Wilderness Adventure: Alaskan Dog Team Tales

By Miki Collins

alaskan mushing dog sled team


Most longline Northern trappers these days use snowmachines, for obvious reasons of speed, power, and the ability to cover long distances. However, on our 70-mile marten line, my twin sister Julie and I prefer a slower, some would say outdated mode of transportation: dog mushing.

There is no doubt that almost anyone not a little dog-crazy is better off with a snowmachine, but dogs do have their advantages. I can actually travel faster on a rough fall trail with a dog team than on a snowmachine. Those darn dogs just keep running until either I fall off or the sled falls apart. Then they keep right on going because now they have no reason to stop.

Oh, that’s not an advantage, is it?

Well, a properly trained dog team will calmly tackle terrain too challenging for a machine. I drive my dogs across half-frozen swamps where I wouldn’t even walk. They slog through hip-deep overflow water, climb over waist-high piles of deadfall and crawl under half-downed trees so low I need to tip the sled on its side to squeeze through. Dogs cheerfully scramble up chest-high banks and wade open springtime streams, dashing through canyons of shelf ice. My sister and I once crossed a waist-deep river running with slush by bridging it with driftwood, sending the loose dogs across, and then dragging the sled over.

My dogs are pretty darn slow by today’s Iditarod standards; they rarely pass other teams, and they aren’t trained to heel when another team passes them. Because of this, when I do run into another dog musher it can lead to mortal embarrassment as my dogs rudely accost the strangers. When tied up outside the Post Office at our remote village, they bark belligerently at every passing dog.

They do, however, excel at what they are trained for, and that is running a trapline. Unlike the speed dogs, my dogs handle terrible trails, deep snow and water with casual aplomb. If I need to turn them loose, bridge a creek with the 10-foot dogsled, and have them climb individually over the sled to the far side, I can count on them to do so. They will be right there waiting after I’ve hauled the sled across. (Well, most of them, anyway.)

Most of our sled dogs have so much drive they don’t stop for anything short of the physical drag of the sled brake. However, they usually do slow on command or when picking their way over knee-deep grassy tussocks (despite what I wrote earlier), and when (not if) I fall off the sled, they almost always stop at my call.

I stopped once to climb the bank of a frozen creek to clean out a marten set. The undisturbed pack was too soft to hold the snow-hook sled anchor. Usually, the dogs stay put, but not this time. When I turned back to the team, they weren’t there. The silent travel of dogs is not always a good thing. A hundred yards up the trail, I spotted the runaways. My leader Clarence, noting my absence, had doubled back, jack-knifing the team into a tangle so big I had to turn most of the dogs loose to straighten the lines.

That still beat trudging a soft trail the last 2 miles to the line cabin.

dog sled

I doubt you’ve ever had a snowmachine run away without you. Unless, of course, you drive one of the older Yamaha Bravos, a great trapline machine except for a treacherous tendency toward a sticky throttle, leading to its habit of dashing off with or without the driver.

Sometimes I step off the sled runners to walk behind so the dogs don’t have to haul me up steep hills, counting on them to stop at my call.

For a time back in the 1990s, I couldn’t do that because my big brown wheel dog Arthur always dragged the team to a halt anytime he looked back and didn’t see me on the sled.

Dogs can locate trails and remember trap locations while snowmachines remain clueless about where they’ve been and where they are going. Perhaps our team’s most dramatic proof of this occurred when my sister Julie and I learned that our house-dog-and-horse sitter had failed to return when snow machining in a blistering windstorm across a 5-mile expanse of frozen lake. We were at a trapping cabin 15 miles away, and when midnight came without our friend checking back in, we loaded survival gear into the sled and hooked up the team.

The wind nearly knocked a tree down on us before we even left the yard. In pitch blackness, experienced Pelly and then-young Clarence eagerly led the nine-dog team into a maelstrom so intense we had to shout from inches away to be heard.

For 15 miles, those dogs drilled into a windstorm with 50-mph gusts. Branches, snow and ice dust whipped past us as the team clawed their way home. Only once, crossing a mile-long lake, did they drift off the trail. Julie held the team while I staggered through the wind, relocating the faint sled tracks with my headlamp. Back on the trail, the dogs never lost it again. At 2:30 a.m., they hauled the sled safely into the home yard.

As it turned out, our friend had lost the trail, and, heeding our warnings to stay on the packed trail due to what happens to snowmachines when they get stuck in overflow, she had left the machine and made a torturous hike out to shelter.

After a year or two on the trapline, most dogs will pass a marten or fox caught within a foot of the trail, even if that animal is alive and hopping around. Of course, this kind of training, especially with highly predatory dogs like huskies, takes a lot of persistence.

I rarely have to resort to physical punishment, relying instead on positive training methods. Occasionally, especially with an intensely excited youngster that isn’t listening well, I may use intimidation, threatening with a stick. That makes a deep impression without touching the dog.

As in most sled dog training, a strong leader is the best teacher. A good leader’s force of character and focused momentum carries swing dogs (the pair behind the leader) along past a trapped critter. Younger dogs back in the team don’t have much choice but to follow or get dragged. Even so, we’ve had a few interesting confrontations over the years.

