A dog they say, is a man's best friend, but a sleigh dog is even more than that. I could never have spent those twenty-five years in the North, many of them by myself, had it not been for my dogs.
Not only did they perform tasks that would be impossible for me alone but they were excellent company. A solitary man, following the trapline day after day and week after week, does not feel alone when he has dogs. Caring for them gives him something to do when he pitches camp at night, and talking to them keeps him sane.
Sleigh dogs were part of everyday living when I lived in the North. There were thousands of them in the country. Around the Hudson's Bay Company post in Ile-A-La-Crosse in the holiday season -- Christmas and New Years -- two three hundred dogs in harness were the usual thing, and I am sure other posts would have been like that, too. Every man had his dog team, just as every man in the South today has his automobile.
Before the railroad came to Big River, the Hudson's Bay Company's District Manager was brought in from Prince Albert by dog team every winter to check over the main posts in the North country. Two experienced native drivers were responsible for his transportation. One of these men told me about their trip. He said it was nice going to Prince Albert with no load and five big dogs on each of two toboggans. They could ride if they so wished and the going was easy since they knew all the trails. Arriving in Prince Albert, they would feed their dogs and rest overnight. In the morning they would load the toboggans. The District Manager travelled in one. First of all, the carryall had to be put in place. The carryall was a big canvas bag fastened by two ropes running from the nose of the toboggan to the backrest and then down to the back end of the sleigh. When these ropes were tightened, you had a firm canvas bag the full length of the sleigh. Into this went a warm robe. The District Manager travelled cozily in the coverall. He could sit up with the backrest for support, or lie down as he preferred. Such a conveyance was useful all winter, requiring only an occasional tightening of the ropes. Snow could never get on the robe inside a carryall. On the second sleigh went supplies that the District Manager always brought with him -- things that were not available in the outposts. His many belongings made a full load on the second toboggan.
Depending on the state of the trails, it would take four or five days to reach Ile-A-La-Crosse. On this return trip, the drivers would run all day behind their dogs.
Toward night, if they grew tired, they could jump on the back and ride since there was standing room at the end of each toboggan. No time was wasted on these trips. When night came, they would make camp according to the routine I have already described: clearing a spot of snow with their snowshoes, then gathering enough spruce boughs for three men to sleep on. They slept in the open except for a row of small spruce trees that might stick in the snow around the bed to hold a piece of canvas for a windbreak if there was a threat of a snowstorm. They put down spruce boughs for the dogs as well. Then a great quantity of dry wood had to be gathered for the fire that must last all night.
Probably they would make a stop at Green Lake where there used to be a trading post -- then on to Ile-A-La-Crosse, and on to all the main stores in the country. At each stop the manager would check the books and the stock on hand. Finally they would go down the Churchill River to one of the big trading posts and back to Ile-A-La-Crosse. Then another two drivers and dog teams would take the manager to other posts down the Churchill and on to the north end of Reindeer Lake.
Meanwhile, the first two drivers would load their sleighs with freight, one hundred pounds to the dog. Each would probably have a four-hundred pound payload as well as food for himself and fish for his dogs. Now they would spend the rest of the winter freighting supplies to outposts, trapping and trading.
The main food for dogs was hung fish which, as I have said, they preferred to fish that was fresh. Indeed, after a winter diet of hung fish, my dogs would sometimes choose to go hungry a whole week before they would eat the fresh-caught ones -- but eventually they would have to give in, because fresh fish was all they had during the summer. Years ago all the Hudson's Bay posts used to hang whitefish for the dogs. Fishermen tended to feed their dogs what they called "rough fish" -- that is, big jackfish, pickerel and such that were not fit for market. Trappers used to hang fish for dog feed too (I have already described my practice), but they usually fed quite a lot of wild meat as well. Dogs work better on meat. Further north in the caribou country men usually put up just enough fish to keep their dogs until the caribou herds came down. After that the dogs had meat for the rest of the winter.
Every Hudson's Bay Company post throughout the North had its own dogs and native drivers. Each post had so many outposts under its care, and these men hauled the freight to them by dog team except in the fall when some of it might go by canoe. At each outpost there was a man stationed to take care of what was freighted in. This man, in turn, had his own dog team with which he would travel about visiting the trappers that dealt with him, taking supplies to them.
There was a member of the RCMP and his helper who were responsible for the whole territory. They had two trains of dogs to take them wherever they needed to go. No great police force was needed because lawlessness was not a problem. The main duty of these men was to check into the death of some trapper in his cabin or on his trapline, to investigate the occasional drowning, accidental shooting, or suicide.
Dogs were indispensable to commercial fishermen who used them to haul their tools and nets onto the ice and to bring fish back to the camp, as well as to haul the logs from which they built their cabins and the wood that kept their fires alight. Dogs were used to follow traplines and to take men on their journeys. I remember the Chipewyans coming to Sunday services with their dog teams.
