luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
[personal profile] luzula posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
I've always been fascinated by dogsledding, possibly due to an overdose of "Call of the Wild" as a child (the Jack London book, that is, not the due South episode or the Robert Service poem). When I first saw the pilot of due South, it was the dogsledding that drew me in as much as, well, other things.

Recently I went dogsledding for a week, and I thought I'd share what it was like. The purpose of this post is to describe the practical details, which can be important if you want to write post-CotW stories. It's not about winter camping or cold-weather survival, though--we stayed in cabins, and it's April, so it wasn't very cold.

Keep in mind that I'm not an expert in this, and I'm sure there are many ways to dogsled--probably I am influenced by the opinions of the musher who was with us as a guide. I did look up all the English terms, though, so they should be accurate. The pictures look kind of small, but if you click on them twice, you'll get bigger ones so you can see the details. Thanks to [ profile] isiscolo for beta-reading!

Here's a picture of a sled:

The frame is laminated wood, glued and pressed together. There's a bag of wind- and waterproof fabric lashed to the frame, to keep your baggage in. It's easy to pack the sled--you just put everything in, keeping the heavier things in the back, near the bottom, and then zip up the bag of fabric. The runners have a layer of hard plastic underneath, and the bottom of the sled is also plastic and is fairly close to the level of the runners. There's a lot of variation in sled construction—for example, the sled can be wider, to improve stability, and there can be more distance between the runners and the bottom of the sled. Some sleds don't have the fabric bag, but rather a wood platform where you can lash bulky boxes. Racing sleds often have an aluminum frame, to make it lighter. If the frame is more flexible, it makes for a less bumpy ride, but then it's often harder to steer. Our guide had tried out lots of sleds, but this was his favorite one, and he seemed to enjoy figuring out ways to improve on the design.

You stand on the runners, and there are bits of rubber attached to them so you won't lose your footing. Sometimes ice freezes on these, and you need to kick the ice away. You hold on to the handle, and there's a snub line that you wrap around your hand as an extra safety if you lose your hold. That line can also be used if you want to secure the sled to a tree or pole.

There are two types of brakes. One is the black rectangle that's standing up vertically against the back of the sled. You can fold it down and put one or both feet on it, and it will slow you down but usually not stop the sled completely. It's held by a spring in a pretty smart construction which has two stable positions: either standing up as in the picture, or lying down horizontally against the ground. When it's down, you can flip it up with your foot. The other brake is the metal thing with two hooks, held up by a spring. It brakes the sled more efficiently, and is usually enough to completely stop the sled on level ground. There is also a snow hook, which you can see hanging on the side of the sled. It has hooks which you can stamp into the snow, to temporarily park the sled. When you're ready to go again, it's often frozen to the snow, so you have to kick it loose.

The harnesses are made of webbing, and lie in an X across the dog's back, and also in a padded X across the chest, where the pressure will lie, and down between the dog's front legs. They come in different sizes. It's hard to describe in words, but here's a picture. To see the way it looks across the chest, scroll down to the third picture.

At the front of the sled there's a long gangline which is braided polypropylene rope (sometimes with a wire core). It's attached with a locking carabiner to the sled bridle, which is a short line that goes across the front of the sled. The snub line and the snow hook are also attached to the carabiner—it's the dogs you want to hold still, not the sled. The dogs are attached to the gangline by tuglines that you attach by a snap swivel bolt to the back of the harness—you can see this on the picture above (although on the dog in the foreground, there are two tuglines attached to the same harness). Ice often freezes in the bolt, and you can free it by hitting it on something hard to dislodge the ice. There's also a shorter neckline that's attached to the collar to keep the dog close to the gangline, except for the lead dogs, who only have tuglines. Collars are also made of webbing, and are not choke collars. The tuglines and necklines are never wires, in case you need to cut the dogs loose.

The dogs are arranged by pairs in a line, and this arrangement is one of the two traditional types. The other is used on Greenland, and has the dogs in a fan in front of the sled. Our guide didn't like this arrangement since the dogs get tangled up more easily. Also, it's less suited for forests, and more for open tundra or ice. (Incidentally, dogsledding is not native to Sweden--the indigenous Sami people used reindeer to pull sleds.) You can use anything from three to twelve dogs, depending on factors like load and how experienced you are.

