Dogsledding Part 1: “Ready?”

Over the years, my colleagues and I have lead many people into the bush on dog sled teams.
Thousands of people would come to our kennel to experience dog sledding, and drive their own sled.

 

I’m the short one on the far right, and this was my last season as a dog sled guide.

For the thousands of people, who have come over the 40 years of this kennel being under operation, I invite you to read this chapter- and relive the experience.

Part 1 of a series

Enjoy! and please, if this rings true to you, let me know in the comments below.

 

Hi, and welcome.

 

My name is Chantal Dostaler, and some of you will be going on trip with me today- in the next hour or so, you’ll be learning all the important stuff you need to know in order to run your own team this morning.

 

So first and foremost, i have to read you this contract, which you already signed, since it is legally binding. It’s so we can make sure everything is understood. And , you won’t see us- so stick with me as I read to you, these 3 pages

 

I’d sit there, trying to read non-monotonous- this legally binding paper- with some legal terms

 

and that classic ongoing sentence…

 

-that one about how you won’t see us if you or anyone you love gets killed and or dies or gets fatally wounded on this trip in any which way- and then the sentence continues on naming such ways…” lightning strikes, dog bite, getting caught in a chain, falling through the ice, drowning…”

 

Looking up was always so funny, all those faces- thinking- OMg, what’s going to happen to me-

 

“Remember…”  I would say. “You signed this already. Any questions?” –

 

There were never any questions-

 

“Awesome. Lets get on to it.

 

This is a dogsled, much like what we will be using today- this here is a race sled- so it’s significantly smaller- which is great, because this is a small room, with a lot of people already.

 

The sleds you’ll be driving are called “ freighter” sleds, the basket is significantly larger- 4 to 6 feet long- in order to hold all our gear- overnight trips.

 

This is also, where the passenger sits- if you have a loaded sled- you sit on on top of your gear bundle-

 

This here – is the brush bar- its for brush- not trees. It’s made out of plastic, it’s great to move the brush out of the way- but it also takes a bit of bounce in case you do, vear off trail. This here, is your rails, which is attached to your stanchens, which comes in handy- for you overnighters-

 

The stanchen are also what your bridle is attached to. As you see here-” I’d swiftly kick the sled over to display its under belly.

 

“This rope part is the bridle, which is what is keeping your team attached to your sled. The bridle connects the sled to the snowhook, snub line and gangline.

 

The snub line is like your anker; it is used to tie your sled to a tree. If your sled is snubbed, this is the only time you can step away from your sled.

 

Most of the time- like during lunch, you’ll be using your snow hook which is more like a parking brake.

 

A snow hook is scary looking- yes- and there are some good stories- don’t become one of those stories. When your snowhook is not in the ground, kicked into the snow, put it on your sled like this.

 

To use it properly, when your team is stopped, you need to put your snowhook on the ground, and stomp iit down a few times, into the snow as hard as you can. Then slowly push your sled forward so the line has loads of tension…

 

Even with the Snowhook into the snow, it is essential that you stay with your sled. Sometimes dogs pop out the snow hook- like magic- and the sled takes off… down the trail… without a driver..

 

The only time you can be hands free is when your snow hook is on the ground, and your sled is over on its side. Then you sit on your sled, and the passenger- goes and holds the leads.

 

Always stay with your sled.

 

The gangline is made of 3 parts: Laad, Sweep, Wheel. Wheel in the back, lead in the front.”

 

I would then unwrap the gangline from the handlebars and lay it out.

 

“As you see, there are 3 rope sections with clips, and 2 chain sections. The rope is how the dogs pull from- also known as the tug line, and the chain part ties onto their collar.”

 

If i was up to it, I’d get down on all fours and be a visual cue while i explain- get it?

Might get a few giggles.

 

Now , the lead dogs- they get attached together by this. The double leader neckline- which is no more than a foot long, with brass snaps at either end.

 

There are three Golden Rules to dogsledding.

 

Rule number one of dogsledding- Keep your gangline tight. 

 

The reason for this, is, if the gangline is loose, you see the chains, and ropes bouncing around? You’re also likely going too fast, a tight gangline means the driver has more control over his or her sled.

 

This rule is also super important for when we put the dogs on the teams. We always put the lead dogs on first, and take them off last. That way- the gangline is again- always tight.

 

I would show them the appropriate amount of slack in the line but pulling the line up off the ground, and showing you an appropriate sway in the line.

 

“You don’t have to go crazy there- but just enough that the chains aren’t whipping around while they are running.

 

When you are not running- or your sled is stopped- the passenger needs to run up to the lead dogs and hold on to the double leader neckline until the expedition starts moving again.

 

Keep your gangline tight goes directly with rule number two: Use your brake. 

