Our longest non-stop trip by dog team was to Cree River from our home cabin one cold clear January day. Estimated at forty-four miles the road led in a slight curve northeastward among the islands on the lake ice within sight of Cree Lake shore, all the way to Henry's (Wietzel) Trading Post. The time of departure was 3:30 A.M. A decrescent moon lighted our way as the journey began. Of course, such a trip could not have been possible without a stop for food and rest if we had not had the help of our sleigh dogs, Footing was exceptionally good on the snow-covered ice because the snow was hard enough to carry the dogs, toboggan and ourselves on light trail snowshoes. So good was the travelling that we took turns riding on the tailboard.
At sundown, as we neared our destination and twilight settled over the frozen land, I stopped the team to inspect the feet of the dogs, looking for ice that can pack between the pads of the foot and which will freeze the foot if not removed. When I lifted the front foot of our big wheel dog he made as if to play, as a puppy will by drawing his head down between the shoulders and peering mischievously into your eyes. Considering that he had been pulling steadily for twelve hours, I could not help but admire that dog. I patted his head and we continued on our way. Our dog team had begun very humbly in the first winter at Cree Lake when Meg, the small bitch, had wandered to our cabin from her Indian owners. With the acquisition of Snuff, the buff-coloured pup, we had a useful pulling unit. As the winter progressed, Snuff gained weight. He proved to be a worthy performer and a steady worker. Later he developed into a capable lead dog and although he was somewhat small for a sleigh dog, we never knew him to shirk on a long hard haul.
In the second year we added Cap and Duke, two half-grown pups, bought from a Chipewyan Indian at Patuanak when we stopped at the trading post on our way north that summer. These dogs were jet black in colour with decided labrador breeding and just enough husky dog ancestry to be noticeable. Cap was heavy, thick, and bearish in appearance even to the white patch low on his throat.
He was a natural puller from the day that I first put the harness on him until the day that we parted. I placed him at wheel position, or last in line and next to the toboggan. When he threw his weight into the collar he could break a loaded toboggan loose from the frost by himself. His black, shiny coat was so thick that every hair seemed to stand straight out from his body in cold weather. Wide chested and iron-legged, he was by far the strongest dog of the lot. I could sit on his shoulders and he could bear my weight for a short time. Good-natured and playful, he never growled at me on any occasion. Duke was a four-flusher, a sneak, and a malingerer. Long, rangy, and black as a raven, with beady slant eyes, he required supervision much of the time. Whenever possible he trotted loose in the traces, a cardinal sin in a sleigh dog of the Northland. I should have shot him in the beginning, yet he was a noble-looking beast; but born to be a laggard, showoff, and a playboy. A troublemaker of the first order, he fought the other male members of the team. He led the howling of the dogs at night. He did not take a well-deserved whipping without showing his wicked-looking, long, white teeth. He had been born a shirker and would never change. I have noticed similar traits in horses and, of course, in humans.
So, at the beginning of the second winter at Cree Lake with Snuff in the lead, Meg second, then Duke, and Cap, we owned a four-dog team which was the usual number for a white trapper, although occasionally a man drove three or five dogs.
With them, we transported our trail gear: bedroll, axe, rifle, traps, bait, and grub box, and other essentials for life on the winter trail that often included a tent and a small stove. They hauled the heavy loads of meat from where we had shot it, often out of hilly, difficult terrain where a great deal of energy must be used up by both the driver and his dogs before reaching the cabin. They hauled the unskinned carcasses of fox, otter, mink, lynx, beaver, or other furbearers that were taken on the trapline. They hauled fish from the nets set on Cree Lake. They sometimes hauled firewood into camp and our mail from the trading post. They were the means of transporting our big, heavy canoe, outboard motor, and gasoline across the ice in the springtime and they pulled one of us where the trail was good for then the added weight did not make much difference, and the actual weight that these dogs could pull astounded us on occasion as the toboggan skittered across the frozen lakes and bush trails.