You need pretty much the same type of clothing as for any winter activity, meaning many layers so you can easily take things on and off according to how warm you are, to minimize sweating. Wool next to your skin is good, since it warms you even if it gets wet. Dogsledding generally means less physical activity than cross-country skiing, so you need warm boots, preferably with inner boots that you can take out and dry, and thick trousers. You need both a pair of thick mittens, and thinner windproof gloves that you use while handling the dogs (because you need to use your fingers). You also need a good jacket or anorak that protects your face against the wind, and sunglasses and sunscreen. When you take a break, you need a thicker down jacket so you don't start to freeze while you're still. For some snow conditions, you need snow shoes; more about this later.

What are the dogs like?

Here's a picture of my team and me:

What struck me the most is how much the dogs are individuals, both in their physical appearance and their personality. You don't think of them just as "the dogs", you think of each of them by name and treat them differently. This is something I'd love to see more of in stories!

For example, take Kirienko, the one I've got my arms around (he's also in the foreground of the photo showing the harnesses). He looks almost like a German Shepherd in his coloring, and he's got lovely reddish shading on his head. Despite appearing to be big and macho, he's actually quite cuddly. It took me some time to notice this, though, because he won't ask for it. But if you pet him, he'll lean against your legs, and when you stop, he'll look up like “what, why are you stopping?”. The two smaller dogs at the front are Evita and Ninni, and they're mother and daughter. Both of them are mainly white, with black irregular markings. Ninni is quite attached to her mother, and would start whining if you separated them. Maja, the light-colored one in second position, looks almost like a wolf in her markings. She's a bit growly towards other dogs sometimes, but cuddly in an “I'm turning up my belly here, come and rub it now!” way.

The musher encouraged socializing with the dogs, so we spent a lot of time talking and cuddling with them. While they're resting, they're quite social and come up to you to sniff you and get some attention, if they're not curled up and sleeping. While running they're completely concentrated on doing their job, and you're not supposed to disturb them then.

Among themselves, they never fight, apart from some occasional growling, but this is a question of training. Our guide's philosophy was that humans should be on top, and all dogs underneath, with as little hierarchy as possible among them. He punished dogs that attacked other dogs or stole their food, and his dogs ran free together in a yard at least once a day to practice good behavior in the pack. They were also pretty quiet—no barking or howling, and this was also by training. If one of them started making noise, he'd shout “Fenris, what the HELL are you doing? Shut the FUCK up!” and this would be enough. If he wanted to punish them more, he'd push them down onto their backs. When he was far away, though, the dogs would sometimes take the opportunity to make noise, and me telling them to stop wasn't nearly as effective. They are also trained to tolerate cars and snowmobiles, and not to chase moose or reindeer (not chasing reindeer is especially important in Sweden, because all reindeer are actually semi-tame and belong to the Sami people).

In the summer, the dogs rest and eat and get obedience training. The guide started training them for the winter season in August.

Our dogs were pure Siberian huskies, but many mushers breed huskies with pointers or greyhounds to get mixed breeds. This results in dogs which look a bit different—their bodies and muzzles are thinner, and they have a bit less fur. According to our guide, these dogs run fast, but they don't pace themselves well. If you tell them to run, they will just go until you tell them to stop, or they fall down exhausted. Sometimes people have had to douse them with cold water because they're so overheated. Siberian huskies will decide the speed themselves, slowing down if they're tired or too hot. Also, they are more tolerant of cold.

Caring for the dogs:

In the morning, you begin by feeding the dogs high energy, easily digestible food, such as fatty meat. We had big boxes of frozen meat from which we chopped off pieces with an axe. Alternatively, we also had "sausages" of plastic containing frozen dog food that we chopped into pieces. The dogs like this food and usually eat eagerly, even though it's frozen. We gave them approximately 300 g (2/3 pound) each every morning. If you go longer distances than we did, you need to stop during the day to feed them more food like this.

You also need to check each dog's paws for cracks or sores. If they have any, you rub fat into the cracks and then put on a bootie, which is a small bag of fabric fastened with Velcro around the leg just above the paw. Apparently the running helps rub the fat into the cracks and isn't that harmful as long as the paw is protected by the bootie. You need to keep track of which dogs in your team need them, and on which paws, so you notice and can replace them if a dog loses one during the day. When they're young, they're quite irritated by the booties and try to bite them off, but adult dogs are used to it. If the injury shows signs of infection, you treat it with some kind of disinfectant.