 

I would then lay the gangline back down, and walk up, towards the back of the sled. This thing here- i would step on it, this is the brake

 

You will likely always need to have one foot on the brake. Our expeditions run in straight lines, lead guide in the front, sweep guide in the back- if you have 2 guides anyway-

 

Your lead guide will be setting the pace, and it’s up to everyone to keep a school bus distance away from the sled in front of them. This way you have reaction time to stop.

 

When you are stopped, stop right behind the team in front of you, so your lead dogs are close to- but not touching the driver of the sled in front of you.

 

This is important- to keep your guides happy.

 

We make frequent stops to check up on you, and if you are stopped very far away- that means people like me, have to run that much further to come say: hey you good?” – I say all winded–

“And remember- sometimes we have 12 teams going out, so that’s a long run if i need to talk to my colleagues.

 

Keep up the pace to your lead guide. Never pass one another.

 

Use your brake.

 

When it comes time to stop, you’ll need two feet on the brake, and to pull up on your handle bar.

 

This brake works by digging into the snow. So pulling up will give you more brake.

 

Also heads up- likely at the beginning of the day- your dogs will be so full of energy you’ll need two feet on the break, especially on that road- we have 5 km of road before we get onto the trail- and the road is very hard packed.

 

Imagine if you let them go fast right away- they won’t have any more energy at the end of the day. You need to help pace them, by having one foot on the brake, most likely the entire expedition.

 

Two feet on the brake to stop. Pulling up on the handle bar.

 

This is the same method, when going down a hill. I could not be more serious about using your brake on the hills. I know it’s fun to go fast, but the problem with going fast down hill- especially with a heavy sled- the problem is your sled might start getting too close to the dogs, and scaring the wheel dogs… you have to use the brake to make sure you don’t run over your dogs.

 

It could scare them to the point of not wanting to run with you, the sled could hit them and break their legs this way right, and end their career here- and if they can’t work- they can’t live here.

 

There are big hills out there, use your brake and keep the gangline tight- going downhill

 

Going uphill, however, you and your passenger need to get off the sled and run up the hill alongside the dogs.

 

If your dogs are being strong- the driver may need to stay on the runners, and even use the brake to keep the expedition in a single file. But we need to see every passenger run up the hill- don’t worry you’re not going fast, and we will wait for you, if you need to walk up the hill.

 

This is teamwork- you and your dogs- we are not expecting the dogs to carry us up all these hills.

 

Rule number three: Never Let Go

 

Always have at least one hand on the handle bar. No matter what you’re doing. You never know, it’s quite easy to split off the runners which is where you stand here… if you’re holding on, you easily take a step forward and your back on, if you’re not holding on, your sled keeps going.

 

And you’d be breaking rule number three which is???

 

Never let go. Or, Hold on to your handle bar.

 

There are loads of ways to do stuff, just keep one hand on the handle bar. Preferably two, but one is okay to.

 

If you should fall, and you are holding on, the one thing I can recommend is to put your knee on your runner, that way you aren’t just dragging on the snow, and then take your other foot and step up, then two feet on the brake. If that happens, take a moment to fix your composure, before you get going again.

 

Never let go. Too often- if I see a sled tipped over, when it comes to a stop- with the driver still holding on, dragging behind it, it’s a habit, of stopping and laughing with the passenger who rolled off in the fall.

But no.

STAY on the sled and HOLD ON. you’re going to need each other’s help as the sled sometimes magically goes back on its runners and there you are, watching your team getting away without a driver behind the sled.

 

If your sled is loaded you’ll need help tipping it back onto its runners, and the driver has to be holding on and ready to jump on the break- once on the runners. That sled is easy to pull- so the dogs will try to take off.

 

Again, two feet on the brake, pull up, and wait for your passenger to come sit in the basket and go.

 

Alright now, to work with your dogs- we got simple commands.

 

“REady, let’s go!”

 

Foot off the brake, and right back on again to pace the dogs.You might have to give the sled a little push, so the dogs feel the slack and go.

 

When the expedition is ready to go, your lead guide will have their hand straight up, this is a signal asking if you are ready- if you are ready- put your hand straight up- if you’re not ready?

Get ready and put your hand straight up. Your expedition is waiting on you.

 

Keep your tone excited and happy. No one wants to be shouted at!

“Ready! Lets go!”

 

Unlike in the movies, we don’t say “mush”. That work likely comes from the french word to walk “marche”- the french have a long history of trading here.

 

Now, to go right, we say “Gee”- you’ll know when you’re going right , because your lead guide will give signal by waiving their right hand up and down, they’ll be looking back at you . because we expect you to keep the signal going, and look behind you to make sure the people on the sled behind you are aware there is a turn. You’ll know, when they mirror the signal too.

 

Same for left, which is “Haw”

 

Standing on the sled, I’id wave my left hand, look back, wait for the people behind me to do it too, “Haw”.

