When the Town of Kearney resumed its sled dog racing during February after being sidelined by COVID last year, it added a new feature for spectators to enjoy.
The new attraction was sled dog rides provided by Jacob Betker who operates Abitibi Sled Dogs in Timmins. In addition to the rides, Betker talked about the important role dogs played when pulling sleds during Canada’s history before and after the arrival of European settlers.
Betker says the mode of winter transportation existed among northern Indigenous people thousands of years before colonization and when the early explorers arrived that’s the method they adopted to carry their supplies and materials.
Betker says for the Europeans, the dogs served an economic purpose and the type of dog a person used depended on the terrain.
As an example, Betker said small but fast dogs were the main choice when travelling over wind-swept ice on frozen rivers.
“But if you were in deep snow, like two feet deep, you’d want dogs that had long legs,” he said.
Betker said there were also different types of dogs depending on the work the dog was required to perform.
“So if you were someone who had traplines, you’d be going through a lot of deep snow and trees and you’d need to stop the dogs every few kilometres, have them wait while you retrieve your trap, reset it and then repeat the process at the next trapline,” Betker said. “Additionally these dogs would be pulling a heavy load.”
Betker contrasted that to a team of dogs that would have carried out mail deliveries on places like Lake Nipigon in Northwestern Ontario. These would be teams that would go many miles before coming to a stop.
Although today we are used to seeing the sled dog drivers, also known as mushers, stand on the sled from behind, Betker says this mode of transportation didn’t occur in Ontario until the 1950s or 1960s.
He says in Manitoba and Alaska the musher stood behind the sled much sooner in history but for some reason Ontario only adopted this practice at a later time.
“Standing behind the sled was the result of wanting to go faster and that suited sled dog racing,” Betker said.
Betker said the type of dog changed with the fur trade saying a new group of dogs were created by inter-mixing canines the explorers had with the existing population. Betker said during the fur trade and onwards it was typical in Ontario to line up the dogs in a single file one behind the other and harnessed together. The sleds were toboggan-like and rather than stand on them, Betker said the musher “jumped on it and rode on the load”.
“Also another individual walked ahead of the dogs on snowshoes making the trail for the dogs,” Betker said. “These teams would have delivered goods and supplies to mine and forestry sites.”
Betker added this was a very rugged lifestyle and the men were exposed to extreme weather.
“It’s incredible to see what they wore back then as they were alone blazing a trail to a camp,” Betker said.
“Today we have giant parkas and insulated gear. But back then they would have worn cotton, button-up tweed coats and socks rolled over their pants. It had to be cold.”
Betker said harnessing dogs in a single line didn’t change in Ontario until the 1940s and 1950s when two dogs were placed side by side and teams were made up of four to six dogs.
“This method came from Alaska to Manitoba and from there to Quebec and Ontario,” Betker said.
Betker said before European contact it’s hard to know for certain the types of dogs and sleds Indigenous people used since we don’t have a pictorial history.
He says there are only general descriptions of what the sleds looked like and they likely had one or two dogs to pull them. An early form of using dogs as a workhorse would have been to pile firewood onto a sled and then have one or two dogs pull it as the individual blazed a trail for the dogs as opposed to riding on the back of the sled.
Betker said the dawn of the 20th century saw dogs bred more for sled racing as opposed to haulage and it’s an activity that continues to thrive in northern climates.
By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative
Original Published on Mar 08, 2023 at 11:54