After this, you pack the sled, harness the dogs and hook them up on the gangline. They're used to the harnesses, and often lift their legs up by themselves. You have to check that the webbing isn't snarled anywhere, and that the collar is free from the harness, to prevent chafing. If you're at a place where's there's other people, it's a courtesy to shovel away the dog shit and put it in a pit which you cover with snow. A curious fact is that the dogs will shit while running, and some of them actually seem to prefer that.

When you stop for the night, you secure the sled with the snub line or the snowhook—if the latter, you can drive a pole through it into the snow for extra security. You take the harnesses and booties off and take them inside to dry. You release the necklines and attach the tuglines to the collar instead, to give the dogs more space to move. Some dogs tend to gnaw on the rope and need wires instead of the tuglines (this is also why the gangline sometimes has wire inside). Then you anchor the front of the gangline to the snow, and you're done. Of course, there are variants on this. We met another team, and they had long wires that they strung out for the night, attaching each dog to a separate place along the line. This is what's called staking the dogs: it's more work, but it's better if you think your dogs might fight or steal food from each other.

In the evening, you give the dogs dry food, about 500 g (1 pound) per dog. Strangely, the dogs don't want to drink water when the temperature is below freezing. They do eat some snow after running, but that appears to be mostly for cooling down, although it's hard to tell. To give them some fluid, you soak the dry food in warm water. You can tell from the color of a dog's urine if it's dehydrated (just as with a human) and then you have to give it water somehow. This is more of an issue during races, when the dogs are pushed harder.

The dogs don't always want to eat, probably because they're given more food than they actually need. We left the food on the ground near the dog, and sometimes they ate it later. It's good to remember which dogs don't eat, because it's not good if they stop eating for several days.

The dogs sleep outside, just curling up on the snow. The guide said he'd had them outside in -47 degrees Celsius (-53 degrees Fahrenheit) at the most, but there was no wind then. If there's a cold wind, you have to help the dogs dig pits if the snow is too hard for them to do it alone. You can also put jackets on them. If you're camping, another solution is to take them with you into the tent, which also makes it a lot warmer for you.

Driving the sled:

I used only two commands: "go" and "stop". What words you actually use differs between mushers, mostly according to which language you speak. For "go", we used a high-pitched and encouraging "ja-ja", since "ja" is the Swedish word for "yes". For "stop", we used the Swedish translation of it: "stanna", said in a low, authoritative tone. If a musher gets a dog that's used to different commands, it has to be retrained.

It's an understatement to say that it's not hard to get the dogs to start running. In the morning, they are so eager to go that they're all whining in a yearning kind of way, and you have to stand hard on the hooked brake to hold them still. You hardly need the spoken command then. To make them stop, you shout "stanna!" and use the hooked brake. Just the verbal command was never enough for me. I had a team of five dogs, and if I'd had eight, like the guide, it might have been hard to make them stop if they didn't want to. They really are powerful, and beginners usually don't have more than four or five dogs.

I used no command for "left" or "right", because the guide went first with his sled, and my dogs just followed pretty much exactly in his tracks. I did hear him use these commands, though. In fact, I'm not sure I could've done much with the dogs if he hadn't been there. Apparently they will only run when he's there, and he said he couldn't lend his dogs to anyone else (except his wife, who is also a musher and a guide—they're used to her too). On the other hand, this can't be so with all dogs, because we met some guides who said they signed on for a season with a bigger company, and then the dogs must obey them even though they're new. I suppose it's a matter of training.

When you're on smooth ground and the snow is packed hard, all you have to do is stand there. You shouldn't egg the dogs on while they're running—they really are eager to work and will find their own pace. When the trail turns, you lean into the curve to help the sled turn—if the turn is to the left, you should lean to the left. When it's a little bit uphill, you can keep one foot on a runner and kick with the other. The purpose is mostly to take your own weight off the sled for a moment—often the speed is too high for you to contribute much to the forward momentum. When it's steeper uphill, you should run behind the sled, still holding on to it. This can be kind of exhausting if you're not fit, since the dogs will keep to their own pace, ignoring your pathetic panting. Also, it's not so easy to run in snow. I had a bit of a cold, so I wasn't at my best. Of course, you can just stop the sled and take a break if you get too tired. If it's even more uphill, you walk behind and push on the sled.