 

Gee and Haw– right to left- like yee haw- the other way around by how we read-

 

There is no secret to the meaning of these words- they are just completely different sounding which helps in commands.

 

To stop- we say- EASyyyy Woahh..

 

In a slow, calm tone. They will not stop without the brake- use the break- but initiate it with the command.

 

EAssyyyyy woOoooaah– two feet on the break and pull up.

Passenger:  Run up and hold the lead dogs.

 

Be mindful… No -Easywoah -easyway-easy woah!!!!– Shouting this in a panic, well it sounds really exciting, and might make your dogs pull harder. Watch your tone, be calm,  go slow: Eaasy, Wooahh.

 

Of course, we encourage positive reinforcement now and then- but be mindful the dogs do get annoyed if you talk to them too much. For real-  so please don’t be cheering them on the entire time.

 

However, yeah – totally take time-especially when stopped, to talk to your dogs. And be encouraging!

 

This here- which will be attached to your handle bars, is your team list. This means you’ll have your dogs’ names right next to you.

 

This name card will come attached to your harness bundle- it will be attached together like this- by your double leader neckline.

 

Cherish this- this is the most important thing- do not lose your double leader neckline. It goes on your handle bar when it’s not on your dogs. Or its holding together your harnesses in a bundle, like this.

 

They are just so easy to lose in the snow- so please please- remember this.

 

There are only 3 behaviours that are unacceptable. These are the 3 NO’s.

 

No CHEWING

No FIGHTING

And No love making… -you herd me-

 

Likely, these three things only happen when we are stopped.

 

Some dogs have chewing habits. Most don’t- but some do. You’ll need to keep your eye out for this behavior. Likely you can give a quick sharp “HAI” to break that behavior- let me hear it.

 

HAI!”

 

Then they never did it for real. They just look at you.

 

“No seriously- let me hear you. HAI!

 

-HAI!!!” – They would yell

 

“Ok good.

 

This breaks the behaviour. But if it doesn’t, that person holding the double leader neck line needs to go physically stop that behaviour. You can do this yourself. Say NO– and put your hand there, and stop the dog from going that.

 

Harnesses are expensive- and we don’t carry many extra on trip.

 

No chewing.

 

Oh and naturally- no chewing on the gangline- whether it’s chain- or rope- NO.

 

It has happened- in fact my lead dog is known to chew his tagline and set himself free. But there’s nothing more dangerous than a cut gangline…

 

They tend to only chew on their gangline, if there is a tangle, while they are stopped. You can fix your own tangles. Just let go of the lead dogs, and go fix that.

 

The dogs are tied in two spots- you can untie one clip, and not lose a dog. Just hold the dog until the clip, untangle and clip back on.

 

When we are stopped is when dogs might decide that someone smells good- especially  right now- allof of our bitches are in heat. Out of all 400 dogs here, only a handful are spayed or neutered- it’s up to us to make sure they are paired acuarela so there is no breeding- and we do our best- however- I need to mention if you do see anything whatsoever. You need to yell out no. in a very stern voice.

 

Honestly, the dogs will likely not listen to you on this one- and the person holding the lead dogs has to run back- and physically separate the dogs… ‘cause believe me… he’ll be holding on.

 

You need to stop this.

 

After you have physically separated the dogs,  tell your guide about the humping. Let us know so we can make a change in your team- so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

 

We do not want extra puppies here. We plan those litters- we have intention behind breeding -but also- did you know- if they have successfully mated, dogs will be physically stuck together by their butts. We have to wait- sometimes 5 minutes- sometimes an hour- for them to get unstuck… and the longer we are stopped the more chances there are for:

 

Breeding. Chewing. And possibly: Fighting.

 

It’s a vicious cycle.

 

Our dogs here are extremely well behaved. They are paired in a way to assure no fights between the dogs.  However rare this may be, fights sometimes do happen.

 

In times like these- never ever ever get involved please.

 

This is an emergency- you need to yell NO to try and break that behavior- however- driver on the break- passenger hold the lead dogs, and wave your hand in the air- this is the signal for help.

 

If you see a sled do this, carry the message forward or back- until your guide receives it.

A guide will come, and separate the dogs.

 

You might be tempted to do it yourself,  but the dogs know Us.

When dogs fight- they lose track of things- and they also are super vulnerable which might make them more prone to aggression.

Let us -a familiar face to the dogs- come handle the situation.

 

Worst case scenario: You accidentally put your hand between those sharp teeth and you get bit- and then it becomes a whole other problem where the dogs need to get euthinized.

 

Please, please, please promise me you’ll never get in there if a dog fight happens no matter how rare. “

 

They would nod.

 

“Great- thank you

 

Those were the three No’s- what are the three golden rules?

