Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Training Toboggan Sled

I am back at work, on night shift for this two-week rotation.  It has taken me a couple of nights to settle back into a regular routine of duties due to some unusual circumstances.  Nothing terribly important or dangerous, just some unusual things that required time to accomplish.

Break up is in full swing here in the White Mountains, which basically means that the world is covered in either slush, or sloppy mud.  The Alaska State Bird hasn't yet been spotted here, but I expect them to arrive just about any minute.  Fortunately, cliff swallows also like to nest here at my work site, and those hungry little aerobats are GREAT skeeter eaters.  Swallows and dragon flies are among my favorite summer-time creatures not only because their flight is so much fun to work, but also because they consume so many skeeters.

Sometimes I think we should ask the legislature to declare all 29 species of mosquito found in Alaska to be classified game birds.  This would put them under the management of the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, all but ensuring local shortages within half a decade.  I doubt they'd receive nearly so many complaints about low mosquito populations as they over poor salmon returns or scarce moose or caribou.

It is a beautiful evening here tonight.  The temperature is right around 50 degrees F (10 C) ABOVE zero, with just enough breeze to flutter the flags.  There are few clouds in the sky, and it is so bright out, even at 21:00 (9:00 pm) that sun-glasses are definitely in order. 

Among my errands and chores on Monday was moving my sleds up into the "bay" over the garage.  That task was delayed a bit by an opportunity to purchase a used sled that I found rather intrigueing.  It is a fascinating combination of ancient, historical and modern technology. 

The sled was built by Jay Cadzow, who grew up living a subsistence lifestyle in Fort Yukon.  Jay described it as a trapline toboggan sled, similar to those used extensively in the eastern Interior and western Yukon Territories. 

Trapline Toboggan Sled
 The "new" used sled is in the foregound of the photo above.  As you can see, it's about the same size as my older toboggan sled (middle), and both are considerably shorter than my traditional "freight train" toboggan in back. 

All of the lumber used on this sled except for the drive bow (handle bar) was milled from a birch log.  Birch is the only hardwood indigenous to the Interior suitable for making lumber.  The bed is UHMW plastic, perhaps salvaged from another sled.  The drive bow was salvaged from Abbie's first ever sled, apparently not longer in service (as it no longer has a drive bow). 

In addition to the plastic, Jay backed up the bed with boards of steam bent birch, making it incredibly strong and capable of hauling huge loads without sagging.  Rather than using stanchions and a modern sled bag, the sides of this sled are off raw moosehide, which were fastened to the bottom of the sled using strips of metal to clamp the edges of the hide in place, and then wrapped around the drive bow, lashed up the back, and allowed to dry thoroughly.  This makes for a very tough cargo container that is all but impervious to rips or tears and is very similar to the construction of late 18th and early 19th century passenger toboggans known as "carioles". 

The runners under the bed of this toboggan sled are not terribly deep, but are wider than is typical today.  Jay told me that on our well traveled hard-packed trails it is rare for the toboggan bottom to actually ride on the snow.  The foot boards on which the musher stands while riding are extra wide, making them considerably more comfortable that the narrower footboards installed on most of today's toboggan sleds. 

One of the things I like about this sled is there is nothing that the team and I might break, that can't be repaired using readily available materials and hardware.  It could stand to see a little work over the course of the summer, mostly for astehtic purposes.  There are a few screws poking through the bottom that could stand to be cut off to prevent damaging cargo.  I'll likely re-wrap the drive bow with new cordage to tidy it up and give a better grip, and perhaps I'll install a brush bow to save wear and tear (I've been known to hit the occasional tree).  For sure I'll want to install a drag mat, but the sled is already rigged for it and I happen to have one on my broken tunnel-bed sled that should fit perfectly.  Perhaps I'll put some sort of traction material on those nice, wide foot boards to prevent my feet from slipping off when they are covered with packed snow or ice. 

None of that stuff is particularly important to the function of the sled.  It may not be the "prettiest" sled on the trail, but pretty doesn't get you into the woods and back home again.  It's solid, durable, well built sled that incorporates readily available materials.  It has a very low center of gravity that makes it difficult to overturn.  It was designed for a musher who would be spending many hours on the runners while performing hard work such as hauling cargo and checking a long trap line.  I think for my purposes of training sled dogs, roaming through the woods and the occaisional camping trip into the back-country it should serve the purpose just fine.

It's going to be at least six or seven months before I can test it out, though.  We usually start getting snow on the ground in late September or early October, but it's rare for us to be running dogs on sleds rather than on wheels before the middle of November, and sometimes we aren't able to make the transition to sleds until December. 

There is plenty to do in the meantime, but I can't begin any of it until I've finished this tour of duty.  Speaking of which, I need to get going on some of my duties here at work.  After all, someone has to buy that dog food, and generally that "someone" is I.

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