Snuff and Duke were enemies from the beginning, always growling at one another. I kept Meg between them while in harness for she tolerated no nonsense from any of the others. The two enemies fought savagely with each other, standing on their hind legs and battling toe to toe. We made it a point never to let them run at large simultaneously for we feared that one might kill or cripple the other.
Their enmity reached a climax one bitterly cold January day when I drove them far into jack pine country in order to transport caribou meat back to camp. On the way, I shot a standing caribou. I wedged the toboggan between two trees to hold the dogs down before I shot. In the resulting excitement Snuff and Duke were at each other's throats and tangled in the harness. Cap tried to get in the fray, but being anchored to the toboggan was unable to wreak the havoc he might have. Meg also got in her share of the fight. Snuff and Duke were locked in a death grip. I parted them finally and strung them out by chaining Snuff to a tree and tying the toboggan to another. I made an assessment of the damage. One of Snuff's gleaming, long, white fangs had snapped off at the gum line and the skin at the side of his neck hung down in an empty bag, not torn open but pulled from the flesh of his neck. Duke had a three-inch-long gash above his nose from which his breath plumed out on the frigid air. One ear hung crookedly down the side of his head. There was a great bloody rip in it and the white cartilage had been exposed. There had been no winner.
While I dressed the caribou, I planned punishment. I loaded the toboggan heavily and since the dogs had apparently had energy to spare, I rode the entire way home. All were subdued and penitent by the time I arrived at the cabin. Both of the aggressors were terribly stiff and sore for some days but healed and recovered quickly.
I have heard it said in the North that dog drivers learned to swear with more authority than did the mule skinners of pioneer days in the United States. Many times the activities of our dogs so aggravated and exasperated us that we were prone to agree with all our hearts.
Only four spoken commands were given to our dogs: "Mush" - go forward, "Whoa" - stop, "Gee" - turn right, and "Haw" - turn left. These directions were understood perfectly by the dogs and at most times they were obeyed. On the occasions when profanity became involved, it was the result of the ignoring of one or more of the commands.
Sometimes there were runaways. This situation developed when a lone traveller trotted behind the toboggan on the lake ice and ahead of the dogs there suddenly appeared a herd of caribou. This was the signal for each dog to prick up his ears, curl it's tail up over its back and break into a gallop. A shout of "Whoa" might slow them down a bit, but as the traveller, on the dead run now, almost reached the backboard handles, the toboggan spurted ahead again, and in the process was repeated until the caribou fled into the bush and the excitement subsided. Our dogs were trained to stay on the trail, but we never broke them of the habit of breaking into a dead run every time caribou were sighted or scented.
Sleigh dogs, the same as for dogs everywhere, answer the call of nature and this quite frequently. On harnessing the dogs in the early morning and striking off down a bush trail, the leader stopped at the first bush, cocked his leg and urinated. Each male dog now stopped in turn at the bush and did likewise, causing three stops. This performance could be tolerated as a necessity, but when the process was repeated at the next bush, and the next, and the next, despite determined shouts of "Mush! Mush!" which we knew they understood, it took a great deal of self-control to keep from cracking the skull of each dog in turn.
The outrage most often perpetrated by sleigh dogs occurred when one was hunting caribou. Rounding a point of land on some remote lake, a herd of caribou is suddenly sighted and the hunter wishes to shoot one or more animals. The dogs cannot give chase since the hunter has hold of one trace in order to keep the dogs off-balance. But all the dogs are lunging forward yelping in excitement, jumping up and down, so he wrestles the big wheel dog to the ice, sits on him, digs his heels into the snow as a brake while trying expertly to pick off a racing caribou. I saw one full-grown man so enraged at his dogs for causing him to miss while shooting at caribou that he attempted to choke his big red dog, the chief noisemaker of the team. He was not at all successful, for it became almost impossible when the dog pulled his head back into his beefy neck-and when released did not even look worried. It began to look around for more caribou at which to yelp.
Our dogs were of different sizes, colours, markings, disposition, and personalities, yet one factor all had in common. Their wide skulls and slanted eyes indicated timber wolf ancestry. They were never heard to bark, but frequently they whined, yelped, or howled. The howl was initiated by a single dog, then joined by all. These weird quartets occurred usually at night, led by Duke, and the others joining in the final chorus, then it subsided and was heard no more that night. We considered this another wolfish trait.