 

Gangline tightuse your break– and…? Never let go– right.

 

Anyway, you’ll likely have the same team everyday on your expedition- and your in charge of harnessing your dogs. your harnesses come in different sizes- which are kept track through the tug lines colour. And you’ll know which dog needs what, by looking at your team card- and you’ll see a little circled letter next to the name- – R- RW- B- BW– see? Just like these loops here.

 

Tug loops onto tug lines.

Like this.

 

Alright- we are almost done here.”

 

I’d give the nod to the supervisor at the desk. She would go to the back and bring in a dog.

 

This is Glacier.

 

“Awwwww” The whole room would light up with excitement.

 

“Glacier comes from the Yukon- he comes from a different kennel. He actually- does not like to run on a team- he’s a pet- the the senior staff- Samie and Jeph-

 

He’s a bad example in that most dogs here at our kennel,  do not look like him. The dogs here are bred for racing- so they are alaskan huskies- short haired dogs- who range from little- little big, and big little to big…

 

However, Glacier here is a great example because he is used to the indoors, and is a nice calm teacher for newbies in harnessing.

 

Right now, while it’s nice and quiet.  I’ll show you how to harness a dog. Pay close attention because in an hour or less, you’ll be doing this. You’ll be in a kennel with hundreds of excited barking dogs. So pay attention now- ask now- try it now- before the organised chaos.

 

So you’ll see on your team card- Glacier here takes a blue- so you grab your blue harness, which will be on the ground at the gangline position that glacier runs in.

 

First off, when you go to a dog house, and grab a dog to bring to the sled, your dog will be attached by a bull snap. These snaps are tricky, to open it you pull outwards. You need to get familiar with using this snap with one hand, so ill pass these along. Practice as I’m speaking, Please.

 

Your other hand will be used to hold on to your dog by its collar.

 

Put all four fingers under the dog’s collar, and hold on tight. Then unsnap the dog. We bring the dogs down walking the dogs by holding them up by their collar, with both front paws off the ground.

 

Don’t worry- most dogs are well used to this, and they will happily jump with you, even pull you forward. These dogs are strong, so keep your wrist at your hip height- unless you’re tall, be mindful.

 

Dont pull up too high. If your dog seems to be struggling with this, simply put your other dogs here, so you can support its front paws.

 

This is called 2 wheel drive

 

If you don’t do this. our dog will no doubt drag you along- all four paws are touching down means full strength- that’s why we call this 4 wheel drive.

 

You need to be in control, don’t let your don’t drag you around. the dogs are very excited at that time, and they might try nipping at one another.

 

Glacier, in lead, blue harness.  I go up to lead, and there will be a blue harness waiting. I then step over the dog, feet together, legs between the ribcage and hip bone. Give a little squeeze- the dogs are naturally used to this- and that should calm them down. You’ll need to hold on tight enough that the wigley dogs don’t get away. Because next is when you need your two hands.

 

This harness is an X back. The X goes on its back- the tug line to the floor, you’ll notice if i fold this in two. It will line up this two holes

 

With the x at your belly, and tug line to the ground, you put the harness over the dog’s head.

Make sure to lift up the collar, up and out from under the harness- this is crucial- we don’t want the dogs pulling by their necks.

 

Free up the harness, lift out the collar.

 

Next you’ll see there’s a straight line on the chest,and there’s a hole on either side. Pull down the hole, grab your dogs front wrist- and fold in the direction that naturally bends, and help the dog get its arm through the hole. And same for the other side.

 

Some dogs do this on your own- like Glacier here. Some naturally lift up the paw as you pull down the arm holes. Other dogs don’t- and you need to help them.

 

Be very mindful. Don’t pull the arm out to the side- dogs don’t bend like this. Bend at the wrist and pull up. It’s easy.

 

Then clip on the neck line,  to the chain line- or double leader- since we are in lead and the tug loop on the rope tug line.

 

It’s easy to remember- It’s Chain so they don’t Chew!

 

Now if you accidently let go of a dog- which you won’t- because rule 3- Never Let Go– you’ll find that it will likely start running around- down the trail.

 

DO NOT RUN after the dog.

Do not chase the dog- it will think you’re coming with it.

 

Just call the dog back to you.

 

I call this getting bamboozled.

 

Because my team pup is a handful- who chews up her harnesses, or wiggles herself into trouble and chews herself free. And she will take off running- very very far.

 

If I call her back- she’ll eventually notice we are not with her. And she’ll happily run back as fast as she can, into my arms- like a game- an annoying game. But she’s so cute… I hope you get to meet her.

 

Anyway- that’s it for our tour. Come try harnessing a dog- and meanwhile- questions?

 

Don’t be shy

 

Those who shy away from trying this now- will regret it later.

 

Chantal Dostaler- April, 20,  2020

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