I’ll be dog-gone’d

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (https://tom1950.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/), I was under training by an old sled driver by the name of Jed to ultimately drive some of his dogs.  I had made friends with his lead dog, Bruno, and several of the others and I was now able to hitch them up by myself and go for rides in the wintry twilight.

I am sure that my youthful exuberance was being observed by Jed as just a vicarious re-living of his early life because he was very fond of telling me that I reminded him of him.  He was approaching his mid-seventies and couldn’t get around as well as he would have wanted so I found myself taking him places from time to time.

One morning, during Christmas vacation, after the sun had peeked over the tundra (about 10AM), he called to me in my back yard and asked if I wanted to go on a trip along his trap lines.  Quickly securing permission from my mom I wrapped myself up tightly and slogged through the snow to his back yard.  Bruno bounded over to me and seemed to ask “hey?  Are we going out?”  He knew for sure when I started gathering the bridles and chains to hitch the dogs up.

Being careful to unchain only one dog at a time from their houses, because that’s how dog fights start, I hooked four dogs and then added Bruno as lead.  They immediately began their ritual of stretching, licking snow, and generally preparing for a run.

Jed stepped out of his house carrying a small brown box which he laid in the bed of the sled and covered with a blanket.

“Here’s some food – for us – moose jerky, a couple of carrots, a loaf of bread, and a thermos of hot chocolate”, he explained.  Next he reached into the dog food bin and grabbed about six frozen salmon and stacked them in the sled like cordwood: “For the dogs.”

After adding two pairs of snowshoes (He had made me a special pair about half the size of his), a nice bearskin blanket and two bottles of water to the pile he climbed in and nested himself down.  I handed him the bearskin and he tucked it all around.

“Whenever you’re ready” he said, “we can get started.”

We navigated out from his back yard and down the road we went.  For the first mile or so we took things easy until the dogs got up to temperature.  A good sled dog will try valiantly to do everything you tell him to do so if you push them hard right away they can become lame with cramps and the like.

The first several miles were on city streets, but then we swerved past Weeks Field and out into the tundra heading for Jed’s trap lines.  He had run his trap line for almost 40 years, starting just after the turn of the century, and maintained it every year.  Where we were going, nobody but him had been there for a number of years and now he has taking me; and I was driving.

Since trees were a rarity in this area, we could see quite a ways into the distance.  On this morning, there was a slight ground fog that appeared in depressions and it would seem strange to be whooshing along, throwing snow to the side, and then descend into a depression and get completely enveloped in a white shroud of fog.  The dogs knew where they were going though, especially Bruno.

After about ten miles, Jed had me stop at the shore of a small, shallow, lake.  We inspected it and Jed found that it was unsafe to run over so we detoured around it to the stream exiting from the other side.  It was this stream where Jed had his traps.

A word here about his traps; Jed used to use leg-hold traps for quite a few years but was ultimately convinced by his fellow trappers that a live trap was much better if, for no other reason, than an intact pelt was worth more.  He found that to be true and never went back to the old style.

We parked the sled, tethered the dogs, threw them some salmon chunks and strapped on our snowshoes.  Since this was about a week after a rather good snowfall, the depth was only around fourteen to twenty inches.  I was light enough so that I managed to pace over the top of the crust most of the time.  Jed, on the other hand, had to resort to the aptly-named ‘shuffle hop’ style of movement.  This was very hard on your calf and thigh muscles so we would stop from time to time and rest.

At strategic points along the stream Jed and I would place a trap.  This involved making sure it was free of human scent.  Jed had a bottle of really bad smelling stuff that he sprinkled over the set trap so as to kill our scent.  After sniffing this liquid it was easy to see why an animal couldn’t smell humans – or anything else.  It was really terrible.

His traps were stored flat under the center of the sled on a special shelf and when he was ready to set it he would pop it into shape and click the trigger into the bait.  This had to be done only after the trap was staked to the ground.  It wouldn’t do to have an animal get trapped and another bigger animal come along and drag the trap off.

His main targets were rabbits, muskrats, beavers, and other small mammals.  We placed twelve traps during the day; working our way down one bank of the stream and back up the other.  Around 3PM, we again reached the lake.  As the sun started to fall towards the horizon we reluctantly (on my part anyway) headed for home.  The dogs sensed we were headed that way and practically skipped across the crusted snow.

The next two days passed very slowly for me as I anticipated our return trip to check the traps.  This time, I would be running a sled by myself as Jed ran a second one to contain any animals we may have trapped.  He let me have Bruno as lead for my sled and put another young dog on his sled for training.  His dogs got into a fearful brawl and only after some swearing, whupping, and pushing was he able to sort things out.  He said that one of the other dogs challenged his choice of lead.  I guess that the saying is true:  “If you aren’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes”.

Finally, we were on our way again.  Jed broke trail and I followed up with our provisions in a smaller sled with just three dogs.  He pronounced the lake frozen enough so we were able to cut a half-hour off our trip to the stream.  Once the dogs were staked and fed, we strapped our snowshoes on again and set out.

The first trap we reached had a nice muskrat in it which was dispatched quickly with Jed’s little 22 caliber single-shot pistol.  Although he always carried a larger handgun on his hip for defense the only thing he would use on a trapped animal was the 22.  He explained that it didn’t mess up the pelt any that way.  That made sense to me.

It was hard work dragging the accumulated animal carcasses and the traps with us in the deep snow, but we finally returned to the dogs.  Our total take for twelve traps was nine animals: two rabbits, five muskrats, and two little weasels.  After we ate some food, I strapped the frozen animals on my sled and we mushed our way back to town.  When we arrived, I drove past our house and called for my parents to see what we had.  Both my mom and dad thought it was quite a haul.  My dad came over and helped us skin and stretch the pelts.

That night, I lay in bed listening to the lonely howling of Jed’s dogs as they serenaded the flashing lights in the sky.  I will never forget hearing those long, drawn out, calls to each other.

Under Jed’s instruction, I managed to make some really great rabbit pelt gloves.  They turned out really well and very warm.  You wore them under normal gloves with the fur turned inside because the rabbit skin was so thin.  I was able to wear those gloves for two years before they wore out.

T.O.M.

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