I never heard the like of such howling except by sleigh dogs of the North, beside lonely campfires, at remote cabins, and Indian camps and trading posts or wherever sleigh dogs are chained to their quarters. All their food was wrested from the country. All spring, summer, and fall they were fed fish, most often the whitefish most frequently caught in the big gill nets used in the lake. Lake trout and jackfish were used for dog food on occasion when whitefish was not available. The dogs ate fish with relish so that they thrived and their coats were shiny. In winter, the frozen fish were thawed slightly for it made for easier eating. I have watched dogs prop a frozen fish between forepaws, the head end up, and eat it down as a small boy eats an ice-cream cone. By spring the dogs were passing large tapeworms so that we forced them to swallow patent capsules purchased Outside, after which they gained flesh and assumed a thrifty appearance.
When caribou appeared at Cree Lake, the dogs were fed a good deal of meat in the form of trimmings and the entrails which normally were waste. On a long lone journey, they were fed caribou meat since enough dog food could not be carried for a long stay. The dogs' much-preferred meat to fish and once on a meat diet were difficult to feed on fish until nearly starving.
I have never known any of our dogs to eat duck. They were terrified of a duck's head and refused to eat any part of a duck. I asked an Indian why this was so. He said that a sleigh dog would not eat duck unless starving but he did not know why.
At various times our dogs ate rabbits, the carcasses of muskrat, beaver, fox, and coyote, but these are starvation rations for dogs and were offered only during the few times when fish or venison was not immediately available. In summer, you might see the dogs eating blueberries on some favoured hillside where the fruit grew in such profusion that a blue tinge covered the ground.
Whenever possible, sleigh dogs eat human excrement (any dog will). It seems that in the wilderness there is no cure for this horrible trait. We laid the cause at the door of diet deficiencies in the dogs. In a land where no indoor plumbing existed, we took great pains to keep them from committing this revolting act and was one of the reasons we kept them chained to their kennels much of the time.
Martin Brustad was justifiably proud of his three beautiful dogs. They were from a strain of tall, lean, sharp-eared, long-faced, heavy-coated, black and white animals, well trained, well fed and expertly handled. Martin was a lone trapper and his three dogs were adequate for his purposes. A quiet well-behaved bitch was an intelligent beast and an experienced lead dog. Martin arrived at our home cabin one day in early spring on foot; he had tied up his remaining two dogs a mile away so that they would not contact our dogs. The bitch was dead of distemper picked up from travelling Indian dog teams that passed his camp at Stoney Narrows. This dreaded scourge frequently wipes out the dogs of whites and Indians alike.
On a summer return journey to Cree Lake we overtook Harry Jones at Grand Rapids on the Deer River. Harry was on his way in to his home cabin, situated near the source of the Deer River in desolate and seldom frequented country, well of the main artery of travel. Harry owned no sleigh dogs. He had packed most of his provisions over the Grand Rapids portage before we arrived. As we began to unload our canoe Harry made another trip over. Then we heard his big-game rifle boom just once. On arriving at the other side with our first loads, we saw a large, yellow dog lying dead beside a ripped-open bag of flour.
This had been one of the lost dogs of the North. Allowed to run along the lakeshores and riverbanks while their Indian owners are travelling by canoe, they frequently become lost from their owners. To keep alive they scavenge the dead fish that they find onshore. Not able to hunt as do their wild ancestors, they lead a lonely and miserable existence of creeping starvation, not wandering far from the rivers for they know that their owners are likely to return someday. So they frequent the rapids portages where there is sign of man. A man's grubstake left unattended become vulnerable to their depredations which was what had happened when Harry shot the gulping derelict through the head. There could be no question that Harry's action was justified for his grubstake was his life insurance and no pilfering could be tolerated.