When it's downhill, you brake the sled so it doesn't bump into the dogs. For mild downhills, you use the black brake, and for steeper downhills, you use the hooked brake. On really steep parts, even standing with both feet on the hooked brake is only enough to slow the sled down—that's kind of scary, because it means you couldn't stop even if you wanted to. Traversing a slope is tiring, mostly in a psychological way. If it slopes downwards to the left, you have to lean to the right, and try to keep the sled from slipping sideways. If you know you'll be going sideways for a while, you can stop and repack so the heaviest stuff is on the uphill side of the sled. The worst is if it's both going down and sloping sideways, and if the snow is packed hard, so the sled doesn't have much traction.

So what happens if you fall? Well, the best way to fall is actually if the sled falls over, because then the dogs can't pull it very far, and it stops. If you lose your foothold and the sled doesn't fall, it's very important that you don't let go with your hands. If you do, the team might run off a long way and even get injured. So what you do is drag along on your belly, shouting at the dogs to stop, which they probably won't do if they're not used to your voice. If the black brake is down, you can get your knees on it and stop the sled, if it's not, you can put your knees on the runners instead and then stand up, though this will give you bruises on the knees. You should always have the snub line wrapped around your hand as a last resort if you lose your handhold on the sled.

The best snow conditions are relatively hard-packed snow. If you have deep powdery snow, the dogs will sink down and not get anywhere, and then you have to walk in front of them with snowshoes on, making a trail. We were mostly in the mountains above the tree line, where the wind keeps the snow pretty hard packed, and I would guess that the same is true on the open tundra. If it's packed too hard and is very uneven, you're going to have a bumpy ride.

When you take a short break to eat and drink, you secure the sled with the snowhook and anchor the front of the gangline in the snow. You release the dogs from the neckline, to give them more freedom of movement. They'll often eat snow and roll around in the snow, and play with each other until they settle down to rest for a while.

The leader dogs are usually the ones that are most obedient, and just a bit insecure—it's a good if they keep checking back with you to see what you want. Of course, in hard weather you might want a dog with a stronger will that can choose its own way, because it's hard to convey your commands if the wind is against you. Closest to the sled you should put strong dogs that pull well, because they have to take the brunt for example when you're traversing a slope and the sled tends to slip down. They're called the wheel dogs.

Weights, times and distances:

Dogsledding is fast. We went maybe 35 km (22 miles) on average each day, but we could have gone much further—travelling 100 km (62 miles) in a day is quite plausible in good snow conditions. On the other hand, if you have loose, deep snow, you might only make 10-20 km (6-12 miles) in one day, since you have to make the trail on snowshoes. As an extreme, our guide had done a race of 500 km (311 miles) in 65 hours, including rest. Of course, how far and fast you go depends also on how many dogs you have and how heavy your load is. For each dog, you can add 10-40 kg (22-88 pounds) to the load, depending on the conditions. On races, you take as little load as possible.

I'd like to give an example of how much load we had, but I don't know exactly. At a guess, I had 40 kg (88 pounds) in my sled, and I weigh about 60 kg (132 pounds), which makes 100 kg (220 pounds). Of course, they didn't have to pull me on the uphill parts. Sometimes one team lagged behind, and then we would redistribute some load from that sled to the other sleds, to make the speed more even. As another example of load, the guide's wife was doing another tour for a week or so, where she transported luggage for a group of about 5 cross-country skiiers, plus food for humans and dogs, and I think she had ten dogs. I'm sorry I can't be more precise.

Compared to skiing, I found it much faster and much more comfortable. On skis, I would've gone half the distance we did in twice the time, and be a lot more tired afterwards. Also, when you're skiing you have to carry your food and equipment on your back (or use a pulka, which is a small sled that you pull behind you while skiing). The food we ate on the dogsledding tour felt like the height of luxury compared to the dry food I eat on skiing tours.

So what about Fraser and Kowalski?

First, I'm sorry to say that having one person skiing or snowshoeing alongside the sled is unrealistic (unless the snow is very loose and deep). Dogsledding is simply too fast, so that the one sledding would have to stop and wait all the time.

One alternative is to have the second person skijoring, that is, being pulled by a dog while skiing. I've never done this, but I think Ray would find it hard, at least in the beginning. The dogs tend to set their own pace, and if you're not so good at skiing, you'd probably fall often. Our guide said that it's also pretty hard on the dog to pull an inexperienced skier, because if the skier can't propel him- or herself forward well, the dog has to take more of the load. If anyone has done skijoring, please chime in...