Last winter, I was running youngsters in the back of the team, with Clarence in the lead and his lanky white son Kraki right behind in swing. When three of the youngsters charged a trapped fox, 100-pound Clarence bellied down, determined to drag the miscreants on by. He had almost forced them back to the trail when Kraki caved in to peer pressure, swinging back to join the others. The combined force was too much for the big leader. Dragging him backwards, they grabbed the fox and dispatched him quicker than I ever could. Poor Clarence was deeply chagrined.

A couple other new dogs once tore a trapped marten literally in two—a quick if gruesome death. I sewed the pieces back together and had the hide virtually sold when I confessed to my fur buyer friend what had happened. Knowing that I sell a lot of fur hats, he advised me to keep and use the pelt myself.

Most mushers never use loose leaders because they are not that safe nor necessary on well-travelled trails. But in the deep bush, where no one else follows our trails and they are constantly getting “snowed-and-blowed,” loose leaders prove their worth. Free from the constraints of the lines and team, they travel ahead, pushing through deep snow or locating by feel an obliterated trail without the stress of having six or eight dogs pushing along right behind. A good dog will even go on ahead of a snowmachine, locating by feel a trail obscured by wind and snow.

On the homeward leg of a 10-day trapline round, I had stopped to brush out some trail when I heard Pelly, in loose lead ahead of the team, give his battle cry.

Like all good loose leaders, Pelly knew he must stay away from both traps and trapped animals. Loose leaders should stay within sight, but this time something had tempted the handsome dog to wander on ahead, to where I had a strong No. 2 set under a big spruce on the edge of a willow sand bar—a proven spot for lynx.

Pelly sounded uncharacteristically frantic for so bold a dog.

It was November, when we occasionally see tracks of late-season grizzlies tromping about in the new snow. I carry my .308 Winchester just in case, and I had it out and ready when I mushed on up, scolding the dogs firmly to remind them I was in control as they tried to charge.

A big, dark, snorting and snarling wolverine rolled defensively in the trap. I hated using the heavy rifle, but I wasn’t about to get close enough to pop it with a stick. After dragging the big critter back to the team, I let each dog sniff it. “Not for you,” I told them sternly. “NOT for you!”

How many times they’ve heard those words. The older ones sniffed eagerly; the younger ones shied away, not even trying to grab as they often do. I let them examine the wolverine until they lost interest, something that helps desensitize them. I always insist they respect my possession by holding it close to my body. If I think a youngster can’t resist a grab, I just show the tip of a foot or tail in my hand while hiding the rest of the body under my arm.

Pelly slunk over, blood dripping from his nose. He had been lucky. Except for some nasty slow-to-heal scratches, he had escaped serious injury from the powerful jaws.

My fur buyer friend said it was the biggest female wolverine he had ever seen, and he offered me a good price for the pelt—until I told him about the bullet holes I’d sewed up. He grinned and suggested I use this one for home crafting, too. Instead, I had it tanned and then sold it to the National Park Service for one of the educational displays at Denali National Park.

For every dog team disaster there have been many rewarding moments, like the time when our neighbor stood on spring lake ice skeptically asking if my team would cross a hip-boot-deep lead along the edge of the melting lake, only to see those dogs gallop right through, sled sinking, spray flying. Or the time we were hauling freight into the mountains for some climbers who watched in amazement as, fighting with every muscle and nail, our dogs clawed their way up a near-cliff hauling a 10-foot loaded freight sled.

I once watched with pleasure as my team smoothly passed a marten caught in a No. 1 longspring set beside the trail under a spruce. Three months of intense training had paid off for the young ones in the team. I wasn’t worried about Jesse. With our home bound load light, the trail broken open and the team fast, the old leader ran loose behind the sled, far too experienced to make a move on the critter.

After securing the sled, I walked over and tapped the marten on the head, rendering it senseless. Before crawling under the stunted spruce to finish the job, I whacked the trunk to knock a thick layer of snow off the lower limbs. As the cascade thinned, I reached for the unconscious animal.

Just as my hand closed around it, the snow-covered marten picked up its head. Afraid of being bitten, I sprang back and reached for my ax.

To my dismay, the marten jumped up and started to run away. My initial blow had apparently glanced off the trap, knocking one jaw loose and releasing the foot.

The snow was hip-deep, and the marten was gaining ground as I made two hopeless jumps after it. The dogs sat in their traces, no doubt amused. That $50-marten was going to get away, and I had only one chance to recover it.

“Jesse!” I wailed. “Get it!”

Jesse had been watching from behind the sled 15 feet away. At my command, the 95-pound dog sprang into action. Before I could take one more step, he dodged around the sled, bounded past me, and seized the marten, killing it expertly with one swift bite across the chest, barely puncturing the skin. Then he spit it out and looked at me to make sure he had done the right thing.

I assured him that indeed he had. Try training a snowmobile to do that.

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Miki Collins and her twin sister Julie have run a 70-mile trapline north of the Alaska Range for over 30 years, and have coauthored three books, including Trapline Twins and Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher. For books, write to: PO Box 69, Lake Minchumina, AK 99757.