When they went to visit their friends -- and the natives were great people for visiting -- they always travelled with dogs.
Not only were dogs useful for hauling everything imaginable, they were easy to feed out in the bush away from camp. If you ran out of frozen fish, you could bring down food for them with your rifle. It seems strange to me to think that dog teams are becoming a thing of the past and that soon, perhaps, they will be seen only in carnivals and endurance tests to entertain spectators at winter sports.
There was no limit to how a good dog could serve his master in the bush. For instance, he had an elephant's memory. A good lead dog, once he had been over a trapline, he never forgot it. He could go straight across the lake and hit a portage, then cross the portage without faltering even in the night, in a blizzard or with a foot of snow covering the trail. He would follow last year's trapline without a mistake, no matter what the conditions. A man can't do that. I have taken my dogs over traplines that they hadn't seen for two or three years, and found that they remembered everything, never once getting of course. I learned to rely completely on one leader that I drove for eight years. When a man loses a dog like that, it is a calamity. Actually, nobody should rely on a single leader, simply because no dog lives forever. It is best to have two leaders -- the main one and a second one that can be put on lead when the trail is plain and then kept working until he learns the whole routine. If that is done, a man will never be stuck for a leader. Otherwise, he may find himself one fall having to break in a pup for lead dog, and that is nothing but trouble for a while.
I learned a lot about dogs by talking to the old native drivers -- men who drove dogs in the winter and hauled freight with York boats in the summer. In those days the natives were excellent drivers who understood dogs and how to handle them. One fellow told me that the best train is made up of dogs from the same litter. The natives generally drove five dogs to a toboggan. Their training was efficient but far from gentle. They would harness the pups to a toboggan and drive them with a loaded whip. Natives claimed that was how to make the best train of dogs, and certainly their dogs served them well.
However, I could never break in my dogs that way. Since I trapped alone, I had to have them following me on the trail. If you want a dog to follow you, you have to be good to him. My dogs were not useful to the natives, and their dogs were not useful to me. I have had a few dogs that they broke in, but these would never follow me when I went ahead on my snowshoes. They were never friendly like the dogs of many white men. Whenever I met a native in the bush, the first thing he always wanted was to trade dogs.
So many of my memories of the North are about dogs. I had one for nine years that I never had to tie up at night when I was on the trapline. He was broken by Indians, a good sled dog, but it was two years before I had him trained to follow me, pulling the toboggan while I went ahead on snowshoes. All the time that I camped out in the open, he was with me. At night he kept my feet warm by sleeping on them, and if I moved he would growl. When I was going north in the summer time and would take a pack over a portage, he would lie beside it and protect it from the other dogs, never moving until I told him he could leave. There were not many dogs like him. Most sleigh dogs will steal if they have a chance because they have been hungry so many times. He was my lead dog for nine years, and he knew all my traplines better than I did. Even if I missed going over one of those lines for two or three years, he could go over it day or night without faltering. Strange that a man can't do that, but a good dog can.
There is necessarily a good deal of ice travel in the North. A young man going there for the first time takes foolish risks because he doesn't understand northern conditions. One fall, going north on a trapline when I was still inexperienced, I had found solid ice on all the lakes I travelled and so figured that I would have good ice the rest of the winter. I came to a good-sized lake about fifteen miles long from east to west and seven miles across. I took my dogs straight over. It was a dark night, made darker by falling snow. Since my dogs had been at Fred's camp before and were eager to return, I let them choose the way, knowing that they would hit the camp directly while I would have to do some hunting before I found it. It was a disappointment to discover that Fred was off somewhere on his north line. However, I stayed overnight and, since there was a blizzard coming in from the East next morning. I stayed all that day as well. I thought he might come in, because neither of us ever let a storm hold us up when we were on a trapline. We always figured it was better to travel than sit by a campfire. But he didn't come.
When the storm began to ease, I walked over to look at the lake. To my amazement, the storm had entirely cleared it of ice! Obviously some of the lake must have been open water when I crossed it the night before, and nowhere could the ice have been thick or it wouldn't have broken up like that. I could just as well have dropped into open water on my way across the lake, for I couldn't see ten feet ahead of me, but my dogs had kept me safe. After a man has been in the North a few years, he knows better than to take chances like that. He understands that shallow lakes may freeze over a month before deep lakes do. I travelled on ice for two months after that before I went to Cree Lake -- and then found open water still when I reached there!
Conversely, of course, in the spring ice last longest on the deepest lakes. Fred and I always met when it was time to go south in the spring,
although we would have been on our own all winter since coming in to Russell Lake together in the fall. Almost always we left our camps on ice. Before we started, though, we used to make enough moccasins to last the whole trip. When we reached Cree Lake, it was time to put these moccasins on our working dogs. We had to do this because the big south winds made the Cree Lake ice as sharp as needles. In no time, a dog with unprotected feet would be unable to walk. When we had dogs with us that we didn't need in harness, we loaded them into our canoe instead of covering their feet. (We travelled with a twenty-foot freighter canoe strapped on a five-foot sleigh mounted on iron shoes. It ran easily on good ice.) However, if the ice began to break under the dogs, they would be scared and want to stop -- though many a time, if they had kept going, they could have crossed bad ice with no trouble. A dog that has once fallen into icy water is really afraid when he thinks it might happen again. Sometimes, though, a team can travel for forty miles on a lake in the spring and never break through.