Harry had no other choice. Many a white trapper has harboured a lost dog belonging to Indians, has fed it well and begun to use it as a sleigh dog come winter. The first time the dog is seen by its Indian owner it is claimed and nothing can be done but to hand it over to a life of starvation and overwork. The same situation developed when an Indian claimed Meg, the bitch that had wandered into our camp. In this case, he demanded payment. We paid. Frank Fisher once picked up a fine white and tan dog at the Highland Portage. He kept it until midwinter when a Chipewyan trapper claimed it. He was left with an empty harness in his dog team.
These lost dogs are skulking, cringing, unhappy-looking brutes that most likely will keep well out of sight of travelling strangers, but only so far away that one's every movement can be watched, and if a chance to steal food presents itself, it is acted upon at once.
We were a mile out from Cree Lake shore as we approached the home cabin by canoe and outboard motor after a summer trip Outside. Cap and Duke lying in the bottom of a new hunting canoe we had purchased, decided to mix it up. The two big dogs lunging about in a small canoe are destined for trouble, which soon arrived as they both rolled out and into the lake. Ab left the throttle wide open and the dogs were allowed to swim for it. Of course, all animosity between them had vanished. Both dogs were powerful swimmers and their labrador blood became more apparent than ever as they struck out for shore near the river's mouth. They had fallen a long way behind as the motor roared on. As we rounded a point, they were seen to be swimming strongly and steadily, cutting down the distance to shore. As we tied up to the dock and made an inspection of the cabin, the dogs arrived, tongues out, weary, sheepish-looking and unusually quiet and docile. The one-and-one-half mile run through rugged bushland had not helped them to get rested. We had not acted out of malice. Retrieving them out of the lake into canoes heavily loaded with our grubstake would have been rather dangerous, cumbersome, and apt to wet precious cargo. We knew the mettle of these dogs.
In midwinter, it was unusual for the wind to blow strongly when the temperature dipped down to -30 or -40 degrees below zero, yet it happened that January day. We were pinned down at Cree Lake Outpost by intense cold and high-velocity winds. Snow swirled about and a grey-white, murky cloud covered the lake. Toward sundown of the second day the winds abated. In the twilight, we set out for the home cabin, twelve miles across the ice. on the open lake. Four miles away from the outpost the winds, incredibly, rose again and soon the snow cloud enveloped us. The descending darkness contributed to the gloom and our island landmarks became obscured, then disappeared. With our parkas tightly buttoned and our deep fur-trimmed hoods pulled down over our faces, we trotted steadily into the wind. When we no longer could see a landmark, we gave Snuff his head and both of us followed the toboggan. The cold was beginning to seep through our usually adequate clothing and the road seemed a good deal longer than usual. We began to think that Snuff had lost the way. Then as the cold was beginning to bite more deeply, he hit the bush right on the trail beside the river mouth.
The sheltering spruce broke the wind as we crossed the little lake and climbed the hill to the cabin. The door was flung open, we drove the dogs and toboggan into the cabin and lit the fire. As the wood crackled and the cabin warmed the dogs licked the packed snow from their fur. Their faces became free of the powdered snow that had whitened their heads as we travelled. Snuff lay dozing by the fire for some time before I reluctantly turned him out to his kennel. On our first beaver hunt, Cap and Duke were lost to us for four days. We had turned them loose one day and they vanished. On the fourth day, they returned as suddenly as they had left. When I later mushed the dogs down to the home cabin twenty odd miles away, I saw their tracks in the vicinity of Cree Lake. Why they did not blunder into some of my wolf snares I will never know. The jolting collar when the toboggan hood collided with a tree or rock, the ice pellets that formed between the toes and froze the footpads on long cold trips, the steady straining into the collar all day long, the weary uphill climbs with heavy loads, the eating of frozen fish, the gulping of snow on the trail to combat thirst, were all part of a hard life which our dogs did not protest. They did not mind sleeping in the snow, chained to a tree through the long cold nights and there were periods when they did not get as much food as they required. They were always eager to go when preparations were being made to start on the winter trail. Excitement gripped them so that they yelped and jumped expressing glee as a dog can: with a big smile. I sincerely believe that our dogs revelled in the sleigh dog's life and to them it was all one enjoyable game.