You could certainly have one person riding on the sled, but this would cut down on the amount of food and equipment you could take. Aside from dog food and human food, fuel is also a limiting factor if you're camping. You need fuel to melt water for soaking the dry dog food. According to our guide, you can go maybe 15 days by dogsled without restocking if you're on a camping tour. Of course, I haven't done the calculations myself, and I don't know what kind of food he takes along, so maybe you can go further if you take only dry food for the humans. It'd definitely be less if one person rides on the sled, though. I suppose another possibility would be for Fraser to hunt for meat, and then they could go longer without restocking.

I think Ray would cope with driving a dogsled well. He's probably in better condition than I was, and I did fine. The only question would be how well trained Frobisher's dogs are—would they obey anyone? If they obey his commands well, Ray should be fine. I also think Ray might cope with the cold by snuggling with some dogs in the tent (if he's not snuggling with Fraser, that is).

All right, if anyone has questions, just ask and I'll try to answer! Also, I will end this post with the most adorable picture ever. Just look at the dog in the middle...

Date: 2008-04-28 07:36 pm (UTC)
sage: Still of Natasha Romanova from Iron Man 2 (dief)
From: [personal profile] sage
*is wildly in love with this post*

Thank you SO MUCH!!

Date: 2008-04-28 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
WOW. this is basically the COOLEST THING EVER. it makes me want to go dog-sledding right now. thank you SO much for taking the time to write it out and share it with us.

*runs away to inuvik*

Date: 2008-04-28 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What a cool trip! Thanks for writing this up and sharing your photos.

Date: 2008-04-28 08:34 pm (UTC)
ext_15124: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, wow, this is fabulous! Thank you so much for sharing.

Date: 2008-04-29 12:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Great post. Ever since reading my first post-CoTW fic I've wondered what dog-sledding is like.

Date: 2008-04-29 01:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is so awesome! Thank you for sharing!

Date: 2008-04-29 02:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Most adorable darned doggies in the universe. (My border collie had better not see me post this comment.)
This comm. is officially one of my favourite places now.
Thank you all for all of your assistance. This place feels like it's going to prove one of the most useful places for information for my current fic...

Date: 2008-04-29 03:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow, what a terrific post! Thanks for the detailed information and terminology. I really enjoyed reading this and now know 100% more about dogsledding than I did before.

Date: 2008-04-29 09:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow, excellent post! This was really fascinating stuff, and it will definitely be useful to anyone who wants to tackle dogsledding in a post-CotW fic. Thanks so much for including details like the terminology and the descriptions of the harnesses: I don't tend to visualize things like that very well, and I usually need a clearly-labelled diagram to figure out how it's supposed to work, but you did an awesome job of breaking it down and explaining how the harness works.

I also really appreciate your note about the personalities of the dogs, and how they are each unique little individuals with quirks and traits of their own. That's something I've never considered, and now that you've mentioned it I think it would be a lot of fun to write OC dogs :-)

Your notes about long-distance sledding and the weight/food calculations are excellent. I'd wondered how that was supposed to work for Ray and Fraser out on the quest, and while so many authors have made it seem perfectly reasonable, I wasn't sure if it would really be possible for Ray to ski or snowshoe alongside the sled. I suppose it would make the most sense for them to have two sleds, right? They could carry more gear and food, cover longer distances and Ray would be much more independent and probably have a better time. Hmmm.

At any rate, it certainly sounds like you really enjoyed yourself, and thank you so much for this post. It was really interesting and informative, and it's an excellent reference point for any dogsledding fic. Thanks, [ profile] luzula!
Edited Date: 2008-04-29 09:49 pm (UTC)

Date: 2008-04-29 11:11 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: mirror reflection of 1/3 of my head, creating a central third eye, a heart shaped face, and a super-pucker mouth (f/k duet)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
The details were fantastic! I could almost feel the wind in my hair. Where were you sledding?

It's amazing that dogs who can tolerate that level of cold are the same ones who curl up in front of the heat register in my house! Does their fur get super thick when they're out, and then shed in big clumps when they come "home"? or are the sled dogs always living outside in kennels?

Date: 2008-04-30 02:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Thank you! This is wonderful information!

Date: 2008-04-30 03:15 am (UTC)
ext_3244: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
This is the coolest post EVER! Oh my god, what an awesome adventure!

Date: 2008-05-09 01:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

This is the coolest post ever, and now I totally want to go on a dogsledding holiday. (Except for how I am bad at the cold because I haven't seen proper snow since I was four. /o\) Thank you so much for posting it!

Date: 2013-04-01 03:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This post is totally ONE OF THE BEST THINGS EVER. *saves to memories*
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