Once I travelled at a good pace behind four dogs for twenty miles over beautifully clear ice. Then we came to a narrows. The whole outfit dropped into the icy water -- dogs, toboggan, canoe and I! Sitting in the canoe, I was all right, but the dogs were in real danger. It took me fifteen or twenty minutes of cautious maneuvering (the canoe would upset easily) to get a paddle under the lead dog and push him onto good ice. He pulled out the rest of the team, all tangled in their harness. They were in a sorry plight, shivering with cold.
After an experience like that, it is no wonder that dogs are afraid of poor ice. It is hard to get a lead dog that can be driven over rotten ice, but in the spring men and dogs have no other way to travel. It would sometimes take us half a day to cross a lake that, on good ice, could be crossed in half an hour. We would be breaking through, pulling sleigh and canoe out onto ice again, going a short distance and breaking through again.
There was a Hudson's Bay Company post at a little village on the Churchill River where we always stopped, and some years we left our dogs there to be cared for while we went on south to get supplies for the next winter. When we returned, we would stay a couple of weeks getting ready to go in for the winter, this being our last chance to lay in supplies.
On one of these times, a young, good-sized dog began following me around, ravenous for the bits of food that I tossed to him. Since he seemed to belong to nobody, though he looked to be a good dog, I began asking people about him. It seemed that several men had tried to work him the year before without any success. The last man that had tried to work him sold him to me for five dollars (at that time a good dog was worth around seventy-five). I took him north with me, and when winter set in I put him in harness. All that dog knew was to pull -- just as hard as he could, all day long until he could go no longer. He had been so cruelly treated in harness that, to escape the beating he expected, he would work until he dropped. Many a time I had to camp early because he was exhausted. He would have been a good dog on short trips on open trails, and would have made an excellent racer, but on the trapline and over land without trails he was no good. He lasted only three years before he wore himself out, although I never touched him in harness. His name was Maksap, an Indian name.
When we went down creeks, rivers and rapids in the spring, our dogs often ran free. Then they would many times come running to us with their mouths full of porcupine quills.
It was very painful for the dogs when we pulled out those barbed quills with our pliers. My partner had a dog that never seemed to learn. As soon as he had taken out one load of quills, the dog would go right back, grab another porcupine, and get another load!
We had to put muzzles on our dogs when we got together. Otherwise they would do too much fighting. They had been apart all winter and all they thought of when they were back together was to fight. After a winter of hard work, dogs are very strong. If two or three of them jump one, he will be killed in no time. With the muzzles on, they could open their mouths enough to drink, but not to bite. Muzzled like that, when they went after porcupines, they got quills only on their noses. It was easier for us to remove these, but taking them out hurt the dogs more, and they were not so anxious to attack porcupines after that.
Once when we were going up a river we had eight dogs running loose with us. We heard them barking and couldn't make them come back to us, so we went to find out what they were doing. They had found a moose standing in about two feet of water where they had to swim to get near it. Whenever one got close, the moose would put its ears back, make a rush, strike out with a front hoof and drive the dog under water. One treatment like that, and a dog has had enough. About half the dogs had been dunked by the time we got there, and they were standing on the shore barking furiously but not venturing again into the water. Probably a moose would act the same way with wolves -- but wolves are not like dogs. They would wait on shore until the moose had to come out where they could get him, even if it took a week.
I could tell endless stories about the sleigh dog. What a friend he was to man! When the caribou came down in the fall, the dogs would go mad so that a man could scarcely hold them. I used to wrap dog chains around my toboggan and stand back of it to slow them down. When the caribou had been around for a week or so, the dogs would become manageable again.
Well those days are gone. The Department of Indian Affairs began building new homes for the natives south on the Churchill River where their children could go to school. There the men began doing quite well fishing in the summer and trapping in the winter. They got rid of their dogs and bought snow toboggans with motors on them. Snow toboggans are all right for trapping close by, but they are not good on a long trip. Let a man go a fair distance with a snow toboggan and have a break-down (which is likely enough). Then he must put his blankets on his back and walk until he finds another trapper. That may be along walk. I know one man who walked four days before he found help. That man swore that the next winter he would go back to dogs. I don't know if he kept his word, for I never saw him again. I was twenty-five years on the trapline with dogs, and they brought me safely back to camp every time. Sleigh dogs are now almost a thing of the past -- but I can't see how the North country can ever be trapped without them. They were the greatest animal that ever was.