, winter lover, and traine builder(in the process), I enjoyed your post. We're just now getting winter again (lower Mi). It must be nice living where you can plan on being able to sledge with regularily. Megwetch, Ray 'Sinnanatha'