Winter travel as recently as the 1950s was done by people walking and carrying backpacks, dogs pulling a toboggan or being backpacked, and horses pulling sleighs or being backpacked.
The principal element of travel in the winter bush lands since the dawn of time, however, was the dog team pulling a sled of some kind. The sled usually carried the driver and a load of freight. Up to the 1950s and 1960s every trapper-hunter family living in the bush had at least one team of dogs. Some families had two. In the 1950s some communities could claim that the human and dog populations were roughly equal. For particular operations, dogs could outnumber the humans.
In this way, hunting communities in the northwestern bush land relied on dogs. All goods, supplies, trapping equipment, camping gear, carcasses, family members and the
dog musher were carried on a sled known as a toboggan. Indeed, the toboggan was generally known in the bush land country of northwest Canada as a
"carryall." A carryall toboggan was about 4 m long, pulled by 5 to 7 dogs running in single file. The reason for using a toboggan, rather than a sleigh, and a single-file dog hitch, rather than a fan hitch, was for easy access and effective hauling through the narrow trails in dense bush. Dog teams operating in open country farther north were more commonly organized in the fan hitch, which has the dogs running not in line, but individually tied to the toboggan, making an arc of a circle in front of the toboggan, like a fan.
The driver of the dog team was known locally as a dog musher because the call to "launch" the dogs on the trail was "mush!"
An average dog team was able to pull approximately its own weight plus the weight of the dog musher. Thus 7 dogs weighing about 25 kg each could pull approximately
400 kg, and they were able to do this for 8 to 10 hours a day while covering 100 to 110 km. In a competitive pull of a metre or so, a single dog could pull as much as ten times its own
weight. On short trips, less than 15 km, as in local community travel, a dog could pull two or three times its own weight.
Soft snow made it hard for dogs to run and pull a load, and toboggans slid much more easily on packed surfaces
than on fresh snow. For that reason, after a fresh snowfall, the dog musher would walk ahead of the dog team on snowshoes to pack the trail. On a new trail, in loose, deep, snow packed by a person on snowshoes, 40-50 km per day was about as much as a dog team could handle. On steep inclines and in deep snow the dog musher helped the dogs by pushing the toboggan. Snow in the thick bush is always loose until packed by use. Except after fresh snowfalls, dog-team trails in the dense bush are smooth and firm, having been packed by steady use. Trails on snow-covered lakes and open areas are usually packed hard by the winds in the open, unprotected areas.
On a long trip the toboggan might be loaded with a tent, stove, cooking gear, extra clothing, sleeping bags, axe, gun, shovel and food for the traveler and dogs. A dog needed about 3 kg of food per day, so the food supplies for dogs alone was quite a substantial part of the total load.
Reprinted from Bush Land People
with the permission of the author. Copyright Terry Garvin, 